25 October 2016
If Hong Kong pulls out of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it will join outlaw states like North Korea. Photo: HKEJ
If Hong Kong pulls out of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it will join outlaw states like North Korea. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong government’s great idea: copy North Korea

In its relentless search for ways to undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law and send out negative signals to the international community, the Leung administration is now seriously considering joining pariah states such as North Korea, Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic by pulling out of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

This plan was flagged in Leung Chun-ying’s recent policy address and has been followed by a steady stream of “leaks” and statements alleging that Hong Kong has a pressing illegal refugee problem.

Moreover, there are persistent rumours about a plan to establish a large internment camp on Lantau Island, possibly similar to the Vietnamese refugee internment camps that gave rise to a flood of negative international publicity during the dying days of the colonial era.

Some of this anti-refugee pressure has been generated by pro-government media, especially the Oriental Daily News, with its relentless stories about “illegal immigrants’” alleged involvement in crimes.

The calls to do something about the problem of “illegal refugees” are received with glee by the xenophobic Mr. Leung and his widely despised Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok, who appear to believe that they have finally found a cause capable of winning public support.

The alleged flood of asylum seekers into Hong Kong has no basis in fact — at least, no basis in published figures, because government sources skirt around the issue of the number of people coming into the city in favor of brandishing a figure of about 11,000 individuals who have made asylum applications.

The reason this number is high is because of extraordinary official sloth in dealing with these applications.

Cases remain pending for several years, and so the numbers grow.

Claiming as evidence of the abuse of the system, the government brandishes its very low 0.33 per cent acceptance record for those who actually manage to have their claims examined.

This is one of the lowest acceptance rates in the developed world and does little more than fulfill a self-fulfilling narrative, because in setting a high barrier for accepting refugees, Hong Kong can be sure that very few claimants are able to satisfy its screening demands.

We do not know how many other asylum seekers would qualify for refugee status under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but the administration appears to have already decided that they are all “fake refugees”.

Now the administration wants to go further, believing that the refugee problem can be tackled by quitting UNCAT and therefore shunning responsibility for applications that come under the ambit of the treaty.

Even if humanitarian considerations are set aside, a battery of legal problems complicates heading down this path, but as we are seeing with increasing frequency, where the law is deemed to be inconvenient, the administration brushes it aside.

Nonetheless, how is the administration to get around the fact that China is a signatory to UNCAT and, as part of China, Hong Kong is bound by international treaties signed by the government in Beijing?

Then there is the not-so-small matter of Hong Kong’s adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is enshrined in Article 25 of the Basic Law.

This covenant bestows much the same responsibilities on Hong Kong as are to be found in UNCAT.

Will the government now propose changing the Basic Law, despite repeatedly saying it cannot be changed?

The point about these international agreements is that they establish a universal standard for defining refugee status and providing asylum.

Events, particularly in the Middle East, have put these agreements under extreme pressure, yet jurisdictions with far more pressing refugee problems than that of Hong Kong are not thinking of quitting international treaties but are focused on ways of handling their responsibilities, sometimes in a harsh manner and sometimes with a view to finding a way of adhering to humanitarian objectives while attempting to stem the refugee surge.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, there is growing talk of a sinister plan for creating a massive internment camp that is likely to worsen the conditions of these asylum seekers and bring down a flood of criticism on the city.

The extraordinary argument that this is all right because it amounts to nothing more than “what the Brits did” seems to suggest that the only lessons to be learned from the colonial regime are negative ones.

Meanwhile, in the rush to stigmatize this group of people, the majority of whom are from the Indian sub-continent, the government is talking about making it far more difficult for anyone from these countries to even visit Hong Kong.

If this plan were to be carried through, the Leung administration would be the only government in China seeking to place obstacles in the way of President Xi Jinping’s pet project – the much-vaunted “One Belt, One Road” scheme.

No one questions Hong Kong’s right to control its immigration policy or is oblivious to the demands that arise from the handling of refugee cases, but, equally, no sane person believes that this issue is best tackled by having the city align itself with a bunch of pariah states while signaling to the rest of the world that only third-class adherence to the rule of law is good enough for us.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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