Model United Nations Conference 2015 Opening Ceremony
Organised by St. Paul's Co-Educational College
Keynote Speech by Dr York Y.N. CHOW, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission
Thank you for inviting me here, and a warm welcome to Hong Kong to those of you who have joined us from around the world.
I want to congratulate St. Paul’s Co-Educational College on its centenary celebrations. In kicking off this momentous occasion with this conference, the College is certainly highlighting its commitment to nurturing young people into motivated, confident, and internationally-minded citizens of the world.
Role of the EOC
For those of you who are not familiar with the Equal Opportunities Commission, we are the statutory body tasked to implement the anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong. We handle complaints of discrimination on the grounds of sex, pregnancy, marital status, disability, family status, and race. We also regularly speak out on issues related to human rights, particularly the right to equality, which may be outside the grounds currently covered by the discrimination law. So the key issues of discussion for this conference – the empowerment of women and children’s rights – are very relevant to our work.
International Treaties and UN Human Rights Council
I would argue that the right to equality and non-discrimination is one of the main pillars for all other rights. Certainly, these rights are laid out and protected by a number of international conventions and legal instruments, including, for instance, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
At the international level, the United Nations Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body of 47 elected Member States, is responsible for overseeing the human rights situation in the UN Member States and promoting human rights around the world. The Council replaced, in essence, the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006. Interestingly, while the Human Rights Commission was a subsidiary organ of the UN Economic and Social Council, the Human Rights Council is an organ of the UN General Assembly. Indeed, the change was intended to symbolise the importance of human rights as one of the three essential pillars of the UN’s overall work, in addition to development and peace and security. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as you know, acts as the secretariat for the Council.
In their role, the Council oversees the situation of human rights around the world through several different mechanisms. First, it conducts universal periodic reviews on how the 192 UN Member States are meeting their various human rights obligations, separately from the various UN human rights treaty bodies. Stakeholders, including NGOs, may participate in parts of this process, including making submissions. In addition, individuals and organisations can make direct complaints of human rights violations to the Council. The Council can also convene different platforms for discussing and taking action on human rights issues, including appointing special mandate holders to report on a specific situation, setting up working groups, or utilising the different forums and expert mechanisms to provide assistance to improve human rights.
Hong Kong – International Obligations and The Bill of Rights
Here in Hong Kong, a total of 15 United Nations human rights treaties apply to Hong Kong, and in practice, the Hong Kong Government reports on and monitors the progress of the implementation of these treaties here. In addition to our international obligations, the rights of women and children are also protected under multiple pieces of local legislation. For instance, Hong Kong has the Bill of Rights Ordinance – the local enactment of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which binds the Government to safeguard a wide range of human rights, such as liberty of movement, freedom of religion, opinion and expression. The Ordinance also provides some recourse for those facing injustice or discriminatory laws and policies to address their grievance.
The Bill of Rights is binding only on the Government. So, in addition, Hong Kong also has a set of four discrimination laws, which provides wider protection from discrimination on the grounds I previously mentioned. The Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission is also a unique entity in Asia, with powers to promote equality through education and issuance of guidance, consider complaints of discrimination, and to enforce the anti-discrimination laws where appropriate. We do this locally, but we also monitor international trends and developments in these areas with a view to ensuring that Hong Kong is meeting international standards of rights protection. Although we are not a human rights agency, we hold great concern and advocate for equal rights for all.
Situation of Hong Kong: Women and Children’s Rights
So how are we doing in Hong Kong in terms of advancing the rights of women and children? It may be worth taking a moment to consider the Hong Kong situation more closely. After all, Hong Kong holds a unique position in the region, given our history and geographic location. This sets Hong Kong apart in Asia. We have long been a place where East meets West, where diverse values and traditions co-exist and thrive. What happens in Hong Kong has implications far beyond our size. People see us as a unique city, a part of Mainland China and yet distinct in our historical development, culture, and identity. We are also an international centre for commerce and business, so we have long influenced, and been influenced by, the outside world.
And we have always been able to take pride in the fact that we are a leader in the region with regards to our protection of various rights. Certainly, by comparison with other Asian jurisdictions, Hong Kong has a strong track record in supporting minorities, such as rehabilitation services for people with disabilities. We are one of the few places in the region with specific anti-discrimination legal framework.
