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Hong Kong’s children’s commission must be given clear mandate, foreign experts say

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has yet to spell out how her election pledge of establishing a long-awaited Commission on Children will be realised

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 8:01am

Hong Kong’s proposed children’s commission should have a statutory status with investigative powers, according to serving and former heads of similar watchdogs overseas.

The calls by Australian National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell and Reidar Hjermann, the ombudsman for children in Norway from 2004 to 2012, are part of the latest effort made by the children’s rights groups to lobby the government to set up a commission with clear legal mandate instead of merely another advisory committee.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who will deliver her maiden policy address next month, has yet to spell out how her election pledge of establishing the long-awaited Commission on Children will be realised.

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But lawmakers who have discussed the matter with Lam revealed that the proposed commission is likely to fall under the purview of the chief secretary’ office or the Labour and Welfare Bureau.

Mitchell and Hjermann, who are both in Hong Kong to attend a forum held by the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights, said it was crucial for the proposed commission to be independent from the government, and to enjoy the powers to investigate and obtain information.

“I think it is really important there is the investigative powers of the kind you need to really get to the heart of the issue,” Mitchell, who was appointed as Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner in 2013, told the Post.

Soon after Mitchell took up the post, the commission she led conducted an investigation into suicide and self-harm problems among children in a bid to explore the reasons behind them.

“We have made a number of recommendations to the government on what they can do in terms of strategic plans, data collection and research – and to a large extent they are happening,” she said. “The agenda has been moving forward and people now have a much better understanding and capacity to respond to suicides.”

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The Australian commission has also pushed its government to ratify an international treaty – the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) – that will bring all its detention sites under independent scrutiny, following an exposé that showed children staying in juvenile correctional centres were being abused.

Correctional service officers in Hong Kong were also accused of abusing juvenile inmates in August – though its unions have denied the claims.

Hjermann argued the government should not see the commission as a body that would only criticise its work, as it could in fact help the administration implement policies through advocacy.

He cited a campaign by the Norwegian ombudsman to convince dentists – who have a chance of meeting almost every child but never realised they have a role in detecting children at risk – to report cases whenever they spot suspected wounds such as cigarette burns or scratch marks on their patients.

The complaints received from dentists have soared from zero to thousands within short period of time, Hjermann recalled.

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He added it was very important for the commission to engage children, citing 10 Norwegian girls who were once invited to advise on how to better detect sexual abuse cases.

While pro-establishment lawmaker Leung Che-cheung said it would be good enough if the proposed commission is headed by the chief secretary, Labour Party legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said the body would hardly bring any changes if it has no clear legal mandate.