UK judges withdraw from top Hong Kong court in opposition to China’s security law

court of final appeal hong kong
Court of Final Appeals building in Hong Kong. Image: Magnet Larry / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • The U.K.’s Foreign Office announced it was pulling its judges from Hong Kong’s top court, with two Supreme Court justices resigning immediately over growing concerns with China’s national security law passed in 2020.
  • Hong Kong’s Basic Law allows for top judges from overseas common law jurisdictions to sit as non-permanent members of the Court of Final Appeals.
  • The decision was supported by many government officials and Conservative lawmakers.
  • Addressing his resignation, U.K. Supreme Court President Robert Reed said, “The courts in Hong Kong continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law, nevertheless, I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression.” 
  • China’s national security law gives China sweeping authority over matters of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion with swift legal enforcement frameworks, which has led to the arrests of pro-democracy activists and journalists.

The U.K.’s Foreign Office declared Wednesday it was pulling its judges from Hong Kong’s top court over concerns with China’s national security law.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a constitution upholding the “one country, two systems” principle, allows for senior judges from common law jurisdictions to sit as non-permanent members of their top court, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals. 

Of the 12 overseas judges, eight are British. Two British Supreme Court judges, U.K. Supreme Court President Robert Reed and Deputy President Patrick Hodge, have resigned immediately.

Addressing his resignation, Reed said, “The courts in Hong Kong continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law, nevertheless, I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression.” 

The decision to withdraw was made in discussion with Secretary of State Liz Truss, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Reed himself. 

On Wednesday, Truss released a statement saying: “We have seen a systematic erosion of liberty and democracy in Hong Kong. Since the national security law was imposed, authorities have cracked down on free speech, the free press and free association. The situation has reached a tipping point where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court, and would risk legitimizing oppression. I welcome and wholeheartedly support the decision to withdraw British judges from the court.”

Raab added, “This flies in the face of the handover agreement we have had with China since 1997 and, having discussed at length with the foreign secretary and the president of the Supreme Court, we regretfully agree that it is no longer appropriate for serving U.K. judges to continue sitting in Hong Kong courts.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed support for the two judges’ decision to resign, saying, “The constraints of the national security law make it impossible for them to continue to serve in the way that they would want. I appreciate and understand their decision.”

Several British lawmakers applauded the decision. Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith referred to the situation in Ukraine as an example justifying the move, saying, “The government has done the right thing here, and not a minute too soon… What Ukraine teaches us is that you simply cannot appease totalitarian states or make excuses for their behavior, which is exactly what the presence of our judges was doing in Hong Kong, they were lending legitimacy to a regime hell-bent on undermining our way of life.”

China’s national security law was passed in 2020 and includes provisions like “crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison.” It also dictates that “Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted, not any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.”

Through the law, China gained further authority of security and legal enforcement through the establishment of a security office and personnel in Hong Kong  not under the jurisdiction of local authorities. 

Since the security law took effect, China has cracked down on dissent, with over 100 pro-democracy movement activists and journalists having been arrested and many pro-democracy media organizations having been raided. 

The Hong Kong Bar Association called the U.K.’s decision “a matter of deep regret.” The U.K.’s decision could also put pressure on the other overseas non-permanent members from Canada and Australia to do the same.

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