COUNCIL HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON EMPOWERING CHILDREN TO CLAIM THEIR RIGHTS
13 March 2014
The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a panel discussion on empowering children to claim their rights, as part of its annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child.
Laura Dupuy Lasserre, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva, and moderator of the panel, said the framework for this panel discussion on empowering children to claim their rights had already been set in the morning meeting. This afternoon the Council would hear from representatives who could provide more of a local experience.
Irene Khan, Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, said that that making justice work for children meant understanding justice from a child’s perspective. Much had yet to be done to fully empower children to live in full dignity. The challenge ahead for the international community was to mobilize and take practical measures to ensure that children were able to realize their rights and fulfil their true potential.
Maya Bhandari, Representative of Paralegal Committees, Nepal, spoke of about 23,000 volunteer women paralegal members in Nepal who were trained to support children’s access to justice. As a community-based mechanism, those women facilitated access to justice, detected cases of violence and abuse against children and offered early intervention. Their robust link with the community was their strength.
Nikhil Roy, Penal Reform International, said that children in institutional care experienced additional obstacles in their access to justice and children deprived of their liberty were at very high risk of human rights violations. When a child was deprived of liberty, the State was obliged to ensure their access to safe, accessible and child-friendly complaint mechanism.
Abraham Bengaly, International Catholic Child Bureau, Mali, said children were one of the most vulnerable groups in the crisis in Mali. They found it very difficult to understand the penal system due to its complexity. There was no justice specialized for minors, things moved slowly, lawyers were not interested. Socio-cultural obstacles persisted; once in conflict with the law, children were abandoned because of the shame of their family, and stigmatized by the community. All those factors made it difficult to go to the courts, so they became only last resort.
Marie Derain, French Children’s Defender; Ombudsman for Children and Deputy Ombudsman of France, said that the task of the Ombudsman was to ensure the best interest and rights of children enshrined in the law and international treaties ratified or approved by France. The Ombudsman could be an alternative to the courts, having at his or her disposition several powers.
In the discussion, speakers said that empowering and enabling children to access justice was fundamental for child protection. It was stressed that that the essential element enabling children’s access to justice was the right to lodge complaints. Training public officials, getting rid of legal obstacles, putting in place an institutional roadmap to protect child victims and, avoiding re-victimization of children were all necessary.
Good practices from some countries, including Child Ombudsmen, should be used more and children should be allowed to participate in discussions of the Council, some speakers said. Challenges in ensuring access to justice for children ranged from lack of reliable data, lack of training and lack of information tailored to children. Amongst other questions, panellists were asked how societal and cultural barriers could be tackled in order to empower children to claim their rights.
Speaking in the discussion were the European Union, Norway, El Salvador, Spain, Sri Lanka, Slovenia, Switzerland, Honduras, Ireland, Nepal, Council of Europe, Monaco, Argentina, Namibia, United States, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Romania, Russia, Indonesia, Maldives, India, Mexico, Egypt, Malaysia, Brazil, Uruguay, Morocco and South Africa.
The NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, International Catholic Children’s Bureau, Centre for Inquiry, Ombudsman of Colombia, Iranian Elite Research Centre and National Human Rights Commission of Canada also took the floor.
The Human Rights Council will resume its work tomorrow, Friday 14 March, at 9 a.m. when it will complete its interactive dialogue on violence against children and on children and armed conflict. The Council will then continue its discussion on the thematic reports of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Secretary-General, followed by a General Debate. At 5 p.m. the Council is scheduled to hold a private meeting under its complaints procedure.
Introduction by the Moderator
LAURA DUPUY LASSERRE, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva, said that on the annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child, the framework for this panel discussion on empowering children to claim their rights had already been set in the morning meeting. This afternoon the Council would hear from representatives who could provide more of a local experience.
Statements by Panellists
IRENE KHAN, Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, said access to justice was complex and multifaceted. It was about procedural justice but at the same time substantive justice. It was not only a fundamental right in itself - it was a prerequisite for enjoyment of all other human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social. Children’s access to justice was often limited because of poor or inadequate laws, weak institutions and lack of resources, but also because of the failure to listen to children and poor understanding of the social, cultural and economic context in which they lived. Making justice work for children meant understanding justice from a child’s perspective. Research showed that justice was a broader concept to children than for adults.
