Children's Rights at the United Nations
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A number of important human rights issues were raised at the Human Rights Council today, including the relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, human rights and counter-terrorism, sexual exploitation, violence against children and children in armed conflict.
As the unseasonably warm Geneva weather continues, we hope for heated debates on access to justice during Thursday's annual day on the rights of the child.
Freedom of religion or belief
The interactive dialogue on the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, continued in the Human Rights Council this morning. The Holy See raised a cryptic warning about assuming that States are “neutral” or “disinterested” on matters of religious liberty, raising concerns that secular authorities could be “a pseudo-form of religion or belief that limits the freedom of expression of others”. The statement alluded to court cases on non-discrimination as a threat to religious freedom. Striking a different tone, the International Humanist and Ethical Union urged the Special Rapporteur to address rights violations against those who profess no religion, noting that such people can be sentenced to death in 12 States.
Mr Bielefeldt concluded the interactive dialogue by stating that freedom of religion or belief is a human right that protects human beings, not religions themselves. It is a right that must be seen in conjunction with freedom of expression - they are “neighbour rights”. He called for the repeal of blasphemy laws and anti-conversion laws, which violate the right to freedom of religion.
Mr Bielefeldt will be participating in a side event on Thursday morning at 9am hosted by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (details below).
Human rights and counter-terrorism
As the Human Rights Council resumed debate on the Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism’s annual report, this year on drones, a number of States took the opportunity to condemn the United States for its use of drones and its disproportionate effects on civilians, which was described as a violation of international law. Calls were made for transparency, accountability and detailed explanations of counter-terrorism operations, including the use of drones, through a fact-finding inquiry.
In his concluding remarks, Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, expressed his support for Pakistan’s proposed resolution for a panel discussion on drones at the 27th session of the Human Rights Council. He said that further dialogue should clarify the legal issues surrounding the use of drones, and include a focus on the issues of transparency and accountability. He concluded by stating that any counter-terrorism strategy must comply with international humanitarian law, human rights law, and the law on the use of force, which are all directly relevant to the work of the Human Rights Council.
Fresh from the discussions in the Council room, Mr Emmerson joined an event hosted by Amnesty International on drones and human rights. The event started with a reminder from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of all of the things we don’t know about the use of drones by the United States: which countries are targets, how many people have been killed, what standards are being applied in choosing targets, and who decides that they apply.
Speakers from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty both sought to fill some of the gaps in this information void, presenting the evidence that they have collected on the impact of drone strikes on civilians. HRW presented their recent report - “Between a drone and Al-Qaeda” - which includes extensive evidence on children killed and injured as a result of drone strikes in Yemen. Speaking about targeted killing in the FATA areas of Pakistan, Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty welcomed the reduction in drone strikes in the country - there have been none since the start of 2014, down from a peak of 128 in 2010 - but pointed out that “victims are yet to see any kind of justice.”
Mr Emmerson closed the event noting that we are “now reaching the point where the rubber hits the road”. His report, presented this session, highlights a sample of drone strikes where a significant number of civilians were killed, and the way they were killed raises questions about the strikes’ conformity with the law. Concluding, he said that States have, at the least, an obligation to undertake independent investigations and to make public their results.
You can read more from the Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism on the website that accompanies his report. It includes case studies, legal resources and tracking of drone strikes in Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography
“I continue to be mad at the level of social tolerance on sexual tourism against children. I am mad that some try to justify it”, stated the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Najat Maalla M’jid, as she delivered her final report to the Human Rights Council today.
Ahead of Thursday's annual day on the rights of the child at the Council, a number of interesting remarks regarding access to justice for children - this year’s theme for the annual day - were made during her interactive dialogue. Ms M’jid spoke about the “major problems” surrounding access to justice in a world without borders - the internet - where new forms of child sexual exploitation continue to emerge and spread across the web. She also referred to the need for international co-operation on remedies for child victims, particularly when it comes to sex tourism, and Australia asked about the role of the private sector in this human rights violation.
The EU delegate made specific reference to Thursday's annual day, and asked Ms M’jid about child-friendly procedures for victims of exploitation. Argentina said States must provide children appropriate access to the justice system, as well as assistance to victims.
In a joint statement, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission called on the United Kingdom to address the different treatment of children over the age of 13 to younger children in cases of sexual exploitation. Reiterating the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the statement called for the United Kingdom to “revise its legislation by shifting the burden of proof from the prosecution to the purchaser of sexual services”.
Violence against children
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Violence against Children, Marta Santos Pais, presented her report to the Council today. Restorative justice - an approach that focuses on peaceful conflict resolution and healing, rather than simply punishment of children in conflict with the law - was the focus, following Ms Pais’s side event on the subject last night.
