Children's rights at the United Nations
In this issue:
Week two of the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council began with combative debates on the role of human rights defenders and the importance of preventing torture in obtaining evidence. The right to food and the right to adequate housing took centre stage during the afternoon sessions.
It will be the last time for many of the special procedures presenting their reports during this 25th session of Council, as an unprecedented number of them are being replaced towards the end of the session. In fact, three of those speaking today will end their terms - human rights defenders, food and housing.
Children’s rights specifically did not feature much in the dialogues. But since human rights apply equally to children as they do to adults, some of the more interesting discussions and snippets are discussed below.
Torture and access to justice
“The exclusionary rule” is the focus of the report by the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment this year. The exclusionary rule is a legal principle whereby evidence against a defendant is inadmissible in court when a wrong has been committed in the collection of that evidence. Clearly torture is a wrong - and a gross violation of human rights - and evidence obtained under torture is almost always unreliable.
Torture in criminal justice systems is an extremely serious concern, and, in the absence of total prevention, access to justice for victims must be a primary priority for States. Ahead of Thursday’s annual day on the rights of the child, of which this year’s theme is access to justice for children, Pakistan raised the need for legal remedies for victims of torture. Poland noted the important role of an independent judiciary to prevent evidence obtained by torture.
Human rights defenders: Society’s friend or foe?
The room was packed for the dialogue with the Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, as she delivered her final report to the Council this morning. A number of NGOs, including the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), have been working tirelessly on this issue.
The ISHR made a statement during the session and said: “Any national law which purports to restrict human rights defenders should itself accord with international human rights norms. Laws that restrict NGO access to foreign funds, that criminalise advocacy for LGBT rights, and that severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly manifestly fail this basic test.”
Many States, while saying they welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s report on a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, claimed that the protection of human rights lies with States, that human rights defenders must act within the limits of national law, and that limits on human rights defenders (and indeed civil and political rights) can be justified on grounds of ‘public morals’ or ‘national security’.
Pakistan said: “The protection of human rights lies with the States. Sometimes States need to take extraordinary measures in extraordinary circumstances. Rights come hand in hand with obligations. Therefore civil society activists must abide by the law. Human rights do not give anyone the right to go above the law.”
China said its government values the work of human rights defenders, but stipulated that they must always abide by the law. The delegation referred to “so-called” human rights defenders who use human rights “as a pretext to split apart countries, sabotage social order and undermine the rights of others.” “Whoever breaks the law will be punished,” said the delegation twice - once during the State’s statement, and again as a right of reply as the day came to a close.
Cuba went as far as to criticise the Special Rapporteur for attending an event organised by the NGO Freedom House, claiming that such events and NGOs “destabilise States and undermine the Special Rapporteur’s mandate”.
Ethiopia (on behalf of the African Group) said: “Human rights defenders should respect national legislation, strict professionalism and the ethical values of the society where they live.”
Morocco stated simply that “human rights defenders must avoid politicising human rights”.
Human rights defenders (which more and more children are becoming thanks to new communications technology of which they are at the forefront) are vital for an open society where people can live with equality, dignity and respect. Dissent, as long as the expression of it does not harm others, should never be quashed; and those legitimately in power ought not be afraid of it. Otherwise only the views of the powerful are on display, and those holding minority views risk persecution, leaving societies stagnated in the status quo.
Housing and food
The rights of children were on the periphery of debate today as the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing presented her final annual report. Ms Rolnik’s thematic report focuses on security of tenure and sets out principles that should guide States in addressing the unstable housing arrangements that particularly affect the urban poor. Resonating with this week’s annual day on the rights of the child, the guiding principles highlight the importance of access to justice, and call on States to ensure access to effective administrative and judicial remedies for violations of the right to adequate housing. The report also includes a welcome focus on children, calling for the tenure of children to be prioritised upon the breakdown of spousal relationships as a result of domestic violence. Unfortunately States did not pick up on children’s rights in their discussions of the report.
The Special Rapporteur also presented her findings of her country visit to the United Kingdom, a visit which triggered controversy when published in its advanced form, as well as controversy today. Among the many issues raised in the report was the effect that welfare reforms have had in the UK. Ms Rolnik raised concerns that “practices which have resulted in the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing are being eroded and that the structural shape of the housing sector has changed to the detriment of the most vulnerable”. The report looks at how children have been affected by caps to social welfare benefits, an issue which has recently been the subject of litigation before the English courts. In its response, the United Kingdom expressed regret at what the State characterised as “inaccuracies and omissions” from the Special Rapporteur’s report, though did not address the broader concern that austerity policies have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable, including children.
Olivier de Schutter - Special Rapporteur on the right to food - used his final report to the Human Rights Council to reflect on the six years of his mandate. Mr de Schutter looked back on changes that have taken place since his mandate began at the height of the 2008 food price crisis and the shift that has taken place towards environmentally sustainable food production and support for small scale producers.
Coming up tomorrow
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on food and the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing;
Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on human rights and the environment and the Independent Expert on foreign debt;
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on counter terrorism; and
Promotion and protection of civil society space
“Intersex people and human rights: violations, voices and visions” (10:00, Room VIII)
“Children of parents sentenced to the death penalty” (13:00 - 15:00, Room XXI)
“Violence against children with albinism” (13:00 - 15:00, Room XXV)
“Children and conflict” (14:30 - 16:30, Room XI)
“Human rights of minority women and children” (15:00 - 17:00, Room XXVII)
“Rights of the child and HIV” (16:00 - 18:00, Room XXIV)
“Restorative justice for children” (18:00 - 19:30, Room XXI)
nuary 2014 view online | subscribe | submit information
The Last Word
Open the maze.
Children have all human rights. Not because they are “the future” or “the adults of tomorrow” but because they are human beings today.
Access to justice is a human right; it makes other human rights a reality. If justice systems cannot be used to stop violations of children’s rights and seek redress, the rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are merely consigned to the paper they are written on.
To get through the access to justice maze, children and their advocates first need to be allowed in. States need to:
Recognise that children have human rights, and make the CRC binding in national law.
Ratify the third optional protocol to the CRC so children’s rights violations can be brought to the UN.
Ensure that children and their advocates can access all regional and international complaints mechanisms.
Read an editorial on why States need to open the access to justice maze for children.
For more visit: www.crin.org/en/home/law/access