It was not enough for children to know that it was not a normal thing to have their rights violated - they needed to know who to turn to. In the experience of the International Development Law Organization, which worked with justice systems around the world both in formal and informal settings, making justice work for children required a coordinated, bottom up and top down approach. Programmes had to be shaped by those that were expected to use them. There was much to be done to fully empower children to live in full dignity. The challenge ahead for the international community was to mobilize and take practical measures to ensure that children were able to realize their rights and fulfil their true potential, recognizing that access to justice needed to be tailored to local needs, context-based and responsive to children’s necessities.
MAYA BHANDARI, Representative of Paralegal Committees of Nepal, said that there were 23,000 paralegal members in Nepal, all of them women, all volunteers and all very proud of what they were doing. Grouped into committees, they were trained to support children’s access to justice. As a community-based mechanism, the women facilitated access to justice for survivors, detected cases of violence and abuse against children and offered early intervention. They made immense contributions and enhanced access to justice for the children and women, especially in rural Nepal. They were able to act as a bridge between the community and the justice system, which was neither child nor juvenile friendly. Their robust links with the community was its strength, and a result of their activism, the paralegals had become very visible and respected members of society. Nepal was on the cusp of development and was gearing up to draw up a new constitution. The Committee and other child rights activists were becoming watchdogs to ensure that the future of Nepal and its justice system was child friendly.
NIKHIL ROY, Programme Development Director of Penal Reform International, said that children in institutional care experienced additional obstacles in their access to justice and children deprived of their liberty were at very high risk of human rights violations. Access to justice in wider justice mechanisms was necessary to reduce the number of those who reached institutional care, but for those who did, special attention must be paid to ensure that their rights were protected. When a child was deprived of liberty, States were obliged to ensure their access to safe, accessible and child-friendly complaint mechanisms. Accessibility meant that children were adequately informed about the existence of internal and external complaints and that those were also made available to the family or legal representative of the child. It also meant that children of all ages and literacy levels could access a complaint mechanism. Safety meant that the confidentiality of complaint procedure was guaranteed, while effective in practice meant that each complaint was handled without delay. Every complaint must trigger investigation and children must be able to access complaint mechanisms without fear of reprisals.
ABRAHAM BENGALY, President of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE), Mali, lamented that thousands of children met many obstacles in access to justice. Children were one of the most vulnerable in the crisis in Mali, and regrettably, the use of children in armed conflict had led to arrest of children and their detention in penitentiary institutions. The protection of children, which was a concern before the crisis, remained urgent. Children had had to adopt survival strategies, which pitched them into crime and conflict with the law, so they needed juridical, educational and social protection. There was a need for some children to commit offences such as theft due to poverty, a temptation for young girls to have abortions when they became pregnant, and to abandon or even kill their children when they gave birth, unsupported by the father or their family.
Children found it very difficult to understand the penal system due to its complexity. There was no specialized justice for minors; things moved slowly, lawyers were not interested. Socio-cultural obstacles persisted; once in conflict with the law, children were abandoned because of the shame felt by their family, and stigmatized by the community. Those factors made it difficult for children to go to the courts, so it became only a last resort, when other means were exhausted. Mr. Bengaly drew attention to the Final Declaration adopted at the International Congress of the International Catholic Child Bureau in June 2013, which supported the promotion of juvenile restorative justice, establishment of a nation-wide system and an Ombudsman for children inter alia.
MARIE DERAIN, French Children’s Defender; Ombudsman for Children and Deputy Ombudsman of France, stressed that children were often excluded from justice systems because it was impossible for them to realize their rights themselves. The task of the Ombudsman was to ensure the best interest and rights of children enshrined in the law and international treaties ratified or approved by France. He was helped to that end by the Ombudsman for the rights of a child, so children, their legal representatives, members of their family or associations defending the rights of a child could demand her services or she could offer them.
Many cases, such as separation of parents, arrived with incomprehension of decisions concerning the protection of children, when parents and children struggled to understand the foundation of decisions and to accept them. Additional issues under the Ombudsman’s scope included a lack of legal status for child witnesses or insufficient proofs and justice for children whose guardians failed to protect their best interests. The Ombudsman could be an alternative to the courts, having at his or her disposition several powers, including investigative powers to interview persons and conduct inspections on site, the ability to propose legislative reform and to submit observations to a jury, although it could not question court decisions.
