COMMITTEE ON RIGHTS OF CHILD CONSIDERS REPORT OF AUSTRIA
24 September 2012
The Committee on the Rights of the Child today completed its consideration of the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Austria on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Presenting the report, Helmut Tichy, Legal Adviser, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said under the new Constitutional Law on the Rights of Children, the children’s right to protection and care, their right to regular contact with their parents and their right to a childhood free of violence were guaranteed. Recent studies showed a steady decline in the exposure of children to violence but nevertheless the issue of violence against children in all its forms still remained high on Austria’s political agenda. Lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 in 2007 had contributed to giving young people a stronger voice in politics and encouraged their active involvement in society. Alleged cases of the sexual abuse of children by Austrians abroad were also taken very seriously. The main objectives of Austria’s integration policy were to strengthen the participation of migrant children in the education system, to promote intercultural dialogue and to assist young migrant children to overcome integration difficulties. Austria remained strongly committed to improving the situation of children worldwide.
The Committee commended Austria on a report that was well presented and rich in detail. Experts asked about the practice of anonymous birth and the use of baby boxes, military training for minors, juvenile justice, children with disabilities and the use of corporal punishment in Austria. Measures to protect children from the risks of the internet were also raised, as were protection mechanisms for child victims of violence and the issues children from ethnic minority backgrounds faced. Educational reform – including teaching about human rights in schools – and adolescent health were also discussed.
In initial concluding remarks, Kamla Devi Varmah, Committee Member acting as Co-Country Rapporteur for the report of Austria, said that much progress had been achieved in Austria since the last review but noted that shortcomings remained in areas such as coordination, allocation of resources, and dissemination of the principles of the Convention, which needed to be addressed urgently.
In concluding remarks Helmut Tichy said that the broad range of issues discussed at the meeting would contribute to the debate back in Austria, and thanked the active participation of civil society and non-governmental organizations for their contributions.
The Delegation of Austria included representatives from the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, the Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth, the Federal Ministry of Health, the Federal Ministry of Education, the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the Federal Ministry of Justice and the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 25 September, when it will begin its consideration of the combined second to fourth periodic reports of Albania (CRC/C/ALB/2-4).
The combined third and fourth periodic reports of Austria can be read via the following link: (CRC/C/AUT/3-4).
Presentation of the Report
HELMUT TICHY, Legal Adviser, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said the meeting was an important opportunity for Austria to measure progress made in implementing the Convention and identifying the next steps in developing the rights of the child. Implementation of the Convention involved many actors at the federal, regional and local level and Austria had coordinating bodies which brought together the constituent parts of the Federal State. Despite the effect of the global financial crisis, Austria had taken specific measures in its fiscal policy to minimize the impact of Government cutbacks on families and children. The incorporation of children’s rights into Federal Constitutional Law had been a milestone. Under the new Constitutional Law on the Rights of Children, which was adopted in January 2011, children’s rights to protection and care, their right to a regular relationship and contact with their parents, and the right to a childhood free of violence were guaranteed. In addition, provisions had been made to carry out regular impact assessments of all legislative initiatives and major administrative measures taken at the federal level, including those relating to the rights of children.
Upon ratification of the Convention Austria had made reservations on three articles, which did not affect the substance of the Convention. Consultation was underway with the Ministries concerned and with civil society about the need to retain those reservations. Lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 in 2007 had contributed to giving young people a stronger voice in politics and encouraged their active involvement in society, and in particular in decision-making processes. In 1989 Austria became the fourth country worldwide to prohibit the use of any form of violence against children, both in educational settings and in families. Recent studies had shown a steady decline in the exposure of children to violence. Nevertheless, the issue of violence against children in all its forms still remained high on Austria’s political agenda and all regions were working on structural improvements to address the issue. Alleged cases of sexual abuse of children by Austrians abroad were taken very seriously and Austria had built partnerships with countries such as Thailand to combat sex tourism and human trafficking.
Austria was aware of the language barriers which hampered the equal access of children with a non-German mother tongue to various institutions and services, for example health care, and the Government was considering ways of improving interpretation facilities and providing information in various languages. The intention of introducing a compulsory pre-school year was to support children with linguistic or other deficits and prepare them for learning in a primary school setting. Two regions were testing pilot programmes to establish whether beneficial effects could be generated by introducing a second compulsory pre-school year. The main objectives of Austria’s integration policy were to strengthen the participation of migrants in the education system, to promote intercultural dialogue, particularly in schools, and to assist migrant children at an early age to overcome integration difficulties. Following its last review by the Committee in 2005 Austria had discussed the recommendations with all relevant stakeholders and made all reports and the Committee’s Concluding Observations widely available to the public. It remained strongly committed to improving the situation of children worldwide.
