Human rights

Children’s rights are human rights, and Hong Kong needs to enforce them

Alice Wu says Hong Kong should establish and empower a children’s commission to show its commitment to upholding the rights of its youngest citizens, rather than treating them as an afterthought

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 7:14pm

Just last week, a 20-year-old man got 12 months’ probation for grabbing a 10-year-old’s buttocks. He was reportedly remorseful and vowed never to do it again. But what about the child?

Do we, as a society, provide adequate professional support for child victims and their families? We hope that they develop resilience, but hope without action is wishful thinking at best. Policymakers have been “hoping” ethnic minority students assimilate and learn Chinese so that what is imposed on them is no longer considered a barrier. We can’t wish away problems and deprive them of the education, opportunities and life they have every right to.

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In Hong Kong, we have a sexual conviction record check, put into force barely five years ago, to protect children and the mentally incapacitated. Government figures say the system has been put to good use by employers, and is effective in deterring sex offenders from taking up child-related work. But the fact remains: Hong Kong waited until the end of 2011 to put the system in place.

On United Nations’ Universal Children’s Day, we must confront some difficult questions. On protecting children and their rights to life, health, education, play, family life, protection from violence and discrimination, and to have their views heard, is “something” enough?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN General Assembly 28 years ago today, came into force in Hong Kong in 1994. But we’ve been dragging our feet on undertaking the appropriate legislation, administration and other measures to implement child rights. Hong Kong still has no children’s commission.

Carrie Lam’s pledge to protect child rights is welcome, but will the commission get teeth?

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pledged to finally set up a commission, but would it just be “better than nothing” and “better late than never”?

The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child hasn’t minced words in criticising Hong Kong. In 2013, our allocation of resources to education and social welfare were deemed inadequate and ineffective in targeting most vulnerable groups like ethnic or linguistic minorities, children in poverty and those with disabilities. The UN also found a lack of procedures to identify and support child victims of sexual exploration and trafficking, among other things.

Local children’s rights advocates say a children’s commission needs to be a statutory body to be effective. Looking at the government’s track record, there is little reason to disagree.

Spike in child abuse cases in Hong Kong coincides with exam time, research shows

Take the government’s Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides, for example. One would expect the city’s exam-oriented education system and academic pressure, raised by one member, to be taken into consideration in its final report, released in November 2016. But no, it didn’t find sufficient correlation, citing the complexity of many factors that lead to suicide.

In August 2016, research showed a spike in child abuse cases coinciding with school exam season, but the Education Bureau sees no conclusive evidence behind the pattern of child maltreatment, and reached for the bag of “many factors” excuses again.

We have to question whether we overestimate children’s ability to cope with adversity in an environment we create so we can continue to underestimate our duty to do better. We must see children, as the convention states, “as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity”. Their needs are not policy afterthoughts. We are complicit in the systematic denial of their human rights if we don’t demand a children’s commission with statutory independence, powers and functions.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA