Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has confirmed that his government is open to the possibility of imposing sanctions against officials involved in Hong Kong’s affairs under its Global Human Rights (GHR) regime.

In a letter to an MP this month, Raab condemned the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy hopefuls from standing for Hong Kong’s legislative council elections, originally scheduled for this month. The foreign minister also expressed “deep concern” at the subsequent postponement of the elections to September 2021.

Photo: UKGov.

“Free and fair elections are essential to the high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” the letter read.

The Chinese government, Raab said, “will need to reassure the people of Hong Kong and the world that elections will be held as soon as possible, and that they are not using Covid-19 as a pretext to further undermine the autonomy of Hong Kong.”

Raab reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to defending Hong Kong’s promised autonomy and freedoms. “We will continue to bring together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms, and to hold China to their international obligations.”

Britain is “carefully considering further designations under the Global Human Rights (GHR) regime,” Raab’s letter said.

The minister’s comments came in response to inquiries about the “latest developments” in Hong Kong from MP Iain Duncan Smith in late July. Raab’s letter, dated September 17, was released on Twitter by Duncan Smith on Monday.

Duncan Smith is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international cross-party group of lawmakers working to promote reforms in policies towards China.

Magnitsky-style sanctions

Established on July 6 within a week of Beijing’s passing of a sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong, the GHR regime allows the UK government to sanction both officials and non-state individuals and organisations involved in serious violations of human rights around the world. It marked the UK’s departure from the EU’s sanctions system.

The “Magnitsky-style” sanctions can involve the freezing of assets owned or controlled by an offending party. They also make it a criminal offence for companies to engage in business dealings or make funds available to sanctioned bodies.

Currently, there are 49 individuals and organisations sanctioned under GHR in countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea.

However, the UK’s sanction regime currently targets three types of human rights abuses – interference with life, torture and slavery – and does not extend to violations of freedom of speech or expression or of democratic processes.

The security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong on June 30 sparked widespread alarm both at home and abroad. The law, enacted after months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests, criminalised subversion, secession, foreign interference and inference with transport and other infrastructure.

On July 1, the UK announced extended immigration rights for Hongkongers who hold a British National (Overseas) passport. Later that month, it also suspended its extradition treaty and limited its trading of arms and crowd control equipment with its former colony, citing concerns about the lack of judicial safeguards under the new law.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File photo: Nicolas Asfouri.

The US has already imposed sanctions on 11 Hong Kong or China officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, for their roles in the passing of the law.

Lam renounced her UK citizenship in 2007 in order to take up public office in Hong Kong, but her husband reportedly holds a British passport.

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.