Questions by the Experts
BERNARD GASTAUD, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur for the report of Austria, said that Austria’s report was substantial and well presented, and that the constitutional enshrinement of principles of the Convention was a very positive development. Would Austria withdraw its reservations to the Convention at some point, as recommended by the Committee? The absence of coordination in the case of Austria was contrary to the best interests of the child and also negatively affected the equality of children before the law. He also noted that since 2007 successive national plans had been drafted and were being debated at State level but none had been implemented, and asked for an update. Even though actions taken by Austria for the implementation of the Convention had been diversified and well-targeted, in terms of data collection there was a divergence between the opinion of the State party and the Committee as the data available did not always focus on children but on human rights in general.
Furthermore, despite numerous efforts made some of the Committee’s recommendations had not been fully addressed, such as the lack of systematic training for all roles related to child rights issues, such as teachers and social workers. Had human rights education been included in kindergarten education and was teacher training provided? Children with disabilities continued to be discriminated against.
The practice of baby boxes was a form of abandonment, counter to the right of the child to bear the name of its biological parent, the Rapporteur said. How were
mothers who were in a vulnerable situation helped, to avoid them resorting to using the baby box method?
An Expert noted that racist and xenophobic attitudes persisted towards certain groups, such as Jews, Roma and Latin American persons, and the media contributed to hostility towards minority groups. Could the delegation explain why? Had the grievances of all ethnic groups been taken into account by the Government? What action was taken to deal with attempts by politicians to stigmatize and incite hatred against children from minority groups?
Regarding the use of internet and the phenomenon of cyber grooming, Austria had not ratified yet the Convention on Cyber Crime. What was the reason for that? Was ratification of that Convention underway? The Committee asked for information on the draft law on sexual contact with children. It was positive that grooming would be established as a criminal offence and its implementation was eagerly awaited. What practical measures were taken to prevent children from having access to websites which incited suicide? Were there data showing suicide-related deaths in Austria? What was Austria doing to make children more aware of safety when using the internet?
The Committee was concerned that corporal punishment was still practiced in Austrian families and only thirty per cent of Austrians had heard about the prevention of corporal punishment. What measures were being taken to raise awareness about that matter, especially among children themselves and parents? Also, what complaint mechanisms were available to children who had been physically abused by their parents? The efforts made by Austria and the comprehensive methods in which it was dealing with the issues of corporal punishment were commended by an Expert, though more work was required in order to raise awareness about the negative effect of corporal punishment. Was there any information about any complaints made to the authorities and how were those dealt with?
What did the State party do to ensure effective cooperation between national and provincial laws? Concerning the right to privacy, there was information that in family reunification cases the best interests of the child may not be the primary consideration. How was the best interest principle implemented in practice?
What measures were being taken to ensure that children developed properly within different aspects of society in accordance with article 6, asked an Expert.
Victims of sexual abuse or violence did not seem to be very well protected by the media because their identity was easy to obtain and could be revealed. What was Austria going to do to tackle that problem, an Expert asked? What measures were there to ensure against street violence, especially against marginalized children or death by infectious diseases? In cases where a child’s death occurred under suspicious circumstances how was that investigated?
What steps were being taking by the State party to strengthen the function of the Ombudsperson for children? Regional offices had been set up for children’s rights but more information was needed on those and on the complaints procedure available. How could children report violations? Was there a section which children could access and did children know that they had the right to voice concerns and make complaints, especially in cases where there were child rights violations such as corporal punishment?
Proactive measures taken in terms of fiscal consolidation during the financial crisis were welcomed, as were efforts to increase international cooperation. What was the exact amount of money that had been allocated to children’s issues in the budget at the federal and municipal level? Was there a system of protecting funds for children who needed special affirmative action, including children from marginalized communities? The two national action plans mentioned in the report were a positive development but more information was required on how those were funded, including the allocation of resources to the psychosocial recovery of children victims of trafficking. Were those actions plans evaluated so that their efficacy could be assessed?