Certainly, when we look at the overall situation relating to the rights of women and children, it would appear that we have come a long way. By most measures, women are doing far better than they were 50 years ago. They are in schools in far greater numbers, even exceeding boys as university graduates. They have far wider career choices, and are no longer restricted to certain industries or roles like in the past. Hong Kong now has statutory paternity leave, which, though still limited, is helping to shift some of the old mindset about child care responsibilities and slowly moving the burden away from being only women’s. Women have the right to equally participate in public activities of all kinds, and the Government has recently announced in the 2015 Policy Address that it will widen the use of the Gender Mainstreaming Checklist in all government bureaux and departments.
Similarly, when one looks at children’s rights in Hong Kong, you can point to a number of key improvements. This city has a highly competitive educational system, which all children have the right to access. The Government has put in place a series of measures to widen this access, and also to provide child development support services. There are a number of public platforms and forums aimed at enabling stakeholders to share their views on the issue of children’s rights.
In other words, by many aggregate measures, the rights of women and children are adequately protected in Hong Kong.
Yet, upon closer examination, it is clear that there are many groups of women and children who continue to face inequality, including those due to their gender and other characteristics. The female labour force participation rate in Hong Kong is around 54% - lower than many other developed economies such as the UK at 71%. Women continue to be paid less than men on average across different jobs and educational qualifications, and they are consistently underrepresented in senior leadership positions, making up only 31% of managers and administrators in 2013. For example, in 2013 according to government statistics, the median monthly employment earnings of women with post-secondary degrees was HK$22,000, versus HK$30,000 for men. That means women make approximately only 73% of what men with similar jobs and qualifications make.
On the contrary, women are overrepresented in the low-paying, elementary occupations, which explains why there are many more women living in poverty than men. Women make up two-thirds of all workers in elementary occupations, and yet earn 83 cents for every dollar earned by a male worker in similar roles. Additionally, almost two-thirds (63%) of single parent recipients of CSSA are female. They continue to be more vulnerable to violence, including sexual harassment and domestic violence. The EOC has conducted surveys over the last few years to look at the situation of sexual harassment in multiple industries, and we have found that sexual harassment remains common and disproportionately affects women, who make up over 90% of sexual harassment complainants as received by the EOC.
On the education front, although they have outpaced men as university graduates, women are still underrepresented in a number of fields of studies, such as science, technology, and engineering, which has serious impact on these industries’ ability to change their current corporate culture as well as to consider multiple perspectives in decision making.
Let’s look at the plight of our children. Many children live in poverty, especially those new arrivals from the Mainland. A previous study in 2012 showed that one in four children in Hong Kong live in poverty. The situation is particularly worse for Mainland families, with poverty afflicting more than one-third of children in Mainland families that move to Hong Kong. These children are less likely to be able to access equal education opportunities, which is a necessary tool for them to take themselves out of intergenerational poverty.
In fact, for many children in Hong Kong, their various rights are not being met, including the right to the development of their full physical and mental potential and the right to protection from influences that are harmful to their development. In other words, all children have the right to learn and the right to be safe from abuse. But in many schools and families, those needs are still not sufficiently catered for children in disadvantaged positions, including those who may come from lower-income families, those who have special needs, and those who are of ethnic minority backgrounds.
Minority Children Struggle for Equal Access to Education
In fact, let’s look at education more closely. After all, education is undeniably recognised as a basic right of every child. Education is also a tool to facilitate the protection of other rights. For instance, education is a tool by which vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, both adults and children, can lift themselves out of poverty.
If enabling equal access to education has long-term benefits, then conversely, inequality in education will have long-term, multi-generational negative impact. As we gather here in this fine institute for learning, it may be easy to think that educational inequality is not a problem in our city. Yet inequality can take many forms, and it is important to look beyond the surface. Here, many groups are still struggling for those same chances for learning. And many of those chances continue to depend on the financial resources of one’s family.
This means that if you come from a low-income household, you have far fewer opportunities to access equal learning. You may not have, for instance, the resources to pay for tutorial school or fees for participating in extra-curricular activities – a constant in the educational life of a Hong Kong student.
