The fight for Universal and Equal Suffrage in Hong Kong
One of the five demands pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong (HK) have called for is 'universal and equal suffrage', or 'dual universal suffrage'.
It has become almost trite to bandy these terms about, but what exactly do the people of HK want ? The HK protester reference to "dual" universal suffrage refers to the election for the Chief Executive and for the Legislative Council (LegCo).
It has to be recognised that DEMOCRACY is the most undefined word in the world.
As Hong Kong Watch notes : "Article 39 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law is clear that the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights shall remain in force through the legal system of the Special Administrative Region." Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is this United Nations document, otherwise known as the ICCPR that spells out the details of what rights Hong Kongers are accorded under both international law, and the law of their own city / state.
What HK people expect is nothing more than the democratic electoral system they were guaranteed under existing legally binding international agreements.
ICCPR and elections
The following notes are extracted from "The Right to Vote: A Basic Human Right in Need of Protection", a paper prepared by Human Rights Advocates. The right to vote and the right to public participation in government is first asserted in Article 21 of the UDHR. It provides that:
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) then codifies these rights, requiring that: Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.
Universal and Equal Suffrage
Article 25 of the ICCPR explicitly extends the right to vote to “every citizen,” and calls for “universal and equal suffrage.” To further define the right to vote, the Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment 25 to the ICCPR. It explains that, “article 25 of the Covenant recognizes and protects the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to vote and to be elected and the right to have access to public service.” Furthermore, General Comment 25 to the ICCPR emphasizes that "no distinctions are permitted between citizens in the enjoyment of these rights on the grounds of race, colour, sex, . . . or other status." Nevertheless, in some countries, certain citizens are denied their voting rights as a matter of law, based on a past criminal conviction, based on their gender, or based on their race or ethnicity.
Article 25 of the ICCPR requires that “every citizen” be given the right to vote. General Comment 25 to the ICCPR clarifies that “if conviction for an offence is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence and the sentence.”
So what are the people of Hong Kong complaining about?
Isn't their government democratically elected under the "One Country, Two Systems" model?
In elections for the Chief Executive, or political leader of the SAR, the candidates are vetted by the central government in Beijing, or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Any prospective candidate who gathers enough support from residents to stand for the CE role, may be excluded from the race if the CCP vetos their nomination. Increasingly dissenters and critics of government are being excluded from the democratic process. Basically our CE is not elected under the principles of truly democratic universal and equal suffrage.
In elections for legislative representatives who take office in LegCo, which is basically HK's parliament, again nominated candidates are vetted, and quite a number have been disqualified from standing for office by the government appointed civil servant, returning officer. The problem with this disqualification process is that it lacks transparency, and fairness. The returning officer's decisions are often arbitrary and the due process by which a candidate can appeal a disqualification fails to take into account the will of the people who nominated the candidate, and the desire of the candidate to participate in governance and to be of service to the city.
The way the LegCo operates, and the way it is set up has a number of problems that undermine democracy in the SAR. First and foremost, there are some legislators elected by business and trade sectors of the SAR. These "functional constituencies" are a historical feature of Legco, that unfairly give voice and sway to business owners, and elites in the SAR. The geographic constituencies, on the other hand represent physical areas of the city and the number of electors in each constituency is relatively stable. What irks many people is that elite electors effectively have TWO votes: once in the Functional Constituency they belong to (e.g. Real Estate Developers, Doctors, Engineers, Manufacturers), AND once in the geographic constituency in which they reside. I won't go into details about how the numbers of each constituency seats results in LegCo having a minority controlling the majority. HK is a feudal Chinese plutocracy.
The rules and procedures that govern the working of LegCo do not always guarantee fair and democratic decision-making. The CE, for example, has a body of unelected advisors known as Executive Council, but they are not always representatve of either the people's will, or of the rest of LegCo. Also the CE holds sway over a number of bodies and matters to which they preside - the appointment of HK Judges, and University Councils being just two examples
If HK was actually given the "high degree of autonomy" it was promised under the Joint Declaration perhaps DEMOCRACY in the SAR would function more effectively. In recent years, however, there have been a number of incidents in which the CCP have intervened in HK affairs. Rather than allow the city's own courts and judiciary to sort out legal and constitutional crises that have arisen, CCP has intervened. The latest case of this has involved the cancellation of LegCo elections that were scheduled for September 2020. This was done under the guise of a necessary precaution to combat Covid-19, yet elections have proceeded amidst the pandemic in other jurisdictions. (see our blog: NPC's LegCo postponement; HK democracy denied )
Further to this intervention by CCP, it is extremely disturbing that recently the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) saw fit to disqualify four legislators from their seats in LegCo, depriving their electorates of their democratic representation. According to UK government this is the third breach of the Joint Declaration by CCP.
There are many controversial issues important to the people of HK. Although the public frequently wish to have more direct input into decisions, they are too often denied the opportunity to do so. Since the handover, the people of HK have had the expectation that democracy would improve, however, on several matters there has been little or no public consultation. A few examples of this: a) The building of the Palace Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District b) Bailout of Cathay Pacific c) The attempt to pass an 2019 Extradition Bill.
Encompassing all the points already made, there is a feeling among many Hongkongers that the HK government is basically illegitimate, and that its decisions are actually made without strong legal and ethical foundations. This also has lead to systemic failures in governance and a complete loss of trust. In HK today the situation is such that it is fair to say "There's a sickness in our system" and it goes much further than Covid-19! The prosperity and stability of the city has been sabotaged by its very own governance and democratic failure. In many areas of governance there is a total lack of accountability. A report released in November 2020, for example, lays clear blame on the CE and the HK Police Force for radicalising HK protesters.
The CE and her government flounder from one crisis to another, many of which are self-made, without addressing the real concerns and aspirations of HK people, because it instead is chasing the tail of central government and the CCP.
In case it is not clear to those outside Hong Kong, the people of the SAR will not relinquish their rights without a fight.
Hong Kong may well be a part of China, but it is the people who make the city what it is, and they wish to be treated with respect, to be heard, and to be honoured with the fulfilment of promises and guarantees made to them.
WTPOHK call for democratic elections in HK by Universal and Equal Suffrage.
We call for an end to arbitrary disqualification of candidates and legislators in HK.
We call for the removal of all functional constituency seats in LegCo, and for more general electoral revision aimed at strengthening democracy in the city.
We call for CCP and the HK government to fulfull ALL its international obligations.
We call for the SAR to be given greater autonomy, not less!
We call for CCP to uphold the Joint Declaration.
This is the will of the people.