Spain said ensuring that justice mechanisms were tailored to the needs of the children was a huge step forward in guaranteeing the enjoyment of children’s rights. It recommended that complaint mechanisms be adapted to the age, level of maturity and specific situation of children. El Salvador said that issue of juvenile justice was important because it considered how a minor would have to answer before the justice system. Norway said a key consideration of juvenile justice systems was whether it viewed the children as rights-holders and how children viewed themselves and their rights. Norway asked how best to deal with societal and cultural barriers in order to empower children to claim their rights. European Union highlighted challenges in ensuring access to justice for children which ranged from a lack of reliable data concerning their rights and access to justice, lack of training and specialization of practitioners and the provision of information to children in a form adapted to their needs. Panellists were asked about measures to overcome those challenges.
Sri Lanka outlined national efforts and shared good practice in ensuring access to justice for children, saying it had taken steps to establish separate courts for children and was formulating child protection legislation aligned with the provisions of the Convention. Slovenia said it had paid specific attention to the human rights education of children and had developed brochures to inform and involve children in court proceedings. Honduras spoke about how it was conducting a reform of various pieces of legislation and was introducing restorative justice to ensure that juvenile offenders were reintegrated with their families and communities. In Switzerland, the right of child to be heard was fully implemented and juvenile justice was focused on education, preventing repeat offences and helping reintegration into the society. Juvenile offenders were often the most disadvantaged children and the purpose of juvenile justice was to ensure that it did not compound their existing vulnerabilities.
Ireland said it believed that empowering and enabling children to access justice was fundamental for child protection. A recent reform of the Constitution of Ireland had made it possible for children’s voices to be better heard. Innovative and accessible ways for children to access relevant information on access to justice ought to be found. Nepal said it had established women and children service centres in all 75 of its districts, and child protection committees had been opened at district and village levels as well. Child-friendly procedures had been adopted in Nepal’s judicial system.
Council of Europe saw rights of the child as one of its priorities and spoke about guidelines adopted by the Council in 2010 that provided a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach on how to address the issue of children’s access to justice, including inter-disciplinary trainings for professionals. Monaco stressed that the essential element enabling children’s access to justice was the right to lodge complaints. In Monaco, any minor had the right to do so, on a par with adults. Guardians or parents were equally authorized to lodge complaints on the behalf of the child. Training on child rights were regularly organized for judiciary, police and medical personnel.
Ombudsman of Columbia said that there was daily violence against children, including murders of children, in Colombia. Training public officials, eradicating legal obstacles, putting in place an institutional roadmap to protect child victims, avoiding re-victimization of children and putting in place preventive measures were all necessary. The NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child said there were many cases when children did not speak out, because of fear of appraisals or social stigma. Good practices from some countries, including Child Ombudsmen, should be used more. Children should be allowed to participate in discussions of the Council in the ways that fit them best. International Catholic Children’s Bureau said that child-friendly legal frameworks had to be put in place. Penal mediation was useful as children could thus avoid going through difficult processes. Legal assistance and the work of public defenders had to be provided for.
Response to questions by the panellists
IRENE KHAN, Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, underlined that the invisible part of access to justice for children was when they were often not the accused but were witnesses, and more attention had to be paid to that. There was an opportunity for the international community to give greater priority to children’s issues in the post-2015 development agenda, including on data collection. On information and awareness building, research had found that children looked for information from those with whom they had relationships; they often did not have the confidence to address institutions. Information designed for children was found to have much better impact. We had to be attuned and much more receptive in talking to children, Ms. Khan said.
NIKHIL ROY, Penal Reform International, said that a ten-point plan of action had been developed to try and address the issue of promoting child friendly access to justice. Good prevention strategies using community-based interventions that allowed for social workers and counsellors to work with children at an early stage were very important and something States were urged to think about. On data collection, a few years ago the United Nations Children’s Fund with United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and civil society groups produced a set of indicators to help collect data on justice issues. Those indicators should be much more widely known and used. On capacity-building and training, Mr. Roy said e-courses were being piloted which could reach a wider audience than previously possible. It was stressed that children were now using social media in a way that was unthinkable a few years ago and if we wanted to reach them we had to communicate in the spaces where young people were already talking and engaging.
