Law needed to send signal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2001, 12:00am

The report on Hong Kong by the United Nations' Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is, on the whole, a balanced document. While in some places the report is a little short on detail and long on blithe suggestions to solve some highly complex problems, it does, nevertheless, offer the Government an extensive list of issues to consider. All the matters the report stresses are undoubtedly worthy and ones that need to be debated and tackled.

In a statement, the SAR Government wisely welcomes the report, highlights its positive points and describes many of its criticisms euphemistically as 'encouragement' for government initiatives already under way. No government anywhere could be expected to do otherwise. And, to be fair, the report does stress many positive points, not least the Government's efforts to provide adequate housing for residents.

However, two negative issues stand out. First, the report draws attention to 'some judgments of the High Court' that have expressed the opinion that the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is 'promotional' or 'aspirational'. The reality is otherwise: signatories have a legal obligation to uphold the covenant. The seriousness of the second notable point arises from that obligation.

The report unequivocally states that the lack of a race discrimination law in the SAR is a breach of the covenant. It therefore follows if the SAR is to remain a signatory in any meaningful way it must now enact the kind of anti-race discrimination that applies in all civilised countries.

Such a law, of course, will not bring to an end racial prejudice or discrimination - that can only be achieved by a cultural shift; but such laws lessen the number of instances of race discrimination. Perhaps more importantly, they send a clear signal from Government to schools, to workplaces, entertainment venues and to society generally that discrimination is unacceptable.

There are, of course, people who argue that racial discrimination in Hong Kong is so rare that legislation is not an issue. News reports in this newspaper could be collated into a body of evidence that would effectively dispute this view. And yet, even if instances are rare, such legislation is a badge - a signal to other jurisdictions - that a society adheres to certain core values.

While poverty and labour rights are highlighted as areas for the SAR's serious consideration - with myriad other issues - an anti-race discrimination law would be relatively easy to enact; and it would be a fine way of responding to the highest principles and the spirit of the covenant.