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COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD EXAMINES REPORT OF TONGA

14 May 2019

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the initial report of Tonga on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Presenting the report, Raelyn ‘Esau, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training of Tonga, said that, although Tongan legislation did not provide extensively for the Convention, courts had applied it in several cases involving children.  This included a trend in moving away from sentencing young persons to whipping and the death penalty, even though it was permitted by law, and applying the principle of best interest of the child in relevant cases. While several safeguards were in place, it was noted that more needed to be done to fully realize the Convention in Tonga with respect to children in conflict with the law or as victims of crime.  Recent developments in legislation and policy, in particular the Family Protection Act 2013, the Education Act 2013, and the Child Protection Policy, provided children with improved protection from domestic violence and better access to quality universal education.  The genuine and durable partnerships, both domestically and internationally, had enabled the Government to make progress in promoting and protecting the rights of children, including in sustaining compulsory education of children, increasing access to justice and protection by law in case of domestic violence, ensuring access to civil registration to guarantee the legal identity of individuals from birth, and providing access to vaccination and healthcare services.

In the discussion that followed, Committee Experts said that addressing violence against children was the most pressing issue, they said, noting in particular the legal provisions that allowed children as young as 15 to be sentenced to death, the continued practice of corporal punishment which was a serious attack on children’s dignity, and the world’s lowest minimum age of criminal responsibility which allowed children aged seven to be held criminally liable.  Child marriage was legal and allowed, the Experts noted with concern, as the Tongan Deaths and Marriages Registration Act allowed a 15-year-old child to get married, in direct contradiction with the Convention.  Tonga also had a very high rate of teenage pregnancy and a high rate of infant and child mortality, they said and asked about access to contraception and to legal abortion, including for victims of rape.  A lot of cases of child abuse were not reported, the Experts remarked and inquired about community-based initiatives to address the root causes of child abuse and whether there was a national debate or a strategy on the matter.  In Tonga, the best interest of the child was superseded by the interest of the family and those of the community - what was being done to ensure the primacy of the interest of the child and square the children’s best interests with Tongan culture and tradition.

In his concluding remarks, Clarence Nelson, Committee Co- Rapporteur for Tonga, welcomed Tonga’s will to promote legislative and other reforms to improve the situation of children.  This would not be easy, he said and encouraged Tonga to never give up.

Ms. 'Esau for her part reiterated Tonga’s sincere commitment to protecting the rights of children and said that her country would continue to take measures to ensure their best interests was of the highest priority.

Luis Ernesto Pedernera Reyna, Committee Chairperson, in his conclusion said the dialogue was extremely constructive and hoped it would be useful to the Kingdom of Tonga in its efforts to improve the situation of its children.

The delegation of Tonga consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Education and Training, the Statistics Department, and the Ministry of Justice.

The Committee will next meet in public on Wednesday 15 May at 3 p.m. to consider the combined third to sixth periodic report of Malta (CRC/C/MLT/3-6).

Report

The Committee has before it the initial report of Tonga (CRC/C/TON/1) and its reply to the list of issues (CRC/C/TON/Q/1/Add.1).

Presentation of the Report

RAELYN 'ESAU, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training of Tonga, recalled that Tonga, a constitutional monarchy under His Majesty King Tupou VI, had never been colonized; its traditional values as well as its social and cultural structures had been preserved. It was both a Small Island Developing State and a low-lying large ocean State.   The human rights of Tonga’s people, including its children, were therefore intricately tied to the environment, the land, and the sea.  This nexus, in the face of climate change and sea-level rise, was a pressing concern which threatened its very existence and exacerbated the risks to which their children and their futures were vulnerable. The Tongan society was structured along kinship lines, or extended family, and the children grew up with the support of the extended family and kinship, she explained.  While traditional Tongan society provided guidance, responsibility, care, and social reintegration for members of the family, the extended family was facing increasing disintegration due to internal and external migration.  The challenges arising out of this fragmentation related to the needs for childcare support for pre-compulsory school age children; concerns for orphans; conditions of living for children in mental health facilities and prison; support for counselling and social reintegration; as well as access to, and need for, accurate and relevant data.

