18 May 2017
The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the combined third to fifth periodic report of Bhutan under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its initial reports under two Optional Protocols to the Convention, on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, and on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
Dorji Choden, Minister for Works and Human Settlements and Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and Children of Bhutan, introducing the reports, informed the Committee of major achievements which included the enactment of the child care and protection act 2011, child adoption act 2012, and the domestic violence prevention act 2013. The National Plan of Action on Child Protection 2012 was in place, while the setting up of the Family and Child Bench in the Thimphu District Court would go a long way in expediting justice for women and child related cases. The law review task force to harmonize conflicting, contradicting and overlapping laws had been set up in 2015. Bhutan had conducted its very first comprehensive study on violence against children in 2016 to identify and better understand the various forms of violence experienced by boys and girls. The National Plan of Action on Child Protection would be revised to address the concerns that the study had identified. The Electoral Commission had set up the Bhutan Children’s Parliament to fully engage children in the electoral process and promote their participation in democracy and policy decisions.
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts commended Bhutan for the sustained focus on the social welfare and wellbeing of its people, to which it consistently dedicated 45 per cent of its budget every year. They welcomed the enactment of the childcare and protection act and raised concern that it was exclusively focused on children in difficult situations rather than on all children in Bhutan. Another concern was the lack of the harmonization of childcare and protection provisions between different laws, which were at the moment contradictory, for example in matters of corporal punishment, marriage, or citizenship. On discrimination, Experts were concerned about the situation of children of Nepalese ethnic origin and the discrimination in the right to citizenship of children born to a non-Bhutanese parent, and inquired about the discrimination complaint mechanism. The delegation was asked how the principle of the best interest of the child was included in policies and programmes and implemented in practice by the administration and the judiciary; the oversight and monitoring of monastic educational institutions; and violence against children and the lack of criminalization of corporal punishment in all settings.
On the involvement of children in armed conflict, the Experts inquired how age verification was carried out in the absence of a birth certificate, extra-territorial jurisdiction in the matters of the Optional Protocol, and programmes to raise awareness about the Optional Protocol among the armed forces. With regard to the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, the delegation was asked about legal definitions of key terms and how they were aligned with the Optional Protocol, and efforts to disseminate the provisions of the Optional Protocol and provide resources to combat the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
Mikiko Otani, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, in her closing remarks, took note of the challenges Bhutan faced in this period of major change and commended the commitment to care for and protect Bhutanese children.
In her concluding remarks, Ms. Choden said that Bhutan had a duty to improve the situation of its children and was committed to fulfilling the obligations under the Convention and its Protocols in the complex economic, social and political context.
The delegation of Bhutan included representatives of the Ministry for Works and Human Settlement, the National Commission for Women and Children, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, Office of the Attorney General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health, Youth Development Fund, as well as representatives of the Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will reconvene in public at 3 p.m. today, 18 May, to consider the combined fourth and fifth periodic report of Lebanon (CRC/C/LBN/4-5).
The Committee is considering the combined third to fifth periodic report of Bhutan under the Convention (CRC/C/BTN/3-5), and its initial reports under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (CRC/C/OPSC/BTN/1), and under the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC/C/OPAC/BTN/1).
Presentation of the Reports
DORJI CHODEN, Minister for Works and Human Settlements and Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and Children of Bhutan, started by informing the Committee of the constitutional obligation of Bhutan to protect children from all forms of discrimination and exploitation, including trafficking, prostitution, abuse, violence, degrading treatment and economic exploitation. Thus Bhutan continued to pursue its pro-child policies in spite of the many challenges that it faced as a small, landlocked and least developed country. Major achievements in Bhutan included the enactment of the child care and protection act 2011, child adoption act 2012, and the domestic violence prevention act 2013, as well as the development and implementation of the 2012 National Plan of Action on Child Protection which strove to institutionalize a comprehensive and sustainable system for children in need. Furthermore, the Family and Child Bench had been recently established in the Thimphu District Court, which would go a long way in expediting justice for women and child-related cases. Bhutan had also set up in 2015 a national law review task force to harmonize conflicting, contradicting and overlapping laws.
