All of us here know how important the rule of law is.
It is the cornerstone of an open and fair society; it promotes prosperity and stability; it provides the transparency and legal clarity needed to promote trade and investment; and it ends impunity and improves access to justice for all citizens.
Rule of law enables states to function on behalf of their citizens.
Without it, elites can misappropriate a nation’s wealth, abuse power and control access to entitlement.
States without the rule of law are often the poorest and most fragile.
Rule of law in China
Whilst we, of course, recognise that China has made unprecedented improvements in social and economic rights and personal freedoms in the last 30 years, there is no doubt that its application of the rule of law and the Rules-Based International System, at home and farther afield, continues to present challenges.
Recent events in Hong Kong and the South China Sea have raised questions about China’s commitment to the rule of law.
The [British] foreign secretary raised both these issues with counterparts during his visit to China in January.
Turning first to Hong Kong.
The peaceful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under “one country, two systems” was one of the great successes of United Kingdom-China diplomacy.
Rule of law is a key part of that system and has been fundamental to Hong Kong’s continued economic success.
It is one of the main reasons why British and international businesses have chosen to locate their Asian headquarters in Hong Kong.
As long as the rule of law remains in place, it makes good business sense.
That is why the upholding of that rule of law remains so fundamental to Hong Kong’s future growth and prosperity.
That is also why we are so concerned about the disappearance of British citizen Lee Po [also known as Lee Bo] and other employees of the Mighty Current publishing house — as the foreign secretary set out in our most recent six-monthly report to Parliament.
Our current information indicates that Lee Po was involuntarily removed to the mainland.
This constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of “one country, two systems”.
We call again for the immediate return of Lee Po to Hong Kong.
South China Sea
The United Kingdom is also concerned about tensions in the South China Sea and the effect that these could have on regional peace and security, global prosperity – given the US$5 trillion worth of trade that passes through it each year, around one-third of global seaborne trade by value — and the principle of freedom of navigation.
We are concerned about moves toward militarisation of the South China Sea — most recently the siting of missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracels — and other unilateral actions, such as large-scale land reclamation, that change the facts on the ground.
We do not take sides on sovereignty in the South China Sea.
But we do have an interest in the way in which territorial claims are pursued.
We want to see claims settled peacefully in line with international law.
So we are watching closely the case launched by the Philippines against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The United Kingdom fully supports countries’ rights to use these peaceful dispute settlement proceedings and will respect the outcome of the ruling, as should the rest of the international community.
And how China responds will also be seen as a signal of its commitment to the Rules-Based International System.
Domestic issues in mainland China
We also continue to have significant concerns about a range of civil and political rights issues in China.
Access to justice is part of this, and that is why it forms an important part of our dialogue and cooperation with China.
We raised our concerns yesterday at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
We regularly report on them as part of our annual Human Rights Report, and we are one of only a handful of countries that insist on an annual human rights dialogue with China, at which we raise both individual and thematic cases.
We look forward to the next round of the dialogue, which is scheduled to be held here in the United Kingdom next month.
This article is excerpted from a speech by Hugo Swire, minister of state at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in London on March 16.
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