When Dominic Raab stood at the despatch box in the House of Commons this week and announced that the Government had suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong ‘immediately and indefinitely’, he was met with audible support in the Chamber. The decision was brought up again the following day at a press conference with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who gave Raab his full backing on the matter, citing ‘serious concerns’ over Hong Kong’s status. They were right to be impressed. This indefinite suspension of the extradition treaty is a remarkable political gesture that sidesteps traditional diplomatic conventions.
While many regimes deny the importance of extradition, Dominic Raab has shown that it can be effectively used to deal with the most serious of human rights abuses. Although at present there are almost no extraditions between the UK and Hong Kong, meaning that the change will barely be noticed, this firm stance is a welcome change that sends a serious message to China. Whether Raab and the current government are prepared to apply the same human rights standards to other appalling human rights abusers, is another question entirely.
The human rights situation in China is dire, not just because of Hong Kong’s new national security law – which has triggered the suspension of the treaty – but also because of China’s ‘re-education camps’. These are, for all intents and purposes, concentration camps, housing an estimated 1 million Uyghur Muslims. Suspending the extradition treaty with China for human rights reasons is absolutely the right thing to do.
But if we apply the same standards to a country like Russia, these supposed values start to slip. In the space of one week, three Russian doctors ‘accidentally’ fell to their deaths, shortly after complaining about Russia’s approach to Covid-19. The proximity of their deaths to their public criticism of the government is terrifying. And yet we still consider Russia a place that we can extradite people to. Four individuals have been extradited there in the last decade. Two voluntarily and two after the courts allowed their extradition.
The problem with making a political stand on human rights is a lack of legal consistency. We may not like to admit it, but the UK has traditionally done business with appalling human rights abusers, hoping that soft power will help to change them for the better. The European Court of Human Rights does excellent work in the shaming of human rights abusers but still does not have real teeth. It can only make declarations and award minimal damages. More effective are the personal sanctions put in place to target individuals. As part of Brexit the UK will now have to create its own sanctions regime, and it needs to be a serious one. Raab’s recent announcement of a Magnitsky-style sanctions list appeared to show his hawkish approach to foreign policy, but it was almost completely undermined by the resumption of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, who had 20 of its citizens put on the list.
The suspension of an extradition treaty is a much bigger statement though than a sanctions list, as it strikes at the heart of international relations and diplomacy. Dominic Raab has said the Hong Kong extradition suspension is indefinite – it is therefore difficult to see how this diplomatic crisis will be resolved. The UK is effectively saying that it requires China to repeal its National Security law in the region. It seems highly unlikely that Beijing will agree to do this – it is not known for bowing to external pressure.
Extradition will continue to be a political football on the world stage. The challenge now for Raab and the UK Government is whether they will consider suspending agreements with jurisdictions with worse human rights records than China.
Ben Keith is a barrister specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law at 5 St Andrew’s Hill