Despite not providing extensively for the Convention in domestic legislation, the courts had applied the Convention in several cases involving children. This included a trend in moving away from sentencing young persons to whipping and the death penalty as well as applying the principle of best interest of the child in relevant cases. While several safeguards were in place, more needed to be done to fully realize the Convention in Tonga with respect to children in conflict with the law and children victims of crime.  Recent developments in legislation and policy, in particular the Family Protection Act 2013 and the Education Act 2013, as well as the Child Protection Policy, provided children with improved protection from domestic violence and better access to quality universal basic education.

Tonga had taken notable legislative measures to ensure the rights of children provided for in the Convention were implemented effectively in areas affecting them, such as health and education, notably in the domestic environment. Cooperation with international agencies by way of aid and partnerships with the civil society had been crucial in sustaining the Government’s efforts in that regard.  It was clear that issues relating to the welfare of children as envisaged by the Convention remained compartmentalized within various government ministries and stakeholders. The establishment of a national strategy and a recognized national body was vital in that regard; it would provide the Government with a clear picture of the status of and protection of the rights of the child.  A reinvigorated National Coordinating Committee on Children would also be instrumental in coordinating implementation efforts in a more integrated manner.

Ms. ‘Esau said Tonga remained grateful for the genuine and durable partnerships, both domestically and internationally, which had enabled the Government to make progress in promoting and protecting the rights of children. These partnerships had positively steered and complemented governmental efforts to sustain compulsory education of children; increase access to justice and protection by law in case of domestic violence; ensure access to civil registration to guarantee the legal identity of individuals from birth; and provide access to vaccination and healthcare services. Together with its partners, Tonga would continue to mobilize its efforts to progressively realize the Convention and ensure a safe and healthy environment in which its children could flourish and no one was left behind.

Questions by the Committee Experts

AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, commended Tonga for being candid in its report about the situation of children’s rights. Such openness allowed the Committee to better draw concluding observations that were concrete.  This would help the State Party to provide more protection to children. 

On the general measures of implementation of the Convention, she noted that the report stated that “The Government has not taken specific measures to harmonize national law with the Convention on the Rights of the Child”. Did Tonga have a plan to do so soon?  If so, what was its timeframe?  Pointing out that Tonga said it was relying heavily on international aid, she asked how sustainable this aid was and if the Government had established a plan B to sustain the provision of services to children should it lose any of the aid. How did the Government ensure that the budget allocated to different programmes had been spent effectively?  Did it have a tracking system?

The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Tonga was the lowest internationally: a 7-year-old boys or girls could be held liable for committing a crime if she or he were considered to have attained sufficient maturity of understanding. Could the delegation provide information on efforts to raise this very low age of criminal responsibility to an internationally acceptable level?

CLARENCE NELSON, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, said that Tonga’s high birth registration rate was commendable. He enquired about the way it was carried out on the outer islands and the effectiveness of the process. Were illegitimate children registered?  Why was it required that they be re-registered once their parents were married?

Turning to freedom of expression, he asked the delegation to explain its declaration that “children struggled with the concept of freedom of expression” and to outline the measures taken to encourage children’s enjoyment of freedom of expression and child participation in society?  Cultural challenges existed, he acknowledged, but the Government had to overcome them so that children might play a full role in the Tongan society. Was there any awareness amongst Tongan children of climate change?  He asked if the delegation believed the Government should encourage the participation of children in climate change-related actions, such as the strikes that had recently taken place.

On violence against children, the Co-Rapporteur asked about the penalty of whipping, which had been outlawed in Tonga. The Committee had been told that it still happened in school.  What measures had the Government taken to address this issue? He also enquired about the existence of community-based initiatives to address the root causes of child abuse, and requested data on this phenomenon. A lot of the cases were underreported he noted and asked whether there was a national strategy or a national debate on the matter.  What measures would the Government take to repeal legislation that allowed the use of the death penalty against children, he asked.

AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Co- Rapporteur for Tonga, asked if the Government had put in place any measures to prohibit by law any form of discrimination, notably to protect girls and children with disabilities. How did the Government intend to make the consultations it held with children in the past standard, so that children may always be involved and consulted on matters that affect them?

