'Rights' body ruled out for HK

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THE Government yesterday rejected calls to set up an independent commission to safeguard human rights in Hong Kong, but denied that this was an attempt to avoid a fresh confrontation with China over the colony's political system.

Human rights activists and the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee want an independent body to reinforce Hong Kong's Bill of Rights, but the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said in his reply to the committee yesterday that the case for a human rights commission was 'not well-founded'.

The Government saw 'significant drawbacks' in creating an entirely new institution with vague powers and an uncertain existence after 1997, when China takes over. Mr Hurd supported the view of Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, that the colony's courts and independent judiciary are sufficient to guarantee human rights.

Pro-democracy activists in the colony believe that Mr Patten, having just pushed through his political reforms at the cost of nearly two years of bitter acrimony with China, will avoid further controversy in the three years until the handover. Apart from opposing a human rights commission, he is against a proposed freedom of information law, and has also kept Chinese dissidents out of Hong Kong.

While admitting that it would have been 'irresponsible' to ignore the probable Chinese reaction to a human rights commission, a British official yesterday denied claims in Hong Kong of a secret or tacit agreement with China to avoid political disagreements in future. Further measures to strengthen human rights would be considered on their merits, he said.