Another area in which achievements had been made was the establishment of childcare facilities at workplaces to support working mothers and ensure the wellbeing of children; 10 crèches were in operation today and this initiative was picking up fast. In line with the breastfeeding policy, maternity leave had been extended from three to six months for women working in the public service, and paternity leave from five to 10 working days. The Child Protection Focal Person Network was in place and was composed of 40 focal persons across all ministries and districts, who supported mainstreaming of child protection issues into their sectoral plans and policies as foreseen by the National Plan of Action on Child Protection 2012. In March 2013, the Women and Child Protection Division had been established in the Royal Bhutan Police to provide separate women and child friendly spaces in police stations.
The very first comprehensive study on violence against children in 2016 aimed to identify and better understand the various forms of violence experienced by boys and girls, the drivers of violence in different contexts, various risk and mitigating factors, and the responses to violence against children across Bhutan. The study had revealed useful information and the Government was taking steps to address the concerns it had identified, including the review of the national plan of action of child protection and the formulation of a communication for development strategy of child protection. Finally, Bhutan continued with its awareness and advocacy efforts and in August 2016 it had conducted a high-level gender and child rights and protection sensitization workshop for members of parliament. A recent high-level nation-wide advocacy programme on HIV/AIDS, child rights and social protection issues such as violence against children, child marriage, teenage pregnancy and services for women and children in difficult circumstances targeted district officials, teachers, students, the entertainment industry and the general public. The Electoral Commission had set up the Bhutan Children’s Parliament to fully engage children in the electoral process and promote their participation in democracy and policy decisions. Finally, Ms. Choden informed the Committee that in 2017, Bhutan would conduct the national population and housing census to provide critical updates to the national database.
Consideration of the Report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child
Questions from the Experts
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson and Rapporteur for Bhutan, commended Bhutan for the sustained focus on the social welfare and wellbeing of its people, to which it consistently dedicated 45 per cent of its budget every year.
The child care and protection act was focused only on children in difficult situations – could the law be extended to encompass all children in the country? What was being done to harmonize the childcare and protection provisions across different laws, which at the moment were contradictory, for example in matters of corporal punishment, marriage, citizenship and other areas?
The National Commission for Women and Children had some of the competencies of a national human rights institution, in terms of monitoring for example, but it was also the key implementing body for all children and women related policies and programmes. Those two roles were contradictory. Were there any plans to establish an independent body to ensure monitoring?
A large part of the 45 per cent of the overall State budget dedicated to social issues went to education, and another significant proportion was allocated to health activities, but the protection of children’s right received a very small proportion, some five per cent of the overall budget. What were the plans concerning an increase in the child protection budget?
What actions were being undertaken to disseminate the Convention and its Optional Protocols throughout the country, including in rural areas, monastic institutions and among children with disabilities? Did school curricula include human rights education?
Civil society was an important partner for the Government of Bhutan, but civil society organizations had to operate under the umbrella of a ministry, which restricted their operation and activities. What could be done to ensure greater space and freedom of action to civil society?
What was the role of the private sector and private businesses, including private education providers, in the implementation of the protect, respect and remedy framework?
BERNARD GASTAUD, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, noted that the definition of the child in the marriage law was in contradiction with the definition of the child in the Convention as it allowed marriage of girls from the age of 16 years. What was going on with regard to the harmonization of this law with the childcare and protection law and the Convention? Discrimination existed in terms of citizenship of children of a Bhutanese and a non-Bhutanese parent – how was this being remedied?
Could the delegation inform the Committee how children enjoyed and exercised their freedom of speech, expression and religion, and their right to privacy?
MIKIKO OTANI, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, commended the people-centred approach to development in Bhutan, expressed through the gross national happiness index.
Ms. Otani addressed the issue of discrimination against children of Nepalese ethnic origin, which comprised nearly 25 per cent of the population, and asked for up-to-date data on this population group. Bhutan was preparing for a census and the question was asked whether ethnic disaggregated data would be collected.
What complaint mechanism was in place for discrimination on various grounds and how many complaints had been received from children and women and on which grounds? Did the National Commission for Women and Children have a mandate to receive complaints of discrimination?
The Committee Rapporteur welcomed that the establishment of a toll-free help line for children was expected to be completed by 2019 and asked how the help line would be made accessible to all children everywhere in Bhutan, particularly given the language diversity in the country, where, in addition to the official language, another two major languages were spoken together with more than 19 dialects.
Could the delegation explain how the principle of the best interest of the child was included in policies and programmes, and how it was implemented in practice by the administration and the judiciary?
How were members of the Children’s Parliament elected and what system was in place to ensure that all groups of children were represented, including the girl child, children with disabilities, children from rural areas, and children from ethnic groups? How were the views of children heard, for example in adoption or divorce proceedings?
According to the marriage act, the custody of a child under the age of nine was automatically granted to the mother, but automatic granting of custody was in violation of the principle of the best interest of the child. Children above the age of nine could decide which parent they wanted to live with, which was also in violation of the best interest of the child.
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson and Rapporteur for Bhutan, expressed grave concern about violence against children in Bhutan. Corporal punishment was still allowed under certain conditions.
Ms. Winter welcomed the comprehensive study on violence against children and inquired about the steps to be taken to implement its recommendations. What was being done to comprehensively prohibit corporal punishment of children in schools, homes and the workplace?
Responses by the Delegation
Bhutan was a new democracy, noted a delegate, recalling that the first elections had taken place in 2008. Bhutan was developing a modern society in which human rights took the centre, although people-focused development had been there in the pre-democracy time as well. A task force had been set up to revise and harmonize the country’s laws and ensure that they were in line with the modern day situation.
The childcare and protection act was indeed mainly protection-related, due to the previous approaches in development, which had neglected protection issues. Bhutan was committed to incorporate child wellbeing issues across policies and programmes. The childcare and protection act would be revised in line with the findings of the study on violence against children and other relevant studies recently conducted in Bhutan.
The Law Review Committee was in place with the mandate to harmonize the laws of Bhutan with international treaties. In 2016, the Women, Children and Youth Committee of the National Assembly had undertaken an initiative to receive views on the changes required in the penal code and other laws, which would be integrated in the ongoing law reform.
Data indicated that 99 per cent of children were registered at birth; there were no sanctions for parents who failed to register their children.
The National Commission for Women and Children indeed carried both implementing and monitoring functions; it faced financial and human resource constraints in the implementation of its mandate. A note had been introduced in the Cabinet concerning the setting up of a separate body with a purely implementation mandate.
With regard to the budgetary allocations for child protection issues, the delegation agreed that those issues had been largely neglected; the study on violence against children now provided evidence and information on which programmes and budgeting could be based and hopefully financial allocations for the protection of children would be increased. Bhutan would start its twelfth Five-Year Plan in 2018 which contained key result areas of particular relevance for children, including on juvenile justice and access of children to courts.
Bhutan was a mountainous country and difficult access to remote areas was a challenge in all dissemination and awareness raising activities.
Creating awareness on issues of relevance to women and children was a particular area of interest and action in the National Commission for Women and Children, which had been carrying out advocacy programmes in 13 districts, in schools and for the general public. The Bhutan Broadcasting Service was regularly covering advocacy activities, thus increasing the dissemination of activities throughout the country.
Monastic institutions had come a long way in terms of opening up the administration and management of these institutions; currently, a committee was in place to support the education and care of children in monastic institutions. The dialogue between the Government and those institutions had started and was ongoing and it was hoped that in the future it would further improve.
The registration of children born in Bhutan to Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese parents, was automatic as long as parents followed the procedure; citizenship was granted automatically only to a child born to Bhutanese parents. A child born to a Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese parent did not receive citizenship but could request naturalization after the age of 15. Birth registration facilities were provided within the 205 community information centres, which were present in all the districts.
Turning to consultations with children, the delegation explained that there were youth groups in the country who were often consulted on legislation and policy and their views and feedback were sought.
Child-friendly versions of the Convention had been published, but this had not yet been done for the two Optional Protocols. The Communication for Development Strategy was being developed which would allow for more comprehensive awareness raising on child rights and child protection. A training curriculum on child rights had been developed in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund. The police, district officials, staff of the monastic institutions, teachers and others had been trained in the Convention and the two Optional Protocols, which had also been translated into local languages and disseminated in schools.
Responding to questions raised about civil society, the delegation explained that civil society organizations were a rather new phenomenon, although some civil society organizations had been set up 17 years ago. The civil society act had been adopted in 2007. There were two types of civil society organizations and they were not under a ministry but under a civil society organizations authority composed of a representative of the Ministry of Finance, a lawyer, a senior official from the Ministry of Women, and two civil society organizations representatives. Civil society organizations were seen as a partner to the Government which came in to fill in the gaps and support the Government programmes at the grassroots level.
Concerning the definition of the child, it was explained that the childcare and protection act used a definition conforming to the Convention identity of a child as a person under 18 years of age. The marriage act set the age of marriage for girls at 16 years; the 2002 penal code punished sexual relations with a child under the age of 18 which dissuaded marriages under the age of 18.
The constitution guaranteed the freedom of expression, opinion, thought, religion and belief, and the right to privacy. The media was free in Bhutan and each child had access to information on an equal footing with adults, with parental supervision. It was a criminal offence to convert another person to a different faith by force, coercion or inducement. The privacy of a child in a court process was protected by the law.
The Children’s Parliament had been recently started; it had constituted democracy clubs in all schools which organized the election of members of the Parliament. Two sessions had taken place to date in which various issues had been discussed; the Children’s Parliament formulated resolutions which were then transmitted to the Prime Minister for action.
Turning to children from other ethnic groups, the delegation said that disaggregated data was not available, adding that the estimate of the number of ethnic Nepalese representing 25 per cent of the population had been drawn up a long time ago and it was not clear how accurate it was. It was not sure whether ethnicity-related demographic data would be collected in the 2017 census.
The Government was very concerned about ensuring that no one was discriminated against and left behind; the legal framework of the country, including the constitution, guided the development process and aimed to ensure that everyone was treated justly and fairly as much as possible.
The toll-free help line would come in operation in 2019; meanwhile, the Government was raising awareness among children in difficult situations about this help line. It would be a 24/7 line, manned by a team of counsellors; initially it would be available in English and in Dzongkha, while there was consideration of including dialects in the help line later on.
Corporal punishment in schools had been banned in 2008 and was no longer in existence. Bhutan had started the concept of educating for national human happiness in 2010, which included developing a respectful environment in schools in which non-violent methods and positive discipline were being used instead of corporal punishment. The teachers’ code of conduct had been revised in 2012 and the use of any form of corporal punishment, harassment and sexual abuse of students was strictly prohibited. A draft national education policy was being developed and it would reflect all those elements.
Questions from the Experts
In the next round of questions, MIKIKO OTANI, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, welcomed the enactment of the child adoption act in 2012 and asked the delegation to provide detailed information about all stages of the adoption process and the key roles within it. Were there private adoption agencies in Bhutan and if so, how were they regulated? Bhutan’s adoption legal framework was very much in line with the Hague Inter-Country Adoption Convention– what was the thinking in Bhutan concerning the ratification of this Convention which would strengthen the protection of children in the inter-country adoption process.
Under the Government’s School Reform Initiative, central schools were being set up to ensure that all children, particularly those in remote areas, had access to school. The concern was, however, that those were boarding schools and children as young as six years of age would be separated from their families to attend school and thus be deprived of a family environment.
CEPHAS LUMINA, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, took up the situation of children with disabilities and inquired about mechanisms in place to monitor the implementation of the standards for inclusive education and the sanctions for non-compliance. How were children with disabilities, their parents and their representative organizations involved in the drafting of the national disability policy?
Mr. Lumina also asked about the training of health workers on community-based rehabilitation and disability assessment, measures to tackle the stigmatization of children with disabilities, and steps to reduce disparities in access, quality and utilization of health services between the regions, rural and urban areas, and income groups.
The Country Co-Rapporteur further asked about reasons for the reduction in the health budget and measures to be taken to improve budgetary allocations to the health sector. Raising concern about chronic malnutrition, Mr. Lumina requested the delegation to inform about the percentage of children under the age of five who were stunted, the parts of the country particularly affected, and the steps taken to implement the recommendations from the 2014 high-level meeting on chronic malnutrition.
BERNARD GASTAUD, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, commended the progress Bhutan had made in ensuring universal access to education and noted that while education was free, it was not compulsory. What was being done to address the hidden costs of education and so increase access to education? The quality of education seemed poor – how would this question be addressed, including through teacher training?
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson and Rapporteur for Bhutan, inquired about the situation of refugee and asylum-seeking children, including the right to citizenship, access to health and education, language learning, and return.
On juvenile justice, Ms. Winter asked whether the Family and Child Bench in the Thimphu District Court was only civil or if it included criminal matters as well. Was it possible for a judge to deliver a sentence to a juvenile which was below the legal minimum, if that minimum included deprivation of liberty?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said that the National Commission for Women and Children had the mandate to receive complaints, including from children from monastic institutions, although they could also submit complaints to the monitoring body of monastic schools instituted in 2013. Starting 2019, children would also be able to file a complaint via a help line.
The National Commission for Women and Children maintained a list of parents wishing to adopt and was in charge of screening potential parents. The best interest of the child was always the deciding factor in matching decisions. The child adoption act mandated the establishment of a competent adoption authority but it also provided a possibility for civil society organizations to act as private adoption agents. At the moment, there were no such civil society organizations. For now, even with the modern child adoption act in place, Bhutan was not able to fully implement the provisions of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption; obstacles to the ratification included lack of capacity to monitor and verify prospective adoptive parents abroad.
All private schools had to conform to education policies, standards and guidelines and they had to sign a memorandum of understating with the Ministry of Education. To date, 60 central schools had been set up to provide free quality education, books, sporting equipment and three meals a day; the children also had access to councillors. It was true that children in central schools were separated from their families but it was not mandatory for children to attend central schools; children residing within five kilometres from the school could attend without boarding. The pressure to ensure a place in a central school was immense as it offered definitive educational, economic and social advantages to the children.
Bhutan’s landscape offered formidable challenges in terms of accessibility, and this affected not only access to education but the quality of education as well. That was why the concept of central schools was being put in place, to provide access to quality education; other schools remained in communities and parents could choose between schools in communities and boarding central schools.
To ensure child protection in central schools, the Ministry of Education had deployed most of its counsellors in these schools; they were trained in art therapy by the United Nations Children’s Fund, and would soon be trained in psycho-social counselling and resilience building in youth and children. The Ministry would hire additional counsellors to ensure that each central school had at least one. Care givers in those schools had been trained in child protection and each school had in place the child protection guidelines.
Education was free and everyone was encouraged to send their children to school, although this was not necessary any longer as parents actively sought education for their children. It was the responsibility of each District Administrator to ensure that all children were in school - this was in fact a provision of a memorandum of understanding signed between each District Administrator and the Prime Minister. The Government’s objective was for everyone in Bhutan to have at least grade ten education. Only about one per cent of the children were out of school.
In 2015, a national child nutrition survey had been carried out with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund and it demonstrated that the stunting rate for children under the age of five had dropped from 80 per cent in 2000 to 21 per cent in 2015. The food and nutrition policy had been adopted in 2015 and the food security strategy in 2016; child malnutrition was also being addressed through initiatives to reduce infant and child mortality.
A sexual and reproductive health policy was not in place at the moment. Adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services were being provided through 13 district hospitals.
Follow-up Questions and Answers
The delegation was asked in follow-up questions to explain measures taken to address the increasing school drop-out issue. Experts also asked the delegation if the 10 steps for breastfeeding approach was being used, and to inform on baby-friendly certified hospitals in the country.
The Experts asked about inclusive education, the participation of children with disabilities in the drafting of the national disability policy, and measures taken to combat stigmatization and the marginalization of children with disabilities.
Responding, the delegation said that children who dropped out of school were given the possibility to return to school and repeat a year.
The national disability policy was being drafted and this process would be completed by October 2017; guidelines were being prepared for the educational assessment of children with disabilities. At the moment, there were two special schools in Bhutan. Inclusive education standards had been developed which would be followed in all 14 schools that had been identified for inclusive education. More than 200 teachers had undergone twenty-first century education training, which had brought major changes in schools in terms of classroom organization, curriculum delivery, etc. All teachers, more than 9,000 of them, were offered language courses.
With regard to the participation of children, particularly children with disabilities, in decision-making on issues that affected them, the delegation said that there were several platforms and programmes in schools where students could participate and express their opinion. There were programmes in the media as well. The terminology used in Bhutan for children with disabilities was differently-abled children, and there was usually no stigmatization. Many non-governmental organizations were working on disability issues and raising awareness about them in communities.
The Ministry of Health was in the process of finalizing guidelines for underage pregnancy. Exclusive breastfeeding was at just over 50 per cent, which was still rather low; to address the issue, maternity leave had been extended from three to six months, the food security and nutrition strategy and policy had been adopted, while the mother and baby health programme was being rolled out in 13 district hospitals. A public awareness campaign on the benefits of breastfeeding was taking place through social and traditional media.
An assessment of water and sanitation facilities in health facilities had been conducted in 2016. Sanitary pads were being supplied free of charge to school girls throughout the country. Health coverage, in terms of access to primary health services, was rather good, and the Government had made efforts to ensure that primary health services reached every corner of the country; there were two regional referral hospitals, and the central referral hospital in the capital city. Access to all health services was almost free of charge – primary, secondary and tertiary, and referrals were being carried out abroad as well.
There was no external monitoring of monastic institutions for now; instead, there was an 11-member committee made up of monastic institutions staff which looked into the issues of child protection.
The drafting of the disability policy started this month; disability assessment had already been conducted and this exercise would also provide input from the concerned populations into the policy design. The policy-making process by default integrated cross-cutting issues such as gender and child protection.
The Family and Child Bench recently established in the Thimphu District Court dealt with civil matters for now; judges had the discretion to reduce sentences in first and second degree offences, but not in most serious crimes.
Nepalese refugees participated in resettlement projects supported by several governments; currently some 10,000 Nepalese refugees remained in the camps.
Asked about children of Nepalese origin, the delegation explained that Bhutan was a country where integration was valued and that the term “of Nepalese origin” was not used. Children born to non-Bhutanese parents or who had one Bhutanese and one foreign parent were registered at birth like any other child, and as long as they had their birth registration, they could access school.
Disability discussion and programmes were relatively new; there were three civil society organizations which ran programmes for persons with disabilities, including those that provided life and work skills to persons with disabilities.
Consideration of Reports under the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography
Questions from the Experts
BERNARD GASTAUD, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Bhutan, said that voluntary recruitment was established at 18 years of age in Bhutanese law and asked how age verification was done in the absence of a birth certificate. Were there specialised programmes for armed forces personnel to foster the awareness of the Optional Protocol on children in armed conflict among them?
The recruitment of children in armed conflict was criminalized, while the Optional Protocol called for criminalization of recruitment of children in armed forces, armed groups or private military services providers.
Could the delegation explain the extra-territorial jurisdiction in the matters of the Optional Protocol? An Expert noted that Bhutan participated in peacekeeping operations, and asked if there were any international or bilateral cooperation agreements?
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson and Rapporteur for Bhutan, remarked that the sale of children was not defined in the law. What could explain the complete absence of registered cases of the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography?
What was being done to disseminate and raise awareness about the Optional Protocol and to provide training and resources to combat the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography?
More than seven entities were dealing with issues under the Optional Protocol – how were they coordinated? Were legal persons, including corporations, liable for the offences under the Optional Protocol and could they be held accountable?
Could the delegation inform about the prosecution of perpetrators and sanctions handed out for the offences? What plans were there for the training of law enforcement, prosecution and judiciary officials in the provisions of the Optional Protocol?
The definition of trafficking in the penal code was rather poor and not in line with the childcare and protection act which was in conformity with the Optional Protocol. What was being done to harmonize the definition?
Responses by the Delegation
At the beginning of the next round of responses, the delegation reminded the Committee that Bhutan was a late developer, now in a process of accelerated social, economic and political change, which was also accentuated by globalisation and the fast increase in access to information and communication technology. A bill on online pornography had been recently tabled which aimed to address all emerging issues and set up the system to deal with those new phenomena.
In response to questions raised about the involvement of children in armed conflict, the delegation said that in order to ensure that children were not recruited in the armed forces in the absence of identity cards or birth records, age was determined on the basis of testimony of family members, community members, traditional authorities, and other people in the child’s life. The recruitment of children in armed conflict carried a sentence of five to nine years in prison, but no cases of this offence had been recorded.
The use of firearms was heavily monitored and controlled in Bhutan and there were no armed groups or gangs.
In follow-up questions, Committee Experts stressed that the prohibition in the law of the recruitment of children by non-State actors was linked to the exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction and asked the delegation to explain to the Committee what would happen to a non-Bhutanese who was in Bhutan and who was engaged in recruiting children into armed groups abroad. The purpose of this obligation defined by article 4 was to prevent impunity for crimes under the Optional Protocol even outside of the territory of the State party.
The delegation explained that Bhutan extradited persons on the basis of bilateral agreements for the crimes defined in the schedule that defined extradition offenses, and for the crimes which carried a prison sentence of more than 12 months even if they were not specifically mentioned in the schedule. Extradition was possible without a bilateral agreement with another State which was a party to the Optional Protocol.
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson and Rapporteur for Bhutan, asked how children involved in armed conflict outside of Bhutan could be identified among the children arriving to Bhutan as refugees or migrants.
The delegation said that there were no such cases to date and that no specific procedures were in fact in place. Given the likelihood of this scenario, Bhutan would incorporate the procedure into the guidelines.
The sale of the child was prohibited by the childcare and protection act, and the offence was punishable by five to nine years in prison. Pornography and trafficking were defined in the penal code, and online pornography was captured and would be criminalized in the new bill tabled recently, the Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act.
The penal code had been amended in 2011 to expand the definition of trafficking of adults but trafficking of children had not been further defined with this amendment. The childcare and protection act provided a more comprehensive definition of the sale and trafficking of children and because this law was more recent, those definitions applied. Legal persons were criminally liable in Bhutan.
Three cases of children trafficking had been recorded in Bhutan, for purposes of labour and sexual exploitation; the victims were girls and the perpetrators had received prison sentences. The victims were Bhutanese and they had been internally trafficked. Those crimes had been committed in 2010 when the standard operating procedures for trafficking had not yet been in place; notwithstanding, comprehensive support and reintegration services had been provided to the victims by civil society organizations and through the one-stop crisis centre, which had already been in operation in the central hospital in Thimphu.
The National Commission for Women and Children was the main body in child protection matters and had the mandate to coordinate all other bodies and agencies involved in this work, with the exception of anti-trafficking activities which were being coordinated by the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. The National Commission for Women and Children was in the process of creating district units to ensure coordination closer to the ground.
Concerning plans to establish shelters for women and children in difficult situations in eastern or central regions, this was still to be decided. Civil society organizations were in the process of constructing a shelter for victims of violence which would serve southern districts, and they also had plans to provide support services to victims of violence in all districts.
Most adoptions in Bhutan were domestic, and regular visits to the adoptive family took place even after the adoption was concluded. This commitment to regularly monitor the well-being of the adopted child was also an obstacle to the ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption as Bhutan did not have the capacity to undertake such level of monitoring abroad.
Follow-up Questions and Answers
In follow-up questions, a Committee Expert inquired about efforts to professionalize the juvenile justice system and ensure that juveniles did not receive sentences of deprivation of liberty.
