Head of EU Office to HK once again ducks question on HK ‘political reform’

At this crucial moment in HK history, is the EU’s official position really silence?

Afternote/update: AFTER the defeat of the HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposals in the Legislative Council on 18 June, the EU did issue a statement. To a large extent, it simply reiterated the EU’s previously articulated stance. As before, it studiously avoided the question of whether or not the HK government’s fake suffrage proposals met the EU’s criterion of “genuine choice in a credible, transparent and inclusive election system”, and once again, it avoided any reference to international law on the matter. However, it could be said to contain a small, somewhat buried advocacy element: “…the EU calls on all parties to engage in constructive discussions with a view to an early resumption of the electoral reform process.” The HK government has explicitly stated it has no intention of restarting the process in the foreseeable future. To the extent that the EU will continue to push it to do so, that would be a constructive, if small, step. At least, it could be said, the EU avoided entirely siding with the dictator, as the UK did in its statement, which said it was “disappointed by the outcome,” another way of saying it would have liked to see fake suffrage passed.

Yesterday, the European Union in HK held its twice-yearly round table discussions on human rights in China and HK. These gatherings bring together foreign diplomats stationed in HK and ‘civil society actors’, which is to say, people working in NGOs related to human rights. Each round table session focuses on a particular theme. What recent themes have in common is that they tend to be less “sensitive” issues, of the kind that won’t leave the Communist Party bristling with indignation. A recent topic was human trafficking. Yesterday’s focus was labor rights, undoubtedly an important issue in China and HK, but perhaps the not the most pressing.

The Head of the EU Office to HK and Macao, Vincent Piket, introduced the session on labor rights in HK. He made a point in his introduction of saying that the session would not touch on ‘political reform’ in HK since the chosen topic was labor rights. At least he acknowledged the elephant in the room.

Once he finished, he handed proceedings over to the session moderator, who introduced the three panelists, all of whom work in HK labor unions.

Rather than avoid politics, each of the three panelists mentioned that many problems in labor rights in HK are related to the current political situation. They pointed out the right to collective bargaining is not protected by law. In 1997, the one and only Legislative Council in HK history elected according to genuine universal suffrage passed a bill guaranteeing the right to collective bargaining, which Governor Chris Patten signed into law. That law lasted a matter of days. As soon as the handover occurred, the Communist Party–appointed “Provisional Legislative Council” repealed it. Since then, the unelected HK government and the rigged Legco have taken no action to promulgate any law to protect or enforce the right to collective bargaining.

One might imagine that such a point would lead to a discussion of whether passage of the HK government’s proposal on changes to the method of selecting the Chief Executive would increase the chances of passage of a law on the right to collective bargaining, or whether it can be expected that labor rights legislation that meets international law and standards will be implemented in HK without genuine universal suffrage in elections of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council, given that there are still many gaps in labor protections (such as no law on maximum work hours or mandatory overtime pay) eighteen years after the handover. But such was not the case.

After the panelists’ brief presentations, a question from the floor was put to the Head of the EU Office to HK. It went like this: The EU has a Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. Promotion of human rights and democracy is a cornerstone and priority of EU foreign policy. The EU put out a statement on Hong Kong during the occupations in October last year. The EU also made comments on the political situation in Hong Kong in its annual report on Hong Kong near the end of April, saying the EU supports the introduction of universal suffrage in HK and the wishes of the HK people to have a high degree of political participation and a genuine choice in electing the Chief Executive. But since the HK government formally made its proposal to the Legislative Council on reforms to the method of selecting the Chief Executive, the EU has been silent. I am wondering whether you can tell us what the EU’s position is on that proposal. Does the EU believe it offers a high degree of political participation and a genuine choice? Can it be considered genuine universal suffrage?

The moderator asked the Head of the EU Office to HK whether he would like to respond. He said he did not wish to because the question was off-topic and the EU had already made its position clear in previous statements.

After the end of the session, the questioner approached the Head of the EU Office to HK and amiably said that Mr Piket did not answer the question: Would he like to do so now? He again made a comment to the effect of the question already having been answered in previous statements and made his way to the coffee table. The questioner followed him there and back in order to give him ample opportunity to elaborate on his statement, but he chose not to.

*

According to the EU website, “President Barroso and President Van Rompuy both held meetings with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C.Y. Leung in Brussels on 15 May, 2015.” The statement is mystifying, given that on that date, neither Barroso nor Van Rompuy were any longer Presidents of anything having to do with the EU. CY Leung did meet those two on 15 May 2014, but an HK government report makes no reference to political reform having been discussed, though even then it was a pressing issue. (Am I being too sensitive in thinking that the mistake about the date of the meeting on the EU website is indicative of EU neglect of HK?)

I cannot find any statement by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, on Hong Kong.

Even though Hong Kong is currently one of the places where the European Union could make a difference in terms of its foreign policy of promoting democracy simply by making a clear statement regarding genuine universal suffrage, it has not yet done so.

Indeed, the closest the EU has come that is to make public a letter to China Daily Hong Kong on 5 June, the message of which is basically that the EU has no statement to make. Mr Piket says the EU expresses the hope that it will see “introduction of universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017, and on” and “an election system which is democratic, fair, open and transparent,” but even though EU has the HK government proposal to refer to, it refuses to state whether or not it believes the proposal meets those criteria. Mr Piket says the EU does not wish “to prescribe particular solutions to the electoral reform debate in Hong Kong, as the EU respects the principle of sovereignty in this process.” But we do not want the EU to “prescribe particular solutions,” nor are we asking for the EU to “infringe sovereignty”. We merely wish the EU to state whether it believes the HK government proposal meets the EU’s already-stated criteria: Does it constitute universal suffrage under international law? Is it democratic, fair, open and transparent? Does it offer “genuine choice”?

(A side note: It’s perhaps telling that neither the EU nor the UK can bring themselves to utter the phrase, “genuine universal suffrage,” even though that is what is required under the Basic Law and the ICCPR, resorting instead to the phrase, “genuine choice”, which is less precise and has no legal basis. The criterion of the EU and the UK should be “genuine universal suffrage.”)

While HK people should not expect foreign governments or other foreign actors to “save” us, it’s not too much to expect that democratic governments — especially the EU with its explicit commitment to promotion of democracy worldwide — make statements in support of democracy elsewhere. In the case of HK, this would include asking the Chinese government to abide by its legal obligations under the Basic Law and, given that HK is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in international law as well. The legal definition of universal suffrage is clearly stated in ICCPR Article 25, and the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has clearly stated that the Chinese and HK government’s plans are not in compliance with their legal obligations under the ICCPR.

As the behavior of the Head of the EU Office to HK at the EU round table discussions on human rights in Hong Kong and China showed, not only has the EU not issued a statement about the HK government’s proposal; it is studiously avoiding saying anything about it at all. This is most unbecoming. It gives the impression that when push comes to shove, the EU doesn’t prioritize promotion of human rights and democracy much at all, that its commitment to human rights doesn’t go much further than occasionally sitting down with ‘civil society stakeholders’ to talk, no action required.

The EU should state clearly whether the avoidance of this issue by the Head of the EU Office to HK represents the official EU stance. If not, then what does the EU really think about the HK government proposal, which will be voted on by the Legislative Council as early as late next week? At this crucial moment in HK history, is the EU’s official position really silence?

KTG

12 June 2015

Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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