Published: 01:42, May 31, 2024 | Updated: 10:33, May 31, 2024
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Public assemblies: Cameron’s hypocrisy stuns observers
By Grenville Cross

On April 15, the United Kingdom government issued its latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong for July to December 2023, which contained the usual criticisms. 

The foreign secretary, Lord (David) Cameron, said the cumulative effect of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) and increased self-censorship “continue to restrain freedom of assembly”. Although the Basic Law guarantees residents freedom of “association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration” (Art.27), he claimed the NSL’s implementation had resulted in the curtailing of fundamental freedoms, including freedom “of assembly and of association”.

On Sept 19, 2023, when Cameron’s predecessor, James Cleverly (now home secretary, responsible for public order), issued his last six-monthly report, for January to June, he peddled a similar line. He declared that “the UK will always defend universal human rights, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”, which sounded edifying.

Indeed, anybody listening to Cameron and Cleverly would assume the UK is a beacon of free assembly and a guardian of protesters’ rights. Were it otherwise, how could they possibly presume to lecture Hong Kong so stridently. However, the truth will out, as two unrelated events have shown.

If ... Cameron, or his successor, has the gall to criticize Hong Kong, it will be proof positive of the extent to which hypocrisy has poisoned British foreign policy

On April 21, Amnesty International, which calls itself “the world’s leading human rights organization”, published its annual global report for 2023, and it had much to say about the UK. The British government had “continued to pursue a policy agenda that breached its international human rights commitments and curtailed human rights protections”. This was hopefully a wake-up call for Cameron, who only assumed office on Nov 13, 2023.

On May 2, 2023, the UK Parliament enacted the Public Order Act (POA), thereby, as Amnesty International reported, “furthering a legislative crackdown on peaceful protest that started with the 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act”. The POA, the report explained, “criminalized various forms of peaceful protest, such as ‘locking on’, expanded police stop-and-search powers, created protest banning orders, and gave the Home Secretary powers to seek civil injunctions against peaceful protesters”. Although disturbing, this, Amnesty International pointed out, was only half the story.

In June 2023, the Public Order Act 1986 (Serious Disruption to the Life of the Community) Regulations were adopted as subsidiary legislation (which requires less parliamentary scrutiny and little debate). Amnesty International said it “expanded the circumstances in which police can impose conditions on protests, backed by prison sentences”. Conditions, moreover, could be “anything police consider necessary to prevent ‘serious disruption’, defined in the regulations as an obstruction causing ‘more than minor hindrance to day-to-day activities’.”

Amnesty International also explained how, in May last year, “dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested at and around the coronation of King Charles III, including pre-emptive arrests”. Throughout 2023, “arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment of peaceful environmental protesters continued”. Even climate activist Greta Thunberg was arrested, although District Judge John Law threw out the case against her. He said there was “no evidence” of any offense and noted how the police had attempted to impose “unlawful conditions” on her.

After the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct 7, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, nonviolent protests regularly occurred in the UK, calling for a cease-fire. In response, said Amnesty International, the government “sought to pressure police to ban these protests, characterizing them as ‘hate marches’”.

In other words, the UK government, while authorizing its foreign secretaries to criticize Hong Kong for its handling of public assemblies, simultaneously presided over a crackdown on the rights of protesters. Hypocrisy apart, its actions were contrary to the UK’s Human Rights Act (1998), which provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others” (Art.11). To be charitable, the Foreign Office’s legal department may not have briefed Cameron and Cleverly about these rights, although Cleverly, as the minister responsible for the crackdown, must know now. At the very least, Cameron acquiesced, and he can no longer plead ignorance going forward.

In any event, the judiciary has now stopped their government in its tracks.

On May 21, the High Court intervened upon the application of Liberty, the civil liberties campaign group. In a landmark judgment, the judges decided that the UK government had acted unlawfully in creating subsidiary legislation that gave the police “almost unlimited” powers to restrict protests. The government had ignored Parliament’s will by failing to define the meaning of “serious disruption”, and instead broadening the definition to enable the police to intervene in protests where disruption was “closer to that which is normal or everyday”.

The government’s measures were objectionable because, by a sidewind, they had lowered the threshold for “serious disruption” to community life from “significant and prolonged” to “more than minor”. This resulted in hundreds of peaceful protesters being arrested and taken to court, and the judgment went further.

Another of Cameron’s beefs against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government was that its consultation exercise over the Article 23 domestic national security legislation was inadequate. It was, therefore, fascinating to read that the judges condemned his own government for conducting a consultation exercise over its anti-protest regulations that was “one-sided and not fairly carried out”. It had only met with those who supported its proposals, like police and prosecutors, and ignored other interested parties, like community organizations and protest groups. This would never have been tolerated in Hong Kong, and the judges unsurprisingly ruled it unlawful.

The Liberty director, Akiko Hart, hailed the judgment as “a huge victory for democracy”. The government’s regulations, as subsidiary legislation, had been “sneaked through the back door with the clear intention of stopping protesters that the Government did not personally agree with”. They were so “vaguely worded that it meant the police were given almost unlimited powers to shut down any other protest too”.

The chief executive officer of the Public Law Project, Shameem Ahmed, was no less forthright. She welcomed the judgment and said, “Those in government, present and future, should pay heed and commit to respecting our constitution and fundamental rights.” Hopefully, Cameron and Cleverly were listening.

Although the government plans to appeal, it has little chance. It is hard to envisage any appeal court being other than appalled at the spectacle of a government using subterfuge to ride roughshod over long-standing rights of peaceful protest and public assembly. If, after this, Cameron, or his successor, has the gall to criticize Hong Kong, it will be proof positive of the extent to which hypocrisy has poisoned British foreign policy.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.