2019 is the year Hong Kong’s Commission on Children must show its worth
- Hong Kong lags behind in protecting children from abuse and violence and so far the commission has been rather quiet
Although the Commission on Children, chaired by the chief secretary, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and with Law Chi-kong, the secretary for labour and welfare, as deputy, started work in June, little has been heard from it. This is hopefully because it is still finding its feet, but it will have no such excuses next year. Its in-tray is full, with child protection a priority.
It remains far too easy for paedophiles to gain access to children, and those who work with them must be fully vetted. Although the Security Bureau’s sexual conviction record check enables employers to see if people seeking child-related work have prior sexual convictions, the scheme is voluntary and requires the jobseeker’s consent. Whereas the scheme covers such people as teachers, social workers and doctors, it does not extend to private tutors or volunteers, which weakens already flimsy protections. The commission, therefore, must demand far more stringent checking procedures. In Britain, for example, sex offenders are closely monitored, employers can check the background of individuals and parents and guardians are alerted by police to potential dangers to their children.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for corporal punishment to be banned in all settings, and 53 countries have complied. France and Scotland are expected to be next. In Hong Kong, corporal punishment remains lawful in the home, where it is widely used, often in an arbitrary and uncontrolled way. Recent research shows that 63 per cent of children surveyed had been struck by their parents in the previous 12 months, with roughly half describing punishment tantamount to physical abuse. Of these, 14.5 per cent had been severely abused. This violates a child’s entitlement to adequate protection, and the commission must push for abolition in 2019.
In September 2006, the Law Reform Commission was tasked to consider if Hong Kong should, like the UK, have a law which makes it a specific offence for someone to cause a child’s death, in circumstances in which he or she should have known that the child was at risk of serious harm but did nothing. Since then, there have been several neglect-related child deaths, with at least one being drug-related, but those responsible have evaded justice, as the criminal law is deficient. However, 12 years on, the LRC has still not published its report, and the commission must now act.
Cheung should demand that the secretary for justice, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who chairs the LRC, produce the report within, say, three months. He must impress upon Cheng that this unprecedented delay is leaving children at real risk, and that offenders must be held to account.
Child abuse, moreover, is an escalating problem. The Social Welfare Department reported 882 cases in 2016, 947 in 2017, and 236 in the first quarter of 2018. However, although cases of physical harm are prosecutable, it is a different story when psychological abuse is involved. To overcome this, the UK has criminalised the sustained emotional abuse of a child, and Hong Kong must follow suit. Emotional abuse encompasses frightening or bullying a child, ignoring, isolating or scapegoating a child, or else denying a child the emotional support necessary for proper development.
The commission must insist that child cruelty legislation is strengthened. The offence provisions should stipulate that wilful cruelty likely to cause psychological harm or suffering to a child is a serious criminal act. Anyone who causes harm to a child, whether physical or psychological, must be prosecutable.
In 2019, the commission’s credibility will be on the line. With government officials at the helm and without statutory independence, some people fear it will become just another talking shop. Accordingly, Cheung’s challenge will be, through dynamism and vision, to prove the doubters wrong. If the commission can significantly advance children’s interests next year, it will have proved its worth.
Grenville Cross SC is the patron of Against Child Abuse