Response by the Delegation
Regarding the issue of the reservations which Austria had made on Articles 13, 15 and 17 of the Convention, the delegation said they did not affect the core of the Convention. Austria had accepted a recommendation to review all reservations, and the review was still in progress. The Experts’ comments on the matter had been noted and would be used for relevant discussions in Austria.
Regarding coordination, the Austrian federal system gave a lot of competences to the federal regions which had to be taken into account with respect to the implementation of the Convention. Representatives of the regions held regular coordination meetings to discuss human rights laws, including the laws on the rights of the child. Despite the complex constitutional federal system, coordination was ensured in relation to human rights.
The new Secretary of State had secured additional funds for international cooperation for the following year and, despite the financial crisis, efforts were made to improve Austria’s international cooperation performance.
About data collection, the delegation recognized that the issue of how accurate or full the data collected from various sources was posed a serious challenge to the Government and was currently being examined. The delegation explained that there were six ethnic groups in Austria which continued to resist data collection, which meant that there was no data on those six ethnic minorities.
The majority of child-related issues such as health, criminal law and education were under the responsibility of the Federal State, even though the provincial states had competencies over issues such as poverty. The delegation recognized that the Government was aware of the limitations and challenges posed by the federal constitutional system, but efforts were made to enhance harmonization and achieve the same standard of provisions in the country. Federal Government could not intervene in the internal affairs of the provinces and there was no supranational agency or other similar body with overall responsibility that could oversee implementation. The impact assessment of legislation and Government policies to be introduced in 2013 served to enhance harmonization in relation to implementation.
Comprehensive data was available on the issue of violence against children. The implementation of relevant rules about the prevention of violence against children in Austria had been reviewed twice, in 1991 and 2009. Additional studies carried out on the issue of violence had shown a significant decrease in the use of violence against children. Reports that 30 per cent of the Austrian population was unaware of violence-related issues were not accurate. On the contrary, there was concrete evidence that awareness among Austrians had increased significantly in recent years.
Economic and cultural rights had been the subject of a long debate in Austria in recent years and despite no single bill of economic and cultural rights, these were guaranteed by a number of national instruments.
Regarding the National Action Plan, a 2007 report had concluded that most of its objectives had been accomplished. The current Government had decided to mainstream children rights issues in other Government policies and national plans which contained chapters on children.
The anonymous birth or ‘baby box’ option which had been recently introduced was not a Government initiative but was recommended by civil society organizations. The Government believed that making sex education and information available to pregnant mothers was an important form of support to pregnant women. The welfare system tried to convince mothers who had opted for an anonymous birth to consider the option of adoption. The delegation clarified that baby boxes were used only for newborns, not for older babies. Abandoning babies in a place other than baby boxes was considered child abandonment and was treated as a crime. Unlike counselling services, which were widely promoted in line with the Government’s standard policy to raise awareness and provide information to pregnant mothers, anonymous birth and baby boxes were not advertised. The delegation stressed that baby boxes were the very last option for anonymous birth children to be looked after, and to avoid children being abandoned or killed, and were made available through local initiatives not at federal level.
A major vaccination programme was underway and there were additional protective measures which were financed by the legal health insurance and social services so that all children would receive vaccination. A minimum provision of social security was guaranteed by the State for those on a minimum wage and the social security system in Austria was inclusive. In accordance with its strategy for child health, the Government worked closely with the pharmaceutical industry and the Chamber of Commerce to improve health care provided to children and to promote better health for all children.
Questions from the Experts
As Austria had ratified the Convention on Intercountry Adoption, what was the Government doing to guarantee the rights of children? What happened if a child could not give its consent to an adoption and at what age was a child permitted to consent to an adoption?
An Expert asked for more information on child and adolescent health, particularly whether the Government planned to increase its budget, which was lower than that for other sectors. What was the Government doing to prevent alcohol and drugs abuse by adolescents? Harmful traditional practices were still a reality in Austria but no incidents were reported to the police. Did the government have an action plan in place to tackle the problem and how did it intend to apply the law in relation to harmful traditional practices, and especially forced marriages?
An Expert noted that education was a matter of concern to the Austrian authorities and that progress was being achieved in that area. Were further reforms planned as a result of the studies which had been carried out? Overall, child labour rates were low in Austria but it still occurred in family businesses. What could be done to deal with the problem? Were any statistics available for the reportedly overcrowded youth prison in Vienna? For children who attended military schools which offered weapons training, what kinds of weapons were they trained to use?