Responses by the Delegation

A delegate said that discussions had been underway to establish a desk to monitor the implementation of the Convention and that there was an ongoing debate on the legal age of marriage and a prohibition of child marriage.  Consultations had been held in that context on the main island, including with the civil society. As consultations on the outer islands had not taken place, the legislation had not been amended yet.  The Government anticipated that the development of the Youth Development Scheme, which was underway, would lead to a revision of the age of criminal responsibility. On birth registrations, the Ministry of Justice had offices on outer islands.  More needed to be done, however, and efforts had been made to improve birth registration on outer islands in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund.

On illegitimate children, they were required to be registered at birth, a delegate explained.  The subsequent marriage of parents could lead to legitimation of the child, which could carry rights, such as land ownership. Data on child abuse would be provided to the Committee in writing.  There was not a dedicated person that dealt with children’s complaints in the police’s domestic violence unit. 

As far as the death penalty was concerned, the delegation explained that a de facto moratorium continued to exist and that was why no efforts were carried out to modify the legislation. No specific measures had been taken to address discrimination against children

Follow-Up Questions

CLARENCE NELSON, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, remarked that the rape of boys was not criminalized and in the context of reregistration of illegitimate children, asked if issues related to the land ownership of girls would be addressed.

AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, noted that the term “illegitimate” was stigmatizing. On data collection, she noted that statistics were not disaggregated, even though the Convention required it, and asked about the measures taken to address the issue.

Other Experts asked if the Government considered replacing the phrase “illegitimate children” by more neutral wording, and inquired about the efforts to raise awareness amongst children and teachers related to violence against children, particularly given the weight of the tradition.  What was being done, concretely, to move things forward?  Addressing the issue of child marriage was urgent, the Experts stressed, asking about concrete steps the Government was taking in this regard.  Did the children who had to re-register their birth end up with two birth certificates?

The Experts remarked that in Tonga, the best interest of the child was superseded by the interest of the family and those of the community and asked what was being done to ensure the primacy of the interest of the child.  What was the Government doing to reduce the number of child deaths and injuries due to road accidents?  It was a matter of concern that Tonga had not taken any specific measures to prohibit corporal punishment, which was a serious attack on children’s dignity.  Why was this the case?

LUIS ERNESTO PEDERNERA REYNA, Committee Chairperson, asked how the Government was working with children on climate change. How did it square the children’s best interests with Tongan culture and traditions?

Responses by the Delegation


On the right of girls to own the land, a delegate explained that girls could not inherit land like boys and men could, but girls and women were, however, allowed to lease land. 

A family protection legal aid centre was in place to provide aid as per the Family Protection Act. It had a hotline for children and victims of domestic violence.  The delegation explained that a hotline that had been closed in the 1990s had been re-opened with the support of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and was now managed by the Women and Children Crisis Centre.  Some non-governmental organizations also had hotlines. 

Safe houses had been created to allow children to escape violence and sexual abuse and they were open to boys, girls, women and men; the priority was given to vulnerable children. As of May 2019, they were hosting 39 children.  The Ministry of Internal Affairs had made efforts to prevent their use by children who were running away from home.  There were growing concerns about run away children who left their good, stable families to go live in huts, and those were the children which the safe house employees were discouraged to take in. With limited funding, the Government could only look after so many children.

While boys were not protected as victims of rape, provisions on sodomy still existed in the Tongan legislation and could be used to address cases of rape against boys. The delegation could not provide any information on the care provided to boys who were victims of rape.

The task of raising the legal age of marriage was difficult, and the Government intended to do its best to address this issue in a timelier manner.

On reregistration, there was only one birth certificate at any given time. Work was underway to remove information on the “legitimate” or “illegitimate” status of a child from the birth certificate. That information would, however, be kept in birth registration centres, so that it may be used for land inheritance purposes.

Another delegate explained that a youth policy was underway and the Government had a long-term plan to increase funding for youth programmes.  To be considered as youth, a person had to be single, without children, and living at home.  Almost every village and district had local councils, which included youth as members.  This allowed them to express their views and make their voices heard. Furthermore, a Youth Parliament provided youth leaders with the opportunity to understand decision-making processes at the highest level.  Youth representation in churches was also a common practice.