Ms Pais made reference to the violence caused by child marriage, noting that 13.5 million girls each year suffer this human rights violation. Just prior to her presentation, several UN special procedures (Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Iran, on summary executions, on torture, and on violence against women) expressed their dismay at Iran’s execution of a victim of child marriage last week.
Also on violence against children, the Yemeni delegation said “juvenile justice is different from punitive justice” while noting that the State considers the issue important. Interesting, since the country is notorious for executing children because of a lack of effective birth registration (particularly for marginalised children) and judges’ unreliable methods of deciding a child defendant’s age. Read CRIN’s written submission to January’s Universal Periodic Review of Yemen for more, and see our campaign to end the inhuman sentencing of children.
Algeria noted that it will table a resolution for a panel discussion on violence against children during the Council’s 26th session before the interactive dialogue concluded for the day. It will continue on Thursday at 12 noon.
Children and armed conflict
The SRSG for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, also presented her annual report today. Following a new UNICEF report earlier this week stating that there are more than twice as many children affected by the Syrian hostilities than there were 12 months ago, Ms Zerrougui spoke about a campaign her office has launched with the UN agency. Children not soldiers seeks to galvanise support to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by national security forces by 2016. The eight countries the campaign will support are: Afghanistan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Ms Zerrougui also mentioned the importance of not forgetting the role of non-state actors - a concern reiterated by a number of States, including Norway and Pakistan (on behalf of the IOC).
The interactive dialogue with the SRSG will continue on Thursday at 12 noon.
Situation of human rights defenders in Asia
CIVICUS hosted a side event exploring the situation of human rights defenders in the Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, with discussion by the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, following her recent mission to the Republic of Korea. Human rights defenders worldwide are facing increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. In South Korea, human rights defenders, including protesters and workers on strike, have faced criminal penalties, excessive police force, fines, and compensation suits for their activities. In Sri Lanka, human rights activists, including those who work with the UN system, are increasingly being labelled as “anti-government”. Attacks on peaceful protesters, impunity of the police who have perpetrated crimes, and the lack of independent media reporting were raised. In Malaysia, conservative forces within the government are reported to be exploiting cultural and religious diversity to foster disharmony and division amongst the many communities. “Psychological warfare” was discussed as a tool used by the government, with human rights defenders being labelled “anti-Islamic” or “foreign agents”. Legislation has been passed restricting the public spaces that human rights defenders can rely on, including social media and peaceful assembly.
Ms Sekaggya encouraged civil society to utilise the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process as a way of raising and monitoring persistent violations of human rights. She recommended that civil society refer to previous reports by treaty bodies, special procedures, and the UPR and see if the recommendations have been implemented ahead of country visits by the Special Rapporteurs and others to hold governments accountable at the Human Rights Council.
Coming up on Thursday: the annual day on the rights of the child
The only day the Human Rights Council dedicates specifically to children has finally arrived, this year focusing on access to justice for children. In the morning, the focus is on international norms and standards on access to justice for children and child-sensitive justice. From midday, the Special Representatives of the Secretary-General on violence against children and children and armed conflict will resume their dialogue with the HRC and the day concludes with an afternoon panel dedicated to empowering children to claim their rights.
The concept note contains further details, including the list of speakers.
We’ll be reporting live from the Council once again as the 2014 annual day on the rights of the child unfolds. Follow #HRC25 on Twitter, and check out our fourth editorial - Find a solution - which will be published on Thursday on our webpage on the annual day.
“Open dialogue with civil society of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt” (9:00 - 11:00, Room XXI)
“Making children's access to justice a reality: the Third Optional Protocol to the UN CRC” (13:00 - 14:30, Room XXI)
“Saharawi youth perspectives on human rights” (16:30 - 18:00, Room VIII)
Choose a path
Children have their own human rights. This means that it is children who need to be empowered to access justice when their rights have been violated.
This is not to say that adults should never be able to help children access justice, especially when children are very young or particularly vulnerable. But this should never conflict with children’s rights.
Children, with their advocates where applicable, need to be able to choose their own path through the access to justice maze. States should:
Ensure children can start proceedings themselves - both for criminal and civil court cases, and any other legal or judicial proceedings;
Respect children’s right to be heard when decisions are being made about them, including in all legal proceedings;
Guarantee child-friendly procedures, particularly when it comes to intimidating courtrooms or giving sensitive evidence.
Read our editorial on why States need to help direct children through the access to justice maze.
For more visit: www.crin.org/en/home/law/access
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