A lot of important steps had been taken to prevent domestic violence and related issues, an Expert noted. However, how was support provided to victims and witnesses, especially during the restraining order period, which was the most crucial time? Regarding victim support, an Expert mentioned that legal and psychological support was provided to victims of sexual and other abuse in court and asked what the age limit was for the rules to be applied. Did everyone get that support in practice, including migrant children who might face language barriers? Was there a translation service in place and measures to ensure that migrant children had access to that service?
Parental leave, which in Austria was paid for by employers, was very short and most parents could not afford to stay at home without pay. Did the Government have plans to extend parental leave or subsidize it?
Abuse and violence occurred not only in families but also in institutions. Was there any training and supervision provided to people looking after children to ensure their suitability to work with children? What form of mediation was used in child protection cases? Was there a breakdown of data according to the ethnic background status of children in the welfare system? Was the information for young parents and professionals available in any other language besides German? How many children had been left in places other than baby boxes?
In 2008 a study had shown that approximately 50 per cent of children living with disabilities did not live with their family but had been put into care, an Expert pointed out. Bearing in mind that the best interest of children with disabilities was to live with their parents, was any assistance offered to the parents of children with disabilities to help them keep their children at home?
Turning to inclusive education, an Expert asked whether having special classrooms for children with disabilities in mainstream schools was the best way of integrating them into society and conveying the message that all children were equal despite individual differences? Also, how was sexual education provided to children with disabilities? The Expert commended Austria on recognizing sign language as a language in its Constitution and wanted to know whether training in sign language was offered to students in mainstream settings or whether it was still regarded as a marginal activity. An Expert asked what measures had been taken to ensure that students with disabilities had effective access to education, training, health care and equal employment opportunities.
Response by the Delegation
Austria had undergone an important constitutional change this year which gave the Ombudsman Institution competence over human rights issues, in full compliance with the Paris Principles. The Ombudsman worked closely with other human rights institutions in Austria.
Lowering the voting age to 16 years old had made a major difference to the life of young persons who were now allowed to participate in the political life of the country. Furthermore in 2002 Austria raised the minimum age for children engaging in lesser professional activities such as handing out sweets to visitors at charity events to 13 years. Other than that, children were fully protected against child labour, and labour inspectors were very strict about violations of labour laws. Children were also granted legal assistance wherever necessary.
The “best interest of the child” principle was given a large amount of importance in Austria, which had passed a pioneering law aiming to achieve full implementation of children’s rights.
The National Youth Council was financed by an annual sum of six million Euros which was regulated by law. The National Action Plan for human trafficking was the result of close cooperation between the Government and non-governmental organizations. In addition, a separate Working Group on child prostitution and sexual exploitation on the internet had been established, in which non-governmental organization representatives had been invited to participate.
With regard to the complaints procedure available to children, the delegation said a number of measures in place. For almost 30 years there had been a well-known hotline children could phone and make a complaint. Schools had a designated person to whom children could meet and tell about incidents of domestic violence. To educate parents and educators the Government had taken a number of initiatives through specially designed websites.
Measures had been taken to combat xenophobia and racism in schools: intercultural education and civil education were both seen as important means for combating xenophobia. Both subjects were offered at secondary level and aimed to give children of diverse cultural backgrounds an understanding of cultural diversity. In addition, a Holocaust Education Institute provided education on the holocaust. In-service training for teachers was also available and addressed all of the above issues. At the international level, the Government actively collaborated with a number of networks on those issues. Relevant documents were translated into a variety of languages, including minority languages used in Austria.
The delegation clarified that the right to life of children was covered by the laws on the right to life in general. A nationwide vaccination in Austria posed a problem because a portion of the population in the country remained firmly opposed to it. Regarding the issue of breastfeeding, the delegation said that from a legal point of view it was difficult for the State to interfere with the matter and that the final decision was made by the mother concerned.
Concerning the abuse of alcohol and drugs, a recent study which provided concrete figures showed a decrease in alcohol and tobacco consumption among young persons. Budgetary provisions were made at national and provincial level for research in the area. Austria’s strategy primarily consisted of a preventive policy channelled through the school system. Regarding drug addicts, the Government’s policy was to heal rather than to punish. To that end, a national network had been established to which drug addicts could turn for treatment and support. Other prevention and awareness-raising measures taken by the Government included film campaigns and the appointment and training of prevention officers who addressed racism-fuelled violence cases and drug abuse cases in schools.