ABRAHAM BENGALY, International Catholic Child Bureau, Mali, said that in the field of child rights protection in Africa, there was a dilemma when it came to grave violations, as ways had to be found on how to reconcile traditional practices with international legal instruments on children’s rights. Traditional communicators were often involved in resolving children-related issues. Taking cases out of the courts and processing them through alternative channels should be a priority, especially when the judicial system was already overwhelmed. That could help bring about restorative justice, and better meet the needs and aspirations of the population.
MARIE DERAIN, French Children’s Defender; Ombudsman for Children and Deputy Ombudsman of France, proposed special access for children to the courts, along with adults, so that adults could explain the judicial procedures to children before the proceedings started. Brochures and child-friendly information materials should also be made available. It was very difficult to find out exactly how many children were questioned by family-affairs judges in France, which made it hard to deal with the problem. Children should be aware of their right to speak to the judge and raise any issues they wished to raise. Vulnerable sectors of the population had to be particularly considered when it came to the access to pertinent information.
United States welcomed the report which it said clearly outlined barriers to access to justice for children and best practices. It expressed concern for the many children who still did not have access to justice and in countries where the progress was slow. Argentina said because children were dependants, they were in a particularly vulnerable situation when accessing justice system. It stressed that they needed the support of both State and families in ensuring access; in case of conflict between the two, the best interest of the child must prevail. Romania acknowledged that the lack of professional training for practitioners in juvenile justice systems was a particular challenge. Russia drew attention to the situation of foreign adopted children and said that because courts in some countries were lenient to perpetrators of violence against them, court proceedings against adoptive parents in one country should not empty the possibility of court proceedings in another, for example in country of child’s origin.
Presenting national experiences and efforts in ensuring access to justice for children, Namibia said that its constitution provided for the family to be the fundamental basic unit of society which was entitled to protection and support by the State. Saudi Arabia said that Islam emphasized rights of the child in all phases of the child’s life and that was why Saudi Arabia had adopted more than a hundred rules, laws and regulations to protect the right of the child, such as the Initiative for Friends and Partnership for Children. Libya said its legislation prohibited abuse and sexual exploitation of children, child trafficking, marriage under the age of 20 years and corporal punishment in schools, while juvenile justice system with dedicated courts was in place.
Indonesia said we had witnessed a shift in approach to children in conflict with the law to achieve restorative outcomes, which empowered children to claim their right to access to justice, right to be heard and to participate, and instilled a sense of responsibility in them. In such an inclusive approach, including the stipulation that in any decision or step the opinion of the child should be heard, was a manifestation of children’s empowerment. Maldives stressed that one of the biggest challenges to the protection of child rights was the lack of accountability mechanisms. The key challenges to access to justice for children were that they could not understand the justice system due to its complexities, were dependent on adults’ support and certain minority groups of children such as those living in the streets were more exposed to stigmatization. India reiterated its commitments as an early adopter of the Convention of the Rights of the Child and recalled its many national protective measures including the National Policy for Children, rehabilitation and compensation to the child for physical or mental trauma, legal counsel, and the ‘Bal Bandhu’ protection scheme during civil unrest.
Mexico said it aimed to ensure the respect of the children’s rights including participation in the court proceedings regardless their status. Mexico asked the panellists for examples of best practices that they identified to ensure that children living on the street had access to justice. To effectively accommodate the specific needs and nature of children, Egypt underscored the importance of developing justice systems and stressed that steps taken to that end needed to maintain a delicate balance between the best interest of the child and the principles enshrined in the Convention concerning “evolving capacities” and “rights, duties, and responsibilities of the parents”.
Centre for Inquiry drew attention to the harmful practice of “breast ironing” which was often done by mothers, who mutilated girls to protect them from rape, early pregnancy, dropping out of school or pursuing men. Breast ironing caused medical problems such as cysts, infection or tissue damage, and the Centre urged the Council to put an end to the abusive practice. Iranian Elite Research Centre said the tightening of sanctions against Iran had affected the daily provision of health care in the country, affecting the lives and well-being of children and youth. Many haemophilia patients, for example, couldn’t access needed treatments and faced permanent disabilities and frequently death. The absence of baby milk and vaccines was threatening the lives of the youngest population. National Human Rights Commission of Canada stated that for more than 30 years First Nations persons could not access to the justice system in Canada. Addressing the inequitable funding would make sure that children’s needs in reserves were better met. Ways to resolve problematic issues through community-based approaches existed in aboriginal communities.
