• 【逃犯條例】歐盟對逃犯條例的嚴正立場|戴啟思
  • 2019-06-05    


A ‘Démarche’-the Chief Executive’s Meeting with E.U. Representatives.

When the Chief Executive met eleven European Union representatives the other week to hear them express their concerns about the proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance the press reports made the point that it was not just a meeting but a meeting to carry out a ‘démarche’. The English language press report did not elaborate on the meaning of the word ‘démarche’, which is a pity.

What, you might ask, is a ‘démarche’? You might guess that the word is French and go to look up its meaning in a French dictionary. You will find that the word is derived from ‘marcher’, meaning, as you might guess, ‘to walk’ and that ‘démarche’ can be used to describe an approach to an object or a person. If you dig deeper into the dictionary entry you will find that the word can be used to describe a joint representation to obtain something-‘démarche commune pour obtenir quelque chose’.

That sounds like what happened here. The EU representatives wanted to meet with the Chief Executive to bend her ear about the proposed changes to the law which they thought not justified and perhaps extract from her a commitment that she would think again about changing the law. However, this description still misses out on the significance of the word ‘démarche’.

In order to get the full flavour of the word ‘démarche’ it is necessary to enter the world of the language of diplomacy and appreciate the fact that, until about 1925, French was the principal means of communication between states.

English has since taken over as the medium for most diplomatic exchanges, but French has left its stamp on the forms of routine and even more formal diplomatic exchanges. It was one of the two first working languages in the United Nations, English being the other one, and it remains as a working language in that organization.

France was the world power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The special status of French dates back to when delegates of the many foreign powers involved in fighting over what is present day Germany met in 1648 to end the Thirty-Year War in the Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück. They started talking and realised that they had a problem.

They discovered that although Latin had served kings and princes well as the principal means of communication between countries for hundreds of years, it was one thing to write in Latin and be understood. It was, however, a different thing to speak the language well enough to be understood by other delegates. The representative of the Pope could be expected to speak excellent Latin but that could not be expected of delegates from Lutheran states, who had long discontinued the use of spoken Latin in Church services in favour of the vernacular. Even if you were an educated man on a diplomatic mission (no women-this was the seventeenth century) who took pride in spoken Latin, the kind of Latin spoken by a representative from Spain would be very different from the Latin spoken by a delegate from, say, Sweden.

After this, the solution was to abandon Latin and adopt French for both written and spoken diplomatic exchanges. As a communication in French between states still had to be translated to persons outside the diplomatic elite it was natural for diplomats to agree upon fixed meanings for commonly used words and phrases so that there would be no room for misunderstanding. So it is that the word ‘détente’, meaning simply ‘relaxation’, was used by diplomats to describe an easing in a state of strained or difficult relations between countries. That special meaning is now generally understood.

(By the by, the importance of getting it right when translating international documents is, I hope, self-evident. When countries did not use French as the agreed language, disaster could strike. The Treaty of Wuchale 1889 between Ethiopia and Italy was concluded in Amharic, the working language of Ethiopia, and Italian. One clause concerned the part Italy would play in supervising the conduct of Ethiopia’s foreign affairs. The Italian version of the clause in the treaty required Ethiopia to submit to Italian management of foreign affairs; the Amharic clause was permissive only and suggested that it was up to Ethiopia to decide if it wanted Italian help in this area. A war ensued in 1894 which left about twenty thousand dead.)

There was similar precision in describing diplomatic posts and functions because of the ramifications for protocol. There is no real difference between the functions of an ambassador and a chargé d’affaires. The latter will fill in for an ambassador in their absence. However, a country that chooses to be represented in another country only by a chargé d’affaires may be making a point about its relations with that other country. For example, when the UK recognized the P.R.C. in 1950 it did not send an ambassador to Peking immediately but let British interests be looked after by a chargé d’affaires. It took until 1972 for the British and Chinese Governments to agree on ambassadorial representation when certain issues about the status of Taiwan were resolved.

After this diversion, I go back to the word ‘démarche’. In diplomat-speak it does not connote a casual get-together or informal meeting where views can be exchanged. The author of a book on Diplomatic Practice published in 1917, and still in us today, said that a ‘démarche’ can cover all kinds of representation-“an offer, a suggestion, an advance, a demand, an attempt, a proposal, a protestation, a remonstrance, a request, an overture, a warning, a threat, a step, a measure”-it all depends on the context. However, the point is that the ‘démarche’ is formal and serious.

The context of the meeting last week was fairly clear. For about at least a month now, the Chief Executive has been the subject of formal entreaties to think again on the wisdom of proceeding to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance without any proper consultation. Those entreaties have come from concerned groups and individuals at home as well as from overseas, the most recent being the joint appeal of the British Foreign Secretary and Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs about the potential effect of the new law on the large number of UK and Canadian citizens in Hong Kong and on business confidence.

When it is appreciated that the meeting with the E.U. officials had this formal character and is a recognized way of countries showing deep their concern about a matter of great importance to them, it becomes much more difficult to brush it off it as “meddling” or “interference”.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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