(New York) – The Chinese government should allow the people of Hong Kong to select the candidates they wish for chief executive rather than trying to predetermine the 2017 election, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 22, 2013, a mainland official made a speech indicating China’s intention to institute a screening mechanism designed to ensure that only individuals approved by Beijing can stand as candidates.

“Beijing has now made it crystal clear that genuine democracy will not be on offer to the people of Hong Kong,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “While saying it will hold a public consultation, the Chinese government has already decided to retain control over who governs Hong Kong.”

In a strong statement by the Chinese government about the conduct of the 2017 election, on November 22 Li Fei, a top mainland official and chairman of Beijing’s Basic Law Committee, said that the chief executive must be an individual who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong” and that people who “confront the central government” do not meet this criterion. This follows similar pronouncements by Li’s predecessor, Qiao Xiaoyang, as well as the director of the Liaison Office of the Chinese Government in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming.

Li added that the nomination committee for the chief executive, a requirement under the Basic Law, will be restricted to a small selected group of Hong Kong people who will make a “collective” decision on candidates allowed to run in the election. This position counters recent proposals by prodemocracy groups that advocate a process in which all Hong Kong voters would be considered “members” of the nominating committee and candidates securing a specified number of public nominations would get on the ballot.

Li’s speech took place as the Hong Kong government is about to launch a “public consultation” exercise about how the election should be conducted. Because the government chooses the propositions on which the public is consulted, it can limit the terms of the consultations to a narrow range of options and exclude those it dislikes as candidates for the position of chief executive.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law states that the chief executive, who until now has been chosen by a committee composed mostly of Beijing supporters, will be selected by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” It also states that after 2007 Hong Kong can move towards this goal by amending the Basic Law in three steps. First, two-thirds of all Legislative Council members have to endorse the amendments. Second, the current chief executive has to agree to it. Last, the amendments have to be reported to China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) for approval.

But the promise that electoral reform is a matter for Hong Kong people to decide was shattered on April 6, 2004, when the NPCSC made an “interpretation” of the Basic Law. It ruled that the central government has the first and final say on electoral reform. After increasing its power to determine the course of Hong Kong’s electoral reforms, on April 26, 2004, the NPCSC ruled out universal suffrage for the chief executive in 2007 and that of the Legislative Council in 2008. In 2007, it ruled again that there would not be universal suffrage for the next elections in 2012. But the 2007 decision also said that universal suffrage was “maybe” in store for the next chief executive and Legislative Council elections in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

A nominating process that screens out opposition candidates would violate international human rights standards. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the British signed when Hong Kong was a colony and which continues to apply to Hong Kong, guarantees the right to “vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage” in article 25 (b). Individuals not only have the right to vote, but also the right to stand for elective office, and both rights should be universal and equal. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which is a group of independent human rights experts that monitors the implementation of the ICCPR around the world, has explicitly stated that the exclusion of individuals on the basis of political affiliation is “unreasonable” and “discriminatory.” The committee also stated that, when the law requires a certain threshold of supporters for nomination, “this requirement should be reasonable and not act as a barrier to candidacy.”

The Hong Kong government and pro-Beijing politicians have argued that article 25 (b) of the ICCPR does not apply to Hong Kong, on the basis that Britain had made a reservation to this provision with respect to Hong Kong upon signing the ICCPR in 1976.  However, the UN Human Rights Committee maintained that the British government’s reservation referred specifically to the introduction of elections, but once they were held they should conform to article 25 of the covenant. Since the chief executive is now selected by elections, the principles guaranteed in article 25 apply. During the last review of the territory’s compliance in April 2013, the Human Rights Committee called on the Hong Kong government to “take all necessary measures to implement universal and equal suffrage in conformity with the covenant as a matter of priority for all future elections.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Hong Kong and central governments to take immediate action, including by developing a time-bound and detailed plan, to put into practice universal and equal suffrage. They should ensure that any proposals for public consultation for the 2017 chief executive elections conform to international human rights standards, including those set out in the ICCPR. Any committee established for nominating candidates for the elections should conform to such requirements.

“Instead of spending time devising schemes to break promises on electoral reform, the Chinese government should move towards genuine universal suffrage,” said Adams. “The people of Hong Kong have continuously made it clear that they want real democracy. Beijing’s games only undermine its legitimacy in the territory.”