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Basic Law Sets Out Obligation To Public Health

Jul 04, 2008 – SCMP

Christine Loh Kung-wai is right to say that Hong Kong’s 20-year-old air quality objectives do not adequately protect public health (“Smoke screen”, June 26), but she is wrong about one thing. The problem is not that Hong Kong’s environmental laws do not mention public health.

Article 39 of the Basic Law requires the government to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights through Hong Kong law. Article 12 of the covenant imposes a duty on governments to take steps to secure the highest attainable standards of public health for everyone, including progressively improving all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene.

By undertaking to tighten its air quality objectives to ensure proper protection of public health in line with the principles recommended by the World Health Organisation, our government is belatedly doing what the Basic Law requires.

The Basic Law does not tell the government what standards to adopt, but the fact that the duty to adopt health-based environmental standards is contained in a UN covenant has important implications. Because Beijing has ratified the covenant, it provides a common legal framework for Hong Kong and Guangdong to set appropriate air quality standards for the affluent Pearl River Delta region.

It also means that the international community is entitled to compare the government’s air quality objectives to international standards and decide whether Hong Kong deserves the title of Asia’s World City.

David Renton, Repulse Bay

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