Someone to watch over me

Tim Hamlett

THERE is usually a sympathetic ear chez Hamlett for the outpourings of the local human rights industry, but there seems to be a serious misunderstanding behind the latest suggestion that the Government should set up a Human Rights Commission, headed by a commissioner of its choice.

The whole point of human rights is to protect the individual from the overbearing, over-mighty or just plain violent organisations which may seek to subordinate his interests to their aims.

In modern societies the prime example of such an organisation is the government, which has the force, the money and the manpower - not to mention, in many cases the pretext of the public interest - to treat the rest of us as pawns.

We cannot, of course, do anything so crude as simply to put the government down as Public Enemy Number One. The idea of rights requires the idea of law, and law requires government. The government must be the great protector of rights, even if it is at the same time their greatest violator.

But with great power comes great temptation. Government is unlikely to be the only infringer of human rights. It is almost certain to be the most important one. And cases involving government actions are likely to be the most difficult.

We can all see that it would be outrageous for Wong's Widgets to infringe human rights in pursuit of greater wealth for Mr Wong. The government is likely to have a more plausible objective.

Let us return to the case we were considering last week. Readers of Kevin Sinclair's column on Monday will have noticed sundry teenage girls floating about in it and may well have inferred, correctly, that we were talking about the same series of cases. Mr Sinclair's pimps were exploiting my teenage prostitutes, as it were.

This allows us to add a bit more detail to the overall picture, which goes like this: a police raid nets a pimp and the girl he has enslaved. She goes to Victoria Prison; he goes to Lai Chi Kok. In due course she spends a year waiting for the trial, he gets 18 months, and if he behaves himself they both serve approximately the same time.

This increasing arrangement is defended by the Legal Department as ''justice'' and by Ken Woodhouse, the Oliver Twist of tear gas, as ''in the public interest''.

Do you really want a branch of this delectable organisation to be put in charge of defining and defending your human rights? I appreciate the advantages of having an official commissioner, in terms of access to files and credibility with senior administrators. For societies and governments where human rights are well established these advantages may be worth the inconvenience of having the watchdogs on the same payroll as the watchees.

Hong Kong is not such a society and it does not have such a government.

Clearly this makes the need for a Human Rights Commission all the more urgent, but it implies that such an organisation should not be something which can be mistaken in a poor light for a government department.

On the contrary, it needs to be independent if only because the day will come when any Human Rights Commission which aspires to a shred of credibility has to take the Government sternly to task.

No doubt it will be helpful if, in the meantime, the Government can bring itself to designate some appropriate senior individual to help those of his colleagues - of whom there appears to be no shortage - who would not recognise a human right if they found it floating in their snake soup.

BUT this person should not be dignified with the title of commissioner and the body he heads should not be called a commission. Such titles will give the misleading impression that this person, or the people who work for him, are entitled and qualified to tell us all what human rights we should have and how they should be observed.

The first of these is a matter of settled international consensus, the second a matter on which a senior post in the administration gives an unhelpful perspective.

I am afraid the hard fact is that human rights enthusiasts - of whom I am one - cannot rely on government to do the job for us. These are some things which belong in the private sector, and this is one of them.

If we get a private human rights body with clout - with permanent staff, offices, publications, legal service - then there will be nothing wrong with such a body accepting well-intentioned help from the Government or anyone else.

Human rights are not a gift of governments. They are the property of us as individuals. The arrangements for their definition and defence should reflect this.