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28 May 2020

Senior Debevoise partner and former justice secretary to co-chair Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre

Appointments reflect need to underline independence amid mounting concern over Hong Kong's future

By Ben Rigby

Two Exchange Square, Hong Kong

Two Exchange Square in Central district, home to the HKIAC Daniel Fung; Shutterstock

Former Hong Kong justice secretary Rimsky Yuen SC and Debevoise & Plimpton’s co-chair of international disputes, David Rivkin, a past president of the International Bar Association, have been appointed as co-chairs of Hong Kong’s International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC). 

The pair will succeed Matthew Gearing QC, co-chair of Allen & Overy’s international arbitration group, who had previously announced his intention to stand down at the end of his term of office, having replaced current Hong Kong justice secretary Teresa Cheng SC as the sole chair in 2017.

In splitting the role, HKIAC is sending a clear signal to both local and international audiences about its future direction of travel.

For local audiences, Yuen’s appointment promises to bring security and assurance, while the HKIAC will be hoping the appointment of a US lawyer of Rivkin's standing will play well with an international community unnerved by the ongoing uncertainty over Hong Kong's future.

There were also promotions for Shearman & Sterling partner Nils Eliasson and consultant Briana Young, of Herbert Smith Freehills, as vice-chairs, joining incumbent Joseph Wan, former CEO of Harvey Nichols.  

Sarah Grimmer, HKIAC secretary-general, said HKIAC had long benefitted from quality leadership. 

“Matt has been an outstanding chair and an absolute pleasure to work with,” she said. “We now look ahead to the next exciting chapter for HKIAC under the direction of David and Rimsky, two very impressive leaders.”

 A barrister at Temple Chambers, Yuen was justice secretary from 2012 to 2018, a period in which he quietly steered reforms to the Special Administrative Region’s arbitration laws, made IP rights arbitrable and permitted third-party funding – all of which reforms were steered through the region’s sometimes tempestuous Legislative Council on a bipartisan basis.

While an establishment figure, Yuen has also spoken out previously on the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence; and has defended Hong Kong’s system of ‘one country, two systems’ in public at home and abroad, from a business perspective.

That last facet will be important as Hong Kong awaits potential national security reforms imposed from China, which has led to concerns by the Hong Kong Bar Association, and countries such as the United States and former colonial power, the United Kingdom.

Yuen said he would “endeavour to consolidate the strength of HKIAC, and to enhance its role in the Belt and Road Initiative and in the ASEAN community”, as well as working with other arbitral institutions and HKIAC’s corporate clients.

Rivkin’s appointment is somewhat of a coup. The co-chair of Debevoise & Plimpton’s international disputes group, he is expert in both public and private international law, a resolute defender of both investor-state and commercial arbitration, and brings 30 years of experience working for US, international, big business and state clients to the table.

He was an accomplished president of the International Bar Association, from 2015-2016, which saw him lead initiatives on climate change justice, and rule of law issues, including upholding judicial integrity.  

That hinterland, as well as his active practice, brings HKIAC clout; his standing is equivalent to his rival, Gary Born, of Wilmer Hale, president of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre's court of arbitration, which recently announced bumper hearing figures.

Rivkin said: “HKIAC has long been one of the world’s leading arbitration institutions, and today Asia is the world’s most dynamic region in the growth of international trade and international arbitration.” 

The moves gives reassurance at a time when investors, and the arbitration community, will be looking somewhat nervously at Hong Kong, given civil unrest, the China national security reforms and moves by the authorities against respected pro-democracy campaigners, such as Martin Lee SC and Margaret Ng, who were honoured by the IBA last year. 

Rivkin’s presence will also bolster HKIAC’s independent standing with US law firms against a backdrop of moves by the US government to declare that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China. Orrick signalled its decision to close its office in March, while other firms have reduced headcounts.

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