RAELYN 'ESAU, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training of Tonga, turning to the involvement of children on climate change-related issues, said that climate resilient programmes had poured in the country following natural disasters. This had been an opportunity to educate children on climate change.  Information on evacuation plans was included in the curricula and drills were also being held.  Tongan children had realized the importance of preparing for natural disasters after cyclone Gita. Following the disaster, there had been a remarkable show of camaraderie by the community, with people cleaning and clearing out affected areas. The United Nations Children’s Fund had provided the Government with tents, which allowed some children to go back to school one week after the disaster.

Another delegate said data collection remained fragmented in Tonga but the Statistics Department was putting together a plan to improve it, and ensure compliance with international standards. The Police Department maintained a regular awareness programme on road safety on television and radio.

Questions by the Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts asked about the State Party’s plan to formalize adoption. Concerning children born in prison, the Experts asked whether it was mentioned on their birth certificate and requested the delegation to outline the measures in place to ensure the proper development of children born in prison.  Maternity leave in Tonga seemed to fall short of the international standard, they remarked and enquired about the hospitals that had the baby-friendly certification. 

AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, asked for data on children with disabilities, medical procedures in place for the early diagnosis of disabilities, referral programmes for children with different disabilities, and the support system provided to their families. Had the Government conducted any studies on the root causes of suicide and what measures were in place to prevent suicide? 

Turning to environmental health, the Co-Rapporteur asked the delegation to comment on nuclear waste disposal on its territory. About 12 per cent of the children did not enrol in primary school and 25 per cent in secondary school, remarked Ms. Aldoseri and requested disaggregated data on compulsory education and information on the way in which it was enforced.  She asked also about the human rights curriculum taught in schools.

CLARENCE NELSON, Co Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, asked the delegation to comment on the high infant mortality rate and provide information on efforts taken to address it. What was the Government doing to address the low vaccination coverage, notably on outer islands and in rural areas?  Was the Government taking measures to regulate the traditional healing practices, he enquired. Were there any laws prohibiting child labour?  There were a lot of children selling peanuts and snacks during school time and at night. Removing these children only solved the problem temporarily.  Was the Government considering measure to support their families?

On juvenile justice, the report indicated that the Government was aware of the problems. The age of criminal responsibility and the death sentences for children who were 15 to 17 years old were the most pressing issues, the Co-Rapporteur stated. What would happen in the interim phase, while reforms were pending?  He enquired about the existence of youth rehabilitation programmes.

Responses by the Delegation

Responding to a question on parental responsibilities, a delegate said the Roman Catholic Church provided pre-marriage preparation with an emphasis on parenting. Supervision on the part of the Government was mandatory when children were put in the care of their extended family, he assured. 

The delegation remarked that traditional healing was effective to a certain extent, however, its legalization was unlikely in the near future and so far there had not been any work to regulate traditional healers.

On early childhood and inclusive education, another delegate said efforts were made to ensure children did not leave school at an early age. No specific mapping had been done on drop-out rates, but the Government of Tonga was supporting children from low-income families to encourage them to finish secondary school, with the collaboration of international organizations. Human rights were already mainstream in the school curricula, she assured.  Inclusive education programmes were only offered in the capital, but the Ministry of Education intended to extend them to the outer islands.  A three-month maternity leave was offered to mothers, to allow them to breastfeed children. 

The Government was reviewing its adoption policy in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund. Children born in prison were registered through the regular birth registration process.  They were not subjected to stigma as a result of their place of birth, and the name of the village that was closest to the prison where they were born was indicated on their birth certificates.

RAELYN 'ESAU, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training of Tonga, said that measures were in place to prevent non-communicable diseases, for example, the regulation of the type of food sold in schools had been introduced to combat obesity. Given that surveys had shown that several children went to school without having had a meal in the morning, programmes had been created to provide them with breakfast, by growing fruits on the school premises, for example. The Ministry of Health had implemented programmes to increase its staff’s capacity and ensure they could provide care to individuals in remote communities. 

The national disability survey had been conducted in 2018, but its results were not yet available, another delegate said.  In response to questions raised on child labour, the delegation said that the Employment Relations Act 2013 had been revised and tabled for parliamentary consideration. The draft bill set the minimal age of legal employment at 15, and provided that children between the age of 15 and 18 could only take part in non-hazardous work. It also stipulated that discrimination was prohibited. 

Turning to sexual exploitation of children, the delegation said that the abduction of girls as well as the trafficking in children were criminalized.  The law protected only girls from abduction and there was no legislation on the sale of children. 

