Does Promoting Democracy in Hong Kong Violate the Principle of Non-Interference in Domestic Affairs?

by Julian Ku

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers proposed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last week.  The proposed law would “would enhance U.S. monitoring of Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights and ensure that these issues remain a cornerstone of U.S. policy,” according to the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith.

Reactions in Hong Kong and China are already pretty negative.

“We don’t want foreign governments or foreigners to intervene in affairs that can be handled by ourselves,” [Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung] said, adding that the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, Hongkongers themselves and the city’s lawmakers were the only stakeholders in the city’s political reform.”

If the bill gets closer to passage, one can imagine China will invoke the principle of “non-interference” in domestic affairs and sovereignty as an international law argument against the bill.  So this could set up an interesting contrast in views on how this principle is understood and interpreted.

In fact, the proposed bill is quite limited in scope.  All it requires is for the U.S. Secretary of State to annually certify “whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to justify separate treatment different from that accorded the People’s Republic of China in any new laws, agreements, treaties, or arrangements entered into between the United States and Hong Kong after the date of the enactment of such Act.”

It does not even threaten to change existing laws and treaties (such as the visa waiver provision for HK residents or the extradition agreement with HK).  It just threatens to limit “any new laws, agreements..treaties” (emphasis added). Nor does the proposed law actually require “genuine” democratic suffrage or compliance with the UK-China Joint Agreement or any other hard metric that the recent protests in Hong Kong had argued for.  Certification can be made as long as HK remains “sufficiently autonomous” in the opinion of the US Secretary of State and as long as he “considers” the Joint Agreement’s requirements in his certifcation.

Moreover, even this pretty easy requirement can be waived by the Secretary of State is in US national interests.  For this reason, I would be surprised if this bill becomes controversial within Congress or opposed by the State Department.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking: Is it a violation of the principle of non-interference to condition new agreements and arrangements with Hong Kong on the progress of domestic arrangements in China?  I don’t think most US international lawyers would find this gentle prodding to be a credible violation of the non-interference principle (see this useful summary of the principle from Princeton here), but I am fairly sure many Chinese international lawyers would see things differently.  If the bill progresses, we may find out.

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/02/does-promoting-democracy-in-hong-kong-violate-the-principle-of-non-interference-in-domestic-affairs/

One Response

  1. promoting how is the more important question. In general, every member of the UN (and the UN itself) has a UN Charter-based duty to ensure respect for and observance of human rights (UN Charter, arts. 55(c), 56). China’s adherence to this Charter-based duty cannot simplistically be an “internal” affair. It is an affair of the international community. Further, the UN Charter-based obligation will override any inconsistent ordinary treaty (e.g., one that is not jus cogens).

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