The hurdles become even more daunting if you are an ethnic minority or a child with special educational needs. Many children from ethnic minority communities, especially those from low-income backgrounds, face significant barriers to learning Chinese, which has long-term, negative impact on their ability to access higher education and, subsequently, on their future career prospects. This leaves them with limited social mobility.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong is lagging behind on inclusive education, particularly when compared to most advanced economies. Many students with special educational needs are not getting the support they require and deserve. This situation remains, despite the fact that the benefits of inclusive education are well-documented. In Hong Kong, there remains a manpower shortage in the availability of educational psychologists, occupational and speech therapists, and counselling professionals to support the progress of students with special learning needs in mainstream schools.
This barrier is even more severe for non-Chinese speaking students with special educational needs. Existing support measures for students with special needs are mostly in Cantonese, or geared towards helping non-Chinese speakers to learn Chinese. This creates a gap in support services for this group, who continues to be doubly disadvantaged.
Inclusive education, and a learning environment that allows students of different backgrounds and abilities to learn together, benefits everyone. We have found that when children with and without disability learn together, it is not only children with disability who benefit. Children without disability also gain from this school environment, both academically through the acquisition of new skills and perspectives, as well as personally and socially as they learn to work with people who are different from them and enhance their empathy.
Unfriendly School Environment Still Persists
In my own life, I have found this ability to empathise with those who may be facing difficulties due to their difference to be vital. Being strong academically would mean little if you do not treat others with respect, offer a hand to those in need, and stand up for others who may be in a precarious position.
Even now, far too many students still consistently face unfriendly school environments, including bullying, which negatively affects their ability to learn. An EOC study of almost 6,000 students of secondary schools and tertiary institutions in 2011 found that half of them had experienced various forms of sexual harassment. Among these victims, 58% of them had not reported the harassment or sought help.
Many ethnic minority children who attend mainstream, Chinese-medium schools also face bullying and indifference due to cultural and language barriers. In an EOC study done in 2013, around 30% of students with SEN said that they were bullied by their peers. Recently, the Hong Kong Institute for Education published the findings of a study, funded by the EOC, which revealed that many LGBTQ students face discrimination and harassment at both the individual and institutional levels. Some face bias and even bullying not only from their peers, but also from teachers. There are still far too much misconception and misunderstanding about sexual orientation and gender identity in Asian societies, including Hong Kong. Some, instead of questioning unfair stereotypes and looking at facts, continue to cling to their own discriminatory ideas and behaviour, unwilling to look at their peers with objectivity and compassion. Others who are more open may still feel too intimidated to speak out. On this front, we simply must do better.
The inability to feel safe is not just an idea – it has real, tangible impact on lives and everyday activities such as being able to go to school. Indeed, what should a human right, such as the right to education, mean in practical terms? What form should it take, and what is the role of society – from multilateral agencies to local governments to individual citizens – in actualising it?
The EOC’s Initiatives to Address Educational Inequality
From the EOC’s perspective, tackling inequality needs a multilevel and multi-sectoral approach and collaboration. We work to eradicate discrimination through handling complaints and providing legal assistance and taking legal action in strategic cases. We also understand that discrimination stems from bias, and changing mindsets require more than the law. This is why simultaneously, we conduct public education through a variety of publicity initiatives and also advocate policy changes through research and community engagement.
Advancing Equal Rights: From Global to Local
Human rights are a complex and multi-layered phenomenon. In principle, the rights as embodied in international human rights laws are all important. However, international laws rely on local implementation, which does vary widely based on each country’s historical backgrounds, cultural traditions, and political climate. Multilateral actions may also be impeded by infighting and an inability to achieve consensus or compromise.
Also, the advancement of rights and equality is an ongoing process, in tandem, with the progression of society. Rights are not static, but are constantly evolving as we evolve as people. For instance, 50 years ago, addressing bullying, and the prejudice from which it stems as well as the trauma it brings, was a person-to-person phenomenon. Now, with the advent of the internet and mobile technology, bullying has taken on another online form – and the need to educate and protect ourselves from online bullying and harassment, with invisible but no less hurtful perpetrators, has emerged, with varying responses from different communities. We have seen responses through new laws, online education campaigns, newly developed in-school curricula, and widening public discussions to address the issue that we did not deal with in the same form in my generation. In seeking for and building equality, we must respond to changing needs and trends of the society.