Follow-Up Questions and Answers

Ms. AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Tonga, pointed out that there was high rate of child pregnancy in Tonga. Did school curricula include sexual health education?  Could a girl who had become pregnant after being raped have access to safe abortion?

CLARENCE NELSON, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Tonga, remarked that there seemed to be an informal system of juvenile courts however, there was no alternative incarceration system for children who were put in prisons with adults.  He enquired about the training on children’s issues offered to judges, prosecutors, police officers and other Government officials involved in the judicial system.

LUIS ERNESTO PEDERNERA REYNA, Committee Chairperson, asked if there was draft bill on adoption in the pipeline, and, if so, what its status was and what Tonga intended to do to avoid school dropouts.  Was abortion a criminal offense and was contraception available to young people?

Responding, a delegate remarked that a lot of mental health patients who were kept at home were children, which allowed for their protection, notably from drug addicts who could become violent.  A study on the question of adoption was being considered with United Nations Children’s Fund, said the delegate, adding that the legislation on adoption would then follow.

As for the juvenile justice system, the Government did not have data on children in pre-trial detention, but work was underway to move to electronic data collection methods, which should allow it to provide relevant statistics to the Committee in the future. With the help of international partners, the Government had provided ad hoc training to the members of the judiciary on gender and human rights. 

On child mortality rate, another delegate said that the Ministry of Health had noted significant improvements but did not have any disaggregated data.  Children whose parents had HIV/AIDS were tested and provided all the care they needed immediately, another delegate stated.

RAELYN 'ESAU, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training of Tonga, said that children were taught about reproductive health in secondary schools and that no abortion services were available in the country.  The information on teenage pregnancy would be provided to the Committee at a later time, she said.  Smoking and drinking were prohibited in schools, and there were activities carried out by civil society organizations, as well various programmes created by schools, to raise awareness among students. Regarding the children who sold peanuts and snacks on the streets, the Government did not provide their family any support, unfortunately.

In response to questions about efforts taken to make sure children’s voices were heard, the delegation remarked that there used to be no room for children to voice any of their concerns, but as parents were getting younger and more educated, and as they became increasingly exposed to other cultures, they understood the need to involve children in decision-making processes. That was what the Tongan family was moving towards.  Children were involved at various levels, for example, the church offered designated, age-segmented programmes for children.

Children were also flown in from outer islands to take part in programmes that introduced them to various career paths. A programme called Alternative Pathways allowed children to attend a technical high school programme, rather than the mainstream one. This technical programme amounted to an introductory phase to trade certificate programmes offered by post-secondary technical institutions. 

On the double stigmatization of children who were victims of rape, another delegate said that while abortion was illegal and penalized in Tonga, exceptions could be made in extreme circumstances. 

Answering the questions raised on child health, the delegation said that vaccination efforts were ongoing to cover the whole of territory of Tonga and that more information on infant and child mortality would be provided in writing.  Home visits were carried out to provide care to young children with mental health issues, while those who stayed in hospitals were looked after by doctors and nurses.  Activities were organized for them as part of the rehabilitation process. To address the drug addiction issue, the Government was running campaigns in collaboration with non-governmental organization and various partners to raise awareness from a very young age.

Concluding Remarks

CLARENCE NELSON, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Tonga, said the Committee was very pleased that Tonga had filed its first report. He expressed gratefulness for the delegation’s physical presence in Geneva, which spoke volumes and showed that Tonga cared for its children. It was encouraging to hear assurances about the State Party’s will to promote legislative and other reforms; this would not be easy he said and encouraged Tonga to never give up. The Committee looked forward to receiving information about Tonga’s progress and hoped that its concluding remarks would be helpful.

RAELYN 'ESAU, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Education and Training of Tonga, thanked the Committee for the dialogue, which had been encouraging and was a capacity-building opportunity.  The head of the delegation reiterated Tonga’s sincere commitment to protecting the rights of children and stressed that it took a community to educate a child.  Tonga would continue to take measures to provide the children with what was rightfully theirs and ensure their best interests was of the highest priority.

LUIS ERNESTO PEDERNERA REYNA, Committee Chairperson, said the dialogue was extremely constructive and hoped it would be useful to the Kingdom of Tonga in its efforts to improve the situation of its children.



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