Malaysia said a child was not only a crucial component of society, but also the key of its continued survival, development and prosperity. Its National Child Protection Policy aimed to ensure that no child was exposed to neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation. A dedicated hotline for children had also been launched. Brazil stressed the importance of access to justice of vulnerable children and children deprived of parental care. Brazil had taken measures to prevent the institutionalization of children and adolescents, restricting it to exceptional situations when such measures were essential for the protection of rights. Uruguay said it adopted in 2004 a Code on Children and Adolescents, which had led to developing practices on children’s access to their rights. A telephone hotline had been put in place to receive complaints from children. In the criminal justice system, children had to be provided with specialized assistance, while a guardianship system had been established in the civil system.
Morocco informed that it did not allow public hearings of children, in line with international conventions, while minors had to be accompanied by parents and lawyers. Juvenile cases were dealt with differently, and the role of the juvenile justice system was not to punish children, but rather to guide them onto the right path. South Africa said its law included the protection of children who were victims of crime from the harshness of the normal courts. A criminal justice system for children was in place, through its Child Justice Act. Children ought to know their basic rights, involving judicial recourses at their disposal.
IRENE KHAN, Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, said that States had to provide alternative care for children who could not stay with their families. The law must ensure that legal guardian was in place and was aware of the situation. Street children should not be criminalized and all efforts should be directed to their reintegration and rehabilitation. Capacity building of State institutions, communities, services for children and the judiciary was of utmost importance and more efforts needed to be directed there. Children were subject to informal justice systems and more engagement with those traditional systems was needed in order to ensure they met international human rights standards. Finally, Ms. Khan stressed the importance of the participation of children in the design of child-friendly systems and their representation therein.
MAYA BHANDARI, Representative of Paralegal Committees of Nepal, said that the Committees had made immense contribution in increasing access to justice for women and children in rural Nepal. They were able to act as a bridge between communities and the justice systems and were also successful in increasing accountability of those providing services.
NIKHIL ROY, Programme Development Director, Penal Reform International, said that measures in legislation that would help children access justice and which would also increase the effectiveness and fairness on the justice systems could include: revision of the age of criminal responsibility; eliminating inhumane sentences such as the death penalty, life imprisonment, and solitary confinement; increasing the range of restorative and non-custodial measures and putting in place systems based on restorative principles; strengthening independent monitoring mechanisms; and investing in rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for children who were in contact with the law.
ABRAHAM BENGALI, Director of International Catholic Child Bureau, Mali (BICE) said that with regards to protecting the social and cultural rights of a child in conflict with the law, the national office had developed practice consisting in working together in consultation with other players in the field of child protection, although he regretted the lack of resources and legal aid in Mali. For migrant girls involved in court proceedings, the Bureau had a partnership with hospitals to ensure their right to health. Legal aid was essential to ensure access to justice and should be strengthened, particularly in countries that lacked resources. The bureau had consistently provided aid to children deprived of their freedoms. Mr. Bengali emphasized the need to create a protective environment for children through concerted capacity-building of all actors involved.
MARIE DERAIN, French Children’s Defender; Ombudsman for Children and Deputy Ombudsman of France, drew attention to the possibility of the judges in France to designate a legal guardian for a child during judicial procedure, called the “advocate administrator”. She said it seemed important to ask for an addition to the current status of advocate administrators to clarify their task in comparison to lawyers or advocates and to heighten the awareness of the judges to the role of those people, who could be true representatives of the children and defenders of their interests, particularly when in conflict with the interest of the parents.
Psychological and juridical legal support throughout the procedure for child victims should be proposed as soon as a complaint was launched, by the police or the judge. Foreign unaccompanied minors in particular lacked adequate legal support. Knowledge of children’s rights was not always evident in professionals or the children themselves. When children were consulted on access to justice, they stressed the need to be heard and listened to. They had great trust in the ability of the judges to do that and to explain the proceedings and even give them choice in changing their situation.
For use of the information media; not an official record