Human Rights: From Ideal to Reality
An important consideration, therefore, is not only to think about rights as an abstract idea, but to consider how these rights can be concretely and realistically realised at different levels, from local communities to the global stage. Although sometimes, aggregate statistics mean that the situation appears to show improvement, it is important to remember that the tide of improved rights do not always lift all boats. The concept of rights is important, but one must also pay close attention to how the rights are realised and actualised, taking into account any emerging disparity between different groups.
Hong Kong is just one example. A major benefit of having a forum such as the Model United Nations, of course, is a chance to learn from one another’s diverse history and knowledge. As you go through this wonderful experience over the next few days, I want to encourage you to use this platform to have a dialogue and exchange. Your experience as a delegate at this conference will, I am certain, teach you the importance of working together across different cultures and value system.
It will also train you in looking at social issues in multiple contexts, given how the world is inter-connected and will be increasingly so in the future. A social issue no longer can be confined within national borders, but will likely have reverberations regionally and even globally. In dealing with a situation, one would need to balance multiple perspectives, priorities, and values. This conference is therefore a great opportunity for you to hone vital skills for the future: the ability to have the empathy and wherewithal to reason, figure out your own value system, and forge your own path ahead.
Value Diversity and Nurture Empathy
As a student, I always valued my own experience in different educational institutions, which gave me a wide range of experience with people from diverse backgrounds. My classmates were from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Portugal, and other countries. I had friends who had disabilities and learning difficulties. We were a mixed bunch, each with our own points of view, and our friendship taught me important lessons about diversity, inclusion, and empathy.
Another purpose of education should also teach young people to look beyond their immediate social circle and understand how to have empathy, respect and acceptance of people from different walks of life. It should enable them to be able to figuratively put themselves in someone else’s shoes. It should teach them, in other words, to be productive, thoughtful, and engaged citizens of their community.
By learning from one another’s experiences and values, I grew to understand that there are always multiple ways to look at a situation. The objective is not to agree on everything, but to find common ground through constructive, informative, and rational discussions in order to move forward. It was a lesson that served me well at various points of my career, for instance when I was one of the Paralympics leaders fighting for equality for people with disabilities worldwide; when I was representing Hong Kong in the international arena during health and food safety crises; and in my current role as the Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission. During those times, it was important to listen to various stakeholders, each with their own agenda and priorities, and take their points of view into consideration while seeking common ground for compromise.
Ask, Listen, and Prioritise (With an Open Mind)
Nevertheless, sometimes, the variety of viewpoints can mean a deadlock, because no consensus can be reached. I firmly believe that while it is important to listen to different groups, it is also necessary to form your own opinion and take a stand for what you believe in. Throughout my life, although I have always sought to listen and learn from divergent opinions and views, I also learned to decide for myself the values and principles which were important to me, and to prioritise them.
I have always been a believer of continuous learning. I feel that one of the purposes of education is not about who can achieve the highest grades, although academic achievement is undoubtedly important. Rather, I think the purpose of education is to teach young people to ask questions and seek answers for themselves, rather than simply taking for granted what textbooks are telling them. It means enabling each young person to be able to sift through competing ideas and take an individual stand when necessary. And this requires them to be continuously absorbing new ideas, thoughts, and innovations. This is why platforms such as Model UN are so important, for it provides opportunities for real-life collaboration and learning outside of the classroom.
This is also an important lesson when looking at issues like human rights. After all, as I mentioned, the conceptualisation of “human rights” are always shifting. As we evolve as a society, we are always pushing the frontiers and boundaries of these rights ever further. And the definitions of what these rights are, or mean, may differ from one community to another. That requires an open mind when approaching the subject – an open mind and a willingness to engage in dialogue. Even within a single type of rights, there are many angles, perspectives, definitions, and layers, not to mention the connections to other rights. Undoubtedly, this means there are many views and agendas to negotiate. So as you consider these vital issues over the next few days, I want to leave you with a few parting thoughts on this.
Stimulate Action: Compromise vs. Consensus
First, action is paramount. Too often, people like to talk but not act. On an issue like the protection of rights, the focus must be on stimulating actions, even if they are small.
