Britain said on Wednesday it was removing its judges from Hong Kong’s highest court because keeping them there would “legitimize oppression” in the former British colony.
British judges have sat on the court since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. The British government’s decision underscores the growing isolation of the Asian financial hub as the ruling Chinese Communist Party strives to assert control and silence independent voices.
While the UK had judges sitting on the Court of Final Appeal as part of efforts to safeguard the rule of law in the city, the UK government said it was ‘no longer tenable’ in because of the increasingly oppressive laws enacted by China. The two senior British judges on the tribunal tendered their resignations on Wednesday.
“Hong Kong’s courts continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law,” UK Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Reed said after he and his colleague Patrick Hodge resigned from the Hong Kong court. “Nevertheless, I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that Supreme Court justices cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration that has strayed from the values of political freedom and of freedom of expression.”
China has stepped up its crackdown on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous political and legal institutions in recent years. These efforts include the passage of the sweeping national security law in 2020 and changes to the electoral system that effectively ended political opposition in the territory.
The Security Law, which prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion, has been used to arrest more than 100 pro-democracy figures, and many more have fled abroad. Since the law was introduced, Hong Kong police have raided offices of pro-democracy media outlets, closed them down and arrested journalists.
Lawmakers, students and organizers of candlelight commemorations marking the Communist Party’s deadly 1989 crackdown on a pro-democracy movement have also been targeted.
The security law drew criticism from some Western governments and the United Nations that Beijing was ruining Hong Kong’s status as a commercial and financial center by eroding the autonomy promised when the city was transferred to the China under the “one country, two systems” principle.
“We have witnessed a systematic erosion of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. Since the imposition of the National Security Law, authorities have cracked down on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. ‘association,’ British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
“The situation has reached a tipping point where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s premier court, and would risk legitimizing oppression.”
In a statement released after the resignations, Hong Kong Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng said: “The constitutional foundation on which our judicial independence rests will not be shaken.”
Hong Kong Chief Justice Andrew Cheung did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
According to Reuters, Hong Kong Law Society President Chan Chak Ming urged Reed and Hodge to reconsider their resignations, saying it “sadly falls short” of public and legal community support for the continued role of foreign judges. .
The decision to withdraw British judges after many years in Hong Kong has been welcomed by British lawmakers. A prominent Conservative Party member of parliament, Tom Tugendhat, said British judges should not help shore up “a legal system that is now being used to lock Hong Kongers up without due process”.
Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, a longtime critic of the Beijing government, said “the [U.K.] the government did the right thing here, and not a minute too soon.”