Carrie Lam’s pledge to protect child rights is welcome, but will the commission get teeth?
Grenville Cross says to truly advance child rights and interests, a children’s commission must be independent and able to hold the government to account for policy failures, not just be a display item
During her campaign for election as chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had pledged to “establish a children’s commission, giving priority to children’s welfare when formulating relevant policies”.
Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has applied to Hong Kong since 1994, there is no dedicated enforcement mechanism. In 2007 and again in 2013, the Legislative Council voted unanimously to urge the government to set up a children’s commission. But successive governments did nothing. The UN monitoring committee itself has said independent institutions are necessary to protect child rights.
To succeed, a children’s commission should have real substance. In England and Wales, the commission is responsible not only for promoting an awareness of the views and interests of children, but, since 2014, also for advancing children’s rights, including youth justice. A commission must be able to hold the government to account when its policies fall short, which requires genuine independence.
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When Lam was pressed to describe her proposed children’s commission, her office replied she would “ask the relevant bureau to study the setting up of this commission and consult the views of relevant child concern groups”. Whereas the child groups will undoubtedly call for a truly independent organisation, the bureaucracy itself, long fearful of a vibrant new campaigning body, may – on past form – be expected to adopt a minimalist approach.
The Commission on Youth, with its civil service backup and close links to the Home Affairs Bureau, is a talking shop with little real clout. It would be disastrous if the children’s commission was to be simply a display item, a sop to Hong Kong’s international obligations, but lacking any real ability to influence events.
The commission must, therefore, be an independent statutory body, created by enabling legislation, like the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Consumer Council. Supported by its own staff and budget, it must be empowered to promote child rights legislation and welfare, and have authority to monitor policy and assess proposed laws affecting the child, with a broad mandate to champion child interests, including the investigation of complaints and collection of data.
Although Lam’s support of a children’s commission is laudable, the body created must be fit for purpose and capable of achieving international standards. As she prepares her policy address, Lam must remember that, although children enjoy inalienable rights under the UN convention, only a commission with teeth can ensure that these are actually delivered.
Grenville Cross SC, honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute, is a criminal justice analyst