Published: 02:08, June 14, 2024
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Jonathan Sumption shames himself as a tool of the UK’s political machinations
By Gang Aoping

After announcing his resignation from the post of overseas nonpermanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKCFA), British judge Jonathan Sumption on Monday attacked Hong Kong’s legal system in an article loaded with distorted and slanderous narratives.

As a matter of fact, the United Kingdom government and anti-China politicians have left no stone unturned in pressuring British judges to quit the HKCFA, as part of their cynical political machinations which serve a broader geopolitical objective against China. Conceivably, British judges serving in the HKCFA, including Sumption, have been under considerable stress — an undesirable situation indeed.

That said, the way Sumption unreservedly abandoned professionalism and professional ethics, relinquished his responsibility to uphold the sanctity of the rule of law from political interference, and betrayed his colleagues is shocking, shameful and yet pitiful. After all, he had built a glowing reputation in international legal circles, having served as a judge of the UK Supreme Court and a nonpermanent judge of Hong Kong’s top court.

Isn’t it shameful for a judge, who is supposed to subscribe to the spirit of impartiality, to misrepresent facts in total disregard of decency? It goes without saying that it is a basic tenet of judges to always base their judgments on facts and the law. However, Sumption either deliberately shunned the context or distorted the facts when presenting his narratives about Hong Kong’s legal system, which are completely unsubstantiated.

For example, in raising his objection to the guilty verdict of 14 individuals charged with “conspiracy to subvert State power”, Sumption defied the fact that they had been proved guilty beyond doubt, in the High Court trial, for their participation in a plot to subvert the HKSAR’s existing political system established under the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” principle. This objective was to be achieved by indiscriminately vetoing — after gaining control of the local legislature — the HKSAR government budgets or public expenditure bills to paralyze the government and thus eventually topple it. This maneuver violated the constitutional responsibility of legislators under Article 73 of the Basic Law, and constituted an abuse of power and subversion of State power by illegal means.

In criticizing the guilty verdict, Sumption completely disregarded the fact that Hong Kong courts conduct trials independently in accordance with the law, free from any interference, and have never come under any political pressure from the central government or the HKSAR government. He also deliberately ignored the fact that China’s Constitution and the Basic Law of the HKSAR together prescribe the constitutional order of the HKSAR and provide an institutional guarantee for the HKSAR’s judicial system — the jurisdiction of its courts is defined by the HKSAR’s constitutional order and laws, as is the case in any other legal system or jurisdiction.  

In attacking the national security laws implemented in Hong Kong, Sumption conveniently overlooked the fact that enacting and implementing laws to safeguard national security is common practice around the world, as well as the fact that the national security laws implemented in Hong Kong have facilitated the city’s transition from chaos to order and prosperity, and that they strike a better balance between safeguarding national security and protecting people’s rights and freedoms as well as economic development than similar legislation in the UK, the United States and other jurisdictions.

The slanderous allegations Sumption wantonly hurled at the High Court verdict on those 14 offenders, the HKSAR’s judicial system, and the national security laws in effect were unsubstantiated by the facts. Neither were they part of an objective analysis of legal matters but ingredients of political prejudice and viperous calumny. Did Sumption have the idea of justice in mind when he denigrated Hong Kong with abandon? Did he realize that he had diminished the standing of a judge?

Isn’t it sad that a judge who is supposed to be independent-minded has succumbed to political machinations and betrayed himself? The core value of judicial oaths taken by all judges around the world invariably includes “without fear or favor, self-interest or deceit”, which is consistent with the spirit revered in Chinese culture that the mind of a great man will never be shaken by destitution, temptation of wealth and honor, or external pressure and force.

That’s why judges are respected. Sumption had adhered to such principles in the past. In March 2022, when the UK government and politicians successfully pressured two British Supreme Court judges into quitting their jobs as nonpermanent judges in the HKCFA, he declined to participate in the political boycott orchestrated by the UK government against the Hong Kong judiciary, instead he asked the UK government and politicians to stop undermining Hong Kong’s judicial system in an article, saying that the Chinese central government and the HKSAR government have never interfered with Hong Kong’s judicial independence and that the National Security Law for Hong Kong includes provisions that protect human rights.

How unfortunate it is that he has performed a volte-face, allowing himself to be used as a tool for undermining Hong Kong’s judicial system. He suggested that Hong Kong’s judicial independence has been compromised. The fact is, he is the one who has abandoned his independence by succumbing to UK political pressure and machinations.  

Isn’t it a shame that a judge who is supposed to be truthful has betrayed and denigrated his fellow judges? In March 2021, when UK politicians increasingly piled up pressure on British judges to quit Hong Kong’s top court after the implementation of the NSL in June 2020, Sumption stood firm along with his colleagues in defending Hong Kong’s judicial independence in a professional and responsible manner, asserting in a letter to The Times that judges serving in Hong Kong courts “deserve to be supported, not abandoned by their overseas colleagues”. It can be said that he is fully aware that judges serving in Hong Kong courts have never faced pressure from the HKSAR government or the central government but from the governments and politicians of the UK and its allies.

It is regrettable and disappointing that Sumption abruptly tendered his resignation at a time when external forces are stepping up their efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s legal system, and when the city’s judges are working hard together to defend judicial independence and to uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong. Worse, he insulted his former colleagues by alleging that they are “intimidated … many judges have lost sight of their traditional role as defenders of the liberty of the subject, even when the law allows it”. To please those in power in London and elsewhere, Sumption sacrificed the sanctity of judicial independence and the rule of law, and insulted fellow judges. What a disgrace.

It is a pity that Sumption allowed himself to be “politically kidnapped” and used as a tool to facilitate the political machinations of the governments and politicians of the UK and its allies, contributing to the China-bashing cause at the expense of his reputation.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.