Many times, we hear of how there must be consensus or majority in society before action can be taken. Yet also very often, the groups needing protection belong in the minority, and on numbers alone, they may not be able to tip the scale. In fact, by virtue of their smaller size, issues of concern for minority groups are often ignored as the majority may struggle to see how the issue might affect them. But sometimes, waiting for consensus stalls much-needed action. Human rights should not be confused as majority rights.
Nevertheless, despite the difference between the majority and the minority, there is often room for common ground. Therefore, as you go through the next few days of negotiations, aim for “compromise” not “consensus”. And, of course, aim for action. Even one step forward is often just what is needed to keep turn up the momentum.
Show Mutual Respect
Second, it is important to listen and to show mutual respect, even in disagreement. Only through this will you be able to work with others and thrive in this international and inter-connected world. Even when you are in a position of advantage, it is important to show humility and try to consider the perspectives of those who may be in more disadvantaged position or background. Everyone has something to offer. For instance, as a young person, you have an important perspective to share. You have grown up in a more globalised context. You are likely to be more tech-savvy. How you see the world may be different from someone of my generation. Your view points are critical. But similarly, the perspectives of the older generations are also vital, for they have accumulated many years of experience in a variety of situations and conditions.
This leads me to my third point – a key step to facilitate working, and learning, across different backgrounds is to consciously avoid stereotypes. Let’s take the issue of age. Yes, there may be differences across the different generations, and statistically speaking, there are certain characteristics that appear more often for each generation. But that does not mean that every person will conform to these descriptions. For instance, many think that those of the millennial generation are often more unpredictable and less reliable in the workplace – are these characteristics that you feel accurately describe you? Probably not. Meanwhile, some stereotype those of the baby boomers generation as more likely to be inflexible, close-minded and slow to adapt. Is that really the case?
I have often felt that a generational gap does not truly exist in the way that it is often hyped up. In fact, I think there is a great deal of similarities in our outlooks of the world between younger people and older people. Speaking with my two daughters, who are in their twenties, confirms this feeling for me. We may have grown up in different settings, but we share more than we differ. And this tells me that stereotypes about different generations should be taken with a grain of salt, and individual characteristics and circumstances must be considered.
If you base your decision making on these stereotypes, what happens? You may lose out on crucial learning opportunities from each other. You may base your approach and your plan on these stereotypes, which means you are working off of false information. This means you are not making the best-possible decisions given the information.
Certainly, that does not mean that different people would not have divergent skills, perspectives, strengths and weaknesses. What is important for a good leader to figure out is what each person’s strengths are, and then to create the most optimal conditions wherein everyone can contribute their best self. This is where diversity has the most benefits – in nurturing new ideas that sprout from moments of collaboration and innovation.
Understand Your Context: The Role and Limitations of the UN
One last thought: Over the next few days, you will be role-playing various actors within the UN system, including the secretariat staff, the five UN Security Council Permanent Members, the member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other Member States in various stages of development. The UN, of course, is but a platform. It is limited in its actions by the power play between different nations, each with their own political, economic, social and other agendas. In practice, human rights have often been relegated to an afterthought or an attachment to another objective. This means that human rights are often viewed not as an independent aim of its own merit.
This is a mindset hurdle that must be overcome. While keeping in view the pragmatic confines of what is possible from multiple angles, it is also important not to lose sight of the goal of what is right. Through it all, remember to have empathy for each other, and the different characteristics and aspirations that you embody, during this role play. Whatever decision that you make, make sure that there is respect for people’s different backgrounds, abilities, and cultures. Doing so will help you to nurture the necessary skills for successful negotiations.
So, in summary, I hope you will take the next few days to think, in concrete ways, how to turn human rights from abstract concepts to realistic action. This will require that you engage in constructive dialogues between stakeholders with vastly different agendas, cultures, and viewpoints. It will also require you to consider each right, and its many layers, and how they relate to one another. To do this, it is important to listen, shed stereotypes, and show respect for different opinions while carving out your own priorities and stance. In the end, the objective is to find common ground in order to compromise and move forward, not necessarily to build a majority.
I am sure you will find the next few days a rewarding and enriching experience, and that you will make new friendships and learn new things. I wish you all a very enjoyable and enlightening conference.