Regarding young asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors, the delegation explained that as soon as a child was put into custody it was assumed to be in need of protection and legal representation was immediately provided, especially in cases where the child was below the age of 14 years old. In cases where there was doubt as to whether the young asylum seeker was above or below the age of 18 years old, appropriate medical tests were used to establish the age of the person in question.
The delegation also stressed that asylum seekers who were temporarily kept in facilities were not deprived of their freedom and the Government fulfilled its protective obligations towards them.
Regarding military service, even though the country was not involved in warfare, Austria had an army and contributed blue-helmet officers to United Nations Peacekeeping Missions in various part of the world. However, young persons who were doing their military service were excluded from peace-keeping operations abroad.
Regarding the education of children with disabilities, the delegation explained that if parents of children with disabilities chose an inclusive type of schooling for their children, the District School Board would inform them of the closest school offering suitable programmes. However, some parents chose to send their children to special rather then mainstream schools, depending on the type and degree of disability of the children concerned. The Government’s National Action Plan contained a number of measures aimed at providing additional support to families with children with disabilities, such as benefit supplements, a care allowance, tax deductions, access to healthcare, and free transport to and from school.
Regarding the abandonment of children, the delegation clarified that it was not the abandonment of a child that was punished but, rather, putting a child at risk by abandoning it in places where the child was not visible and could not be found easily. It was for that reason that baby boxes were not regarded as a violation of the law on abandonment.
Children who had completed the fifth year of their lives had the right to be heard. From the age of 14 years old, children had the right to consent.
Concerning adoption, biological parents had the right to file a complaint of non-recognition to an adoption in cases where they did not recognize an adoption decision. In cases where an intermediary received a reward or promised a reward or financial compensation to parents who had agreed to put their child up for adoption, then that was treated as a criminal act.
Concerning the Optional Protocol and the question about data, the delegation said that it was constantly improving its data collection system and that since 2011 disaggregated data had been available by type of offence and by age of the victim.
Regarding child prostitution, in certain areas administrative sanctions were applied in the case of underage prostitutes. The aim of that measure was to deter other children from committing the same crime. In the Vienna region a different system was in place, whereby a first-time child offender was sent into counselling and only repeat offending was punishable. The delegation further noted that a relatively small number of children were victims of human trafficking in Austria. Concerning serious cases of human trafficking and sexual abuse, extraterritorial jurisdiction was applied wherever the victim or perpetrator was Austrian or a permanent Austrian resident but the crime was committed outside Austrian borders.
Statistics showed that the number of prison inmates who were minors had decreased considerably in recent years. The Government was examining ways to reduce the number of juvenile inmates by making provisions for such persons to be sentenced to electronically monitored house arrest rather than imprisonment. The idea was to avoid separating child offenders from their families. Imprisoned juvenile offenders were not kept in the same facilities as adult inmates. A task force was currently discussing whether a new prison in Vienna was necessary.
KAMLA DEVI VARMAH, Committee Member acting as Co-Country Rapporteur for the report of Austria, said that the delegation had responded to the majority of the questions posed by Committee Experts and that the interactive dialogue had demonstrated the Government’s commitment to promote and protect the rights of the child. She also noted that much progress had been achieved in Austria since the last review. However, shortcomings remained in areas such as coordination, allocation of resources, and dissemination of the principles of the Convention, and needed to be addressed urgently. She expressed the hope that the concluding observations would be beneficial to children in Austria, including the children of minority groups.
HELMUT TICHY, Legal Adviser, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said that the broad range of issues discussed at the meeting had demonstrated the interest of the Committee in the situation of the rights of the child in Austria, for which he expressed his gratitude. The delegation looked forward to the comments and suggestions of the Committee which, he said, would contribute to the debate back in Austria. He also pointed out that the civil society had been actively participating in the debate and thanked non-governmental organization representatives for their contribution to the process.
JEAN ZERMATTEN, Committee Chairperson, said that it was clear that Austria remained firmly committed to protecting the rights of all children in the country and commended the delegation on its professionalism. He expressed the hope that the Committee’s recommendations would contribute to the efforts made by the Government to tackle child right issues.
For use of the information media; not an official record