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Macau: U.N. Recommendations for Universal Voting Rights and Human Rights Monitoring in Response to First Human Rights Report

(Apr. 10, 2013) On March 27, 2013, the Human Rights Committee (the Committee) of the United Nations, based in Geneva, made public its concluding observations on the human rights report submitted to the Committee by Macau’s government, the first such report from Macau since its return to China. The U.N. body listed what it viewed as positive developments as well as areas of concern. The Committee urged in particular the introduction in Macau of “universal and equal suffrage,” together with an independent body to monitor human rights. (Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Initial Report of Macao, China, Adopted by the Committee at Its 107th Session (11 – 28 March 2013) (Advance Unedited Version) [hereinafter the Observations], Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website; Initial Reports of States Parties: Macao, China (May 12, 2011), Committee website.)

The Committee is “the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties.” (Human Rights Committee, OHCHR website, (last visited Apr. 8, 2013); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [hereinafter the Covenant] (signed Dec. 16, 1966, in force from Mar. 23, 1976), OHCHR website.) Macau (also spelled Macao) is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China; China became a party to the Covenant on October 5, 1998. ([Covenant] Status as at: 08-04-2013 05:03:39 EDT, UNITED NATIONS TREATY COLLECTION.) China notified the United Nations on December 3, 1999, in advance of the city’s change from Portuguese to Chinese sovereignty on December 20 of that year, that nothing in the Covenant would affect the special status of Macau and that the Covenant would be implemented in the region “through legislation of the Macao Special Administrative Region.” (Id. note 4; Political System, Macao Special Administrative Region website (June 2012).)

The Universal Suffrage Issue

In reaction to the report, the Committee stated that Macau “should consider taking all preparatory measures with a view to introducing universal and equal suffrage in conformity with the Covenant as a matter of priority.” (The Observations, supra, at C.7.) It recommended that the region’s government establish a plan, with a timeline, for transition to a system based on universal, equal suffrage, in order to comply with the Covenant. (Id.)

The Macau government issued a response on April 5. (UN Urges Equal Suffrage, Human Rights Body for Macau, MACAU NEWS (Apr. 2, 2013).)Florinda Chan, the Macau Secretary for Administration and Justice, noted that the electoral system is based on local conditions and in her view does not violate the Covenant. She said that since the 1999 transition to Chinese authority,

we have been heading towards democracy. We replied (to the committee) that after the handover [in 1999] there were 23 legislators at the Legislative Assembly. But there are 33 in this year’s election. Macau’s development plan for the political system has to be decided by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. We will take it step [by step]. (MSAR Has “Disagreements” with UN Panel’s Observations on Human Rights, MACAU DAILY TIMES (Apr. 3, 2013).)

Chan also stated that Macau must abide by its Basic Law, the “mini-constitution” for the Special Administrative Region. (Id.; Macao Basic Law, Mar. 31, 1993, Macao Government Printing Bureau.)

Human Rights and Other Concerns

Apart from its statements about suffrage, the Committee focused on a number of other human rights issues, including concern about steps taken in Macau against journalists and activists, discouraging freedom of expression. The Committee also highlighted “the lack of clarifications regarding the crime of abuse of freedom of the press and criminalization of defamation.” (UN Urges Equal Suffrage, Human Rights Body for Macau, supra; the Observations, supra, at C.15.) It went on to recommend that Macau “should consider decriminalizing defamation and, in any case, it should countenance the application of the criminal law only in the most serious of [defamation] cases.” (The Observations, supra, at C.15.)

The Committee also had concerns about the need to educate judges in general about human rights and about Covenant rights’ guarantees (The Observations, supra, at C.5 & 14). It stated:

Macao, China should continue its efforts in raising awareness among judges, the legal profession and the general public of the rights set out in the Covenant and their applicability under local law. In its next periodic report, Macao, China should include detailed information on the application of the Covenant by its courts and the remedies provided for individuals claiming a violation of their rights enshrined in the Covenant. (The Observations, supra, at C.5.)

Other topics of concern covered in the Observations were:

  • the independence of the judiciary (C.6);
  • the need for an independent human rights institution (C.8);
  • the gender gap in wages (C.9);
  • the need to work to prevent domestic violence and adopt legislation on sexual harassment (C.10);
  • the desirability of an agreement between Macau and Beijing on the transfer of offenders from Macao to China (C.11);
  • the need for review of the policy on detention of juvenile suspects in nighttime solitary confinement (C.12);
  • the need to better combat human trafficking, adequately punish offenders, and provide support services to the victims (C.13);
  • the need for measures to assure freedom of assembly (C.16); and
  • protection of migrant workers (C.17).

Favorable Comments

Among positive developments noted in the Observations are the application of international human rights conventions and protocols in Macau and the adoption of Law No. 1/2004 establishing the Legal Framework on the Recognition and Loss of Refugee Status; Law No. 2/2007, on the juvenile justice system; and Law No. 6/2008, on the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons. (Observations, supra, at B.3 & 4).

Future Steps

The Committee requested responses on a number of the points and recommended consultation with civil society groups before the next human rights report is completed. (The Observations, supra, at C. 18-20.) The next periodic report by Macau is due March 30, 2018. (UN Urges Equal Suffrage, Human Rights Body for Macau, supra.)