Beyond the hatred

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2010, 12:00am

The true quality of any society is judged not by how it looks after its brightest and best people but how it treats those with the greatest disadvantages and, even more so, how it responds to small minorities who are most despised. It is hard to think of a category of more despised people than former sex offenders. There is every reason for them to be despised because their offences are extremely serious and, when they involve acts against minors, there is an understandable feeling of revulsion.

Yet to assume that, after long prison sentences, offenders are incapable of rehabilitation is to take a lamentably dismal approach to the human condition. Furthermore, even those who have committed grave offences remain members of society and, yes, they are entitled to the rights of other citizens.

These issues lay at the heart of the recently published Law Reform Commission's report on establishing a sex offenders' register. The commission had the extremely delicate task of finding a balance between protecting the public from people likely to commit sex offences, while upholding the rule of law in as much as it ensures personal privacy.

The result was a sensible compromise that, admittedly, turns the basic principles of common law on its head. The commission recommends that those applying for jobs related to children and the mentally disabled can be required to prove that they have no sex-related convictions; this involves the job applicant obtaining a police-issued clearance. Under other circumstances the presumption of innocence until guilt has been proven is the hallmark of the legal system.

However, there are understandable concerns in the community surrounding this sensitive area of employment and they cannot be ignored. Job applicants would have the right not to take part in the checking system and this would leave employers to draw their own conclusions.

Some of the more vociferous advocates of lifetime punishment for sex offenders are disappointed that the commission did not endorse the idea of an open-access register of sex offenders. This was mainly ruled out on the grounds that it could hamper rehabilitation efforts but it also reflects unease over creating a means of instituting witch hunts, something a civilised society simply cannot tolerate.

Those who believe that there can be no real rehabilitation of sex offenders, or other offenders, are really saying that prisons should be confined to the role of indefinite incarceration where there is no hope that those who emerge can resume their lives as responsible citizens.

Defending the commission's recommendations does not amount to granting a free pass for former sex offenders. But those who see it in this way have surely missed the bigger picture in a rather spectacular fashion. What really matters is defending society's interests as a whole, where the rule of law is supreme and everyone is equal under the law. This is not an easy call because a high price is to be paid for adhering to these principles, including the granting of equal rights to despised people. But the alternative is much more damaging to a society that values the rule of law and freedom.

In many ways Hong Kong is an intolerant society which is known for lamentable treatment of people of different skin colour, beliefs and sexual orientation. Yet there is a strong vein of compassion that pulsates through this society which manifests itself in the generosity shown to those in trouble, acts of kindness often not seen in other industrialised societies.

Although the government chooses to ignore it, there is growing mass concern over social and political issues that signifies a concern for the community as a whole, as opposed to the single-minded pursuit of individual interests. It would be nice to think that Hong Kong's generous and humanitarian instincts could triumph over intolerance.

It is very rare these days to see a government-appointed committee come up with sensible proposals, reflecting a maturity of thought and a degree of common sense. Yet this has emerged from the Law Reform Commission. It seems to be almost tempting fate to point this out, lest it should attract the malicious attention of one of the grand people who work in Lower Albert Road.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur