Britain announced Wednesday that it will withdraw its top judges from Hong Kong’s highest court, citing the possibility of oppression in the former British colony.
Since 1997, Hong Kong was returned from China to Britain, the court has been populated by British judges. This move by the British government demonstrates the Asian financial hub’s increasing isolation, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party seeks to control the region and silence any independent voices.
The U.K. had two judges on the Court of Final Appeal to protect the rule of the law in the UK, but the British government declared it “no longer tenable” due to increasingly oppressive laws from China. Two of the most senior British judges were forced to resign with immediate effect on Wednesday.
Robert Reed, President of the U.K. Supreme Court, stated that the courts in Hong Kong are still internationally respected for their commitment towards the rule of the law. “Nevertheless, I have reached an agreement with the government that the Supreme Court judges cannot continue to be in Hong Kong without appearing as a support for an administration that has violated the values of freedom and political liberty.
The Court of Final Appeal in the city still has 14 non-permanent Judges, 10 of which are from common law jurisdictions like Canada and Australia.
In recent years, China has increased its pressure on Hong Kong’s semiautonomous legal and political institutions. These efforts include the passage of the 2020 National Security Law and the changes to the electoral system, which effectively eliminated political opposition in the territory.
Over 100 pro-democracy leaders have been arrested under the security law. Many others fled to other countries. The security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion, has been used to arrest over 100 pro-democracy figures, while many others fled abroad.
Students, lawmakers and organizers of candlelit commemorations marking the 1989 crackdown by the Communist Party on a pro-democracy group were all targeted.
Some Western governments and the United Nations were critical of the security law, claiming that Beijing was destroying Hong Kong’s reputation as a financial and trade center.
“We have witnessed a systematic erosion in liberty and democracy Hong Kong. “Since the National Security Law was implemented, authorities have crackeddown on freedom speech, free press, and free association,” Liz Truss, British Foreign Secretary, said.
She stated that the situation was so dire that it was no longer possible for British judges to be seated on Hong Kong’s top court. This would legitimize oppression.
British lawmakers welcomed the decision to remove British judges from Hong Kong after many years. Tom Tugendhat from the Conservative Party, a senior member of Parliament, stated that British judges shouldn’t help “a legal system being used to jail Hongkongers without due procedure.”
Iain Duncan Smith, a conservative lawmaker, was a long-time critic of Beijing’s government. He said that “the government has done what is right here and it did so not too soon.”
“What Ukraine has taught us is that you cannot appease totalitarian countries or make excuses for them behavior, which was exactly what the presence (of our judges) in Hong Kong did,” Smith stated. They were granting legitimacy to a regime bent on undermining our way and life.
Hong Kong Bar Association represented the city’s barristers and said that the decision was “deeply regrettable.” It appealed the Court of Final Appeal’s overseas judges to stay in Hong Kong and continue to serve the city and uphold its judiciary independence.