Protecting child rights in Hong Kong will take more than an official commission
Grenville Cross says the effectiveness of Hong Kong’s new Commission on Children rests on its non-official members, especially the younger ones, making their voices heard
It was a nice touch when the government chose International Children’s Day for the start of its new Commission on Children. Chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had promised, while still a candidate, to create a commission and this was an important step for local children. A commission which protects and advances the interests of children, and gives them a voice, can, if suitably equipped, be a powerful agent for change.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has applied to Hong Kong since 1994, yet many of the rights have yet to be fully realised. In 2005, this led the UN’s monitoring committee to say it was concerned at the lack of a comprehensive plan of action for the convention’s implementation in Hong Kong, and to conclude that existing child programmes were fragmented and unsatisfactory.
It called, moreover, for the creation of “an independent mechanism specifically to monitor the implementation of government policy in relation to the rights of the child”.
Convention signatories are required to uphold child rights, which include the right to life, survival and development, to having views considered, to protection from abuse, neglect and exploitation, and to a standard of living adequate for the child’s proper development. The government said this month its vision is to ensure “Hong Kong is a place where the rights, interests and well-being of all children are respected and safeguarded and their voices are heard”, and its new commission must be given every chance to prove its worth. We should, however, not hold our breath.
Chaired by Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, with Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong as his deputy, the commission lacks the independence which is invariably so crucial. This has been demonstrated in, for example, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, where children’s commissions enjoy real power and can, where necessary, hold governments to account. Although some eminent child advocates have been appointed to the commission as non-official members, their hands may well be tied.
Without a legal mandate of its own, and controlled by officials, there are real concerns that the commission will be little more than a talking shop, and the precedents are not reassuring.
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In 2001, for example, the Women’s Commission was established amid great fanfare. It was tasked with advising on how the UN’s international treaty on discrimination against women could be implemented, and there were high hopes that it would end institutional prejudice against women in the workplace and elsewhere. Those hopes, however, did not materialise, leading the former chief secretary, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, to comment that the people running the commission had been reduced to little more than attending drinks parties and receptions.
The Commission on Youth, moreover, established 28 years ago and closely tied to government, was closed down in March, amid claims it lacked real clout and was unable to influence events. Although it has now been replaced by the Youth Development Commission, described as a more dynamic body, this again is chaired by the chief secretary. According to Naomi Ho Sze-wai, a founder of Youth Policy Advocators, the commission is unrepresentative, with only one of its 34 non-official members aged below 24, and “some 70 per cent of its members are pro-establishment or government friendly”. Little chance, therefore, of this commission rocking the boat.
The government has announced an ambitious agenda for its new children’s commission, and the non-official members must seek to hold it to account. They should, for example, ensure that child policies are properly formulated within a reasonable time, and then encourage their implementation. Child rights must also be honoured, and there should be engagement with children themselves. If progress is not achieved, they must vigorously make the case for turning the commission into an independent, statutory body, equipped with effective powers of its own, like the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Consumer Council.
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The non-official members must, moreover, not allow themselves to become window dressing, and they should be prepared to quit if, despite their best efforts, nothing meaningful is being achieved.
For too long, a minimalist approach to child interests has prevailed in government, but this is no longer tolerable. As it sets about its vital work, the new commission deserves our full support. But if it cannot show tangible results in the coming years, it will need to make way for a body that can. After all, as the Child Rights Information Network has said, children are entitled to their rights “not because they are the adults of tomorrow, but because they are human beings today”.
Grenville Cross SC is honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute