Lese-majeste crimes are a historical relic

1 04 2017

A few days ago, the South China Morning Post had this in its headline. It went on to talk about Hong Kong under the full headline, “Lèse-majesté crimes are a historical relic incompatible with Hong Kong law.” The op-ed was by Dr Bryane Michael, a senior fellow with the University of Hong Kong’s Asian Institute for International Financial Law.

He observes:

Lèse-majesté – or offending the dignity of the sovereign and its servants – dates back to the Roman Empire. Its criminalisation was and is – by its very nature – a legal decision. Lèse-majesté laws remain atavistic relics mainly in former kingdoms like France and current ones like Thailand and Brunei. Even in our own historical tradition, that’s why we used to refer to crimes as “the Queen vs Joe Bloggs”.

He’s worried about efforts to engineer new laws protecting Hong Kong police from abuse, with the engineering having a Mainland steam to it.

He argues that “Hong Kong’s politicians cannot criminalise insulting law enforcement officers because these insults do not fundamentally represent crimes in our legal system. You can’t criminalise something that, by its very nature, is not a crime.” He explains why:

… compare … lèse-majesté laws with laws against dogs fouling public walkways. We regulate fouling with the Fixed Penalty (Public Cleanliness Offences) Ordinance (Chap 570) and Public Cleansing and Preventing of Nuisances Regulation (Chap 132).

Our laws rightly define spreading dog mess as a nuisance….

Legal theory tells us that crimes involve harm to society and/or upset to the social order. Where is the harm in talking trash? What can I say about the police which would prevent you from enjoying your own freedoms?

Such calls for criminalisation represent a misunderstanding about what a crime actually is
When I must wade through dog urine which accumulates in the trough of the pedestrian walkways on Connaught Road West toward Sun Yat Sen Park, I am harmed. When I insult your dog, does it really curtail your love for Fido?

He draws on Thailand’s experience:

Lèse-majesté laws have historically often encouraged government abuse. Just last month, a UN adviser declared Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws contrary to international human rights law. They don’t make sense in the modern era.

If we need to criminalise something, let’s criminalise the real affront to respect in our modern society. Yes! Lets punish those dogs!

It seems Thailand is not a modern society.


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