The delegation explained that the first consideration in all cases involving children was to look for diversion which was an alternative to criminal process. If the offence was serious and warranted prosecution, the child would still be entitled to diversion measures for a felony graded four and below, and would receive community service or payment of a fine. The diversion process also included counselling for the child. Child prosecution guidelines and diversion guidelines were being drafted and would be adopted by June 2017.
Another Expert asked whether it was possible for a child to leave monasteries, the HIV/AIDS prevalence and prevention policy, the involvement of the Government in prevention programmes against HIV/AIDS, support provided to civil society organizations active in the field, and which specific measures were being taken such as the prevention of mother to child transmission.
The delegation explained that the national HIV/AIDS control programme was in place in all health institutions and that under the programme testing and counselling services were being provided to the population. National guidelines for the treatment and management of HIV/AIDS had been adopted and were in use by health centres. The prevention of mother to child transmission was included in the national guidelines and was managed as per the United Nations guidelines, including pre-birth voluntary counselling and testing, provision of anti-retroviral drugs, safe obstetric and breastfeeding practices, etc.
It was up to the children to decide to join or leave monastic educational institutions; there were no sanctions for those who left.
With regard to the situation of children with disabilities, Experts inquired about their inclusion in education and sports activities, and how their needs were taken into consideration in the plans for access to information and communication technology. What sanctions were meted out to schools not complying with inclusive education standards and would a rights-based framework be set up for children with disabilities?
The delegation was also asked to inform about the number of children under the age of five who were stunted or malnourished; the application of best interest of the child in matters of custody, especially in the automatic granting of custody of children under the age of nine to mothers, and the right of the child over the age of nine to decide which parent to live with; the minimum age for entry into monastic schools; and whether Bhutanese peace keepers were trained in the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
Responding to questions raised about children with disabilities, the delegation explained that there were two special schools and that currently, 611 children with disabilities were enrolled in various schools. There were also vocational training institutions for children with disabilities and it was planned to have one school for children with disabilities per district. The national disability policy was being drafted and it would provide special attention to the education of children with disabilities.
A mini Paralympic had been organized in Bhutan, which also participated in regional and international Paralympic games and competitions. The main standards used in inclusive education were inclusive culture, inclusive policy and inclusive practice. With regard to the statutory rights-based framework, the delegation said that Bhutan was currently discussing the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it had already signed several years ago, and added that a high-level group had been set up to study the question.
Bhutan had received the WHO polio-free certification in 2014 and worked diligently to improve vaccination coverage, which at the moment was at over 90 per cent throughout the country. Numerous initiatives to address child malnutrition had reduced the prevalence from 37 per cent in 2008 to 22 per cent in 2015.
Referring to custody procedures, the delegation said that the decision of the child above the age of nine in terms of who to live with was usually respected but it was at the discretion of judges to make the final decision in the best interest of the child.
Bhutan was a new peacekeeping troops contributing country. Currently, there were no particular training programmes for the troops such as specific training on the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The United Nations had a stringent training programme for peacekeeping troops.
The monastic institution was sacred in Bhutan and was one of the key components of the gross national happiness; it was also the institution that kept the Bhutanese nation united and together. The institution had undergone tremendous changes in recent times: it now had a secretariat and administration manned with monks who had been trained in the formal education system and they were instrumental in linking with the Government on various issues. For example, there was now a possibility for children to play, engage in sport and watch television programmes.
MIKIKO OTANI, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Bhutan, concluded by noting that Bhutan was undergoing major legal reform and that in this period it faced a number of constraints, financial or geographical. The Committee was impressed by the commitment of Bhutan to caring for and protecting its children, and hoped that this dialogue would be helpful in addressing the gaps in the implementation of Convention and its Optional Protocol in Bhutan.
DORJI CHODEN, Minister for Works and Human Settlements and Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and Children of Bhutan, concluded by saying that the implementation of the Convention and its Optional Protocols were taken seriously in Bhutan. It revolved around complex issues of legislation, equity, inclusion and justice. Bhutan had a duty to improve the situation of its children and was committed to fulfilling the obligations under the Convention and its Protocols in the complex economic, social and political context and modern challenges.
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the very fruitful dialogue.
For use of the information media; not an official record