Introduction: winds of change
The wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks has brought violations of civil and political rights, both in street protests and online communications, to the forefront of international attention.
The protests are pressing for the removal of those in power, greater freedom of expression, and reforms to address long-standing inequalities. States have responded by further limiting civil and political rights, in many cases where state of emergency laws already exist.
The young age of those involved in the protests has been a defining feature across the board - a reflection of the region's young population. In Yemen, for example, where protests are also taking place, 70 per cent of the population is under 25, according to IRIN. While in Egypt, reports tell of the participation of children who are out on the streets with their families, on their own, or in some cases even leading the protests.
In this context, this piece looks at how violations of the right to freedom of association affect children across the world.
Freedom of association for children
The ability to interact is especially critical for children's development. If children cannot associate freely with one another, how can they be expected to build friendships, form views about the world, participate actively in society and stand up for their rights and those of others later in life?
While in many cases the denial of political rights extends to the population of a country as a whole, in others, children - but not adults – are excluded from participating in protests or from forming or joining associations simply because of their age. This situation reflects the view of children as helpless human beings incapable of making informed decisions without the manipulation of adults, and provides yet more evidence of the fact that while children's protection rights are widely accepted, their civil and political rights are relegated to pariah status.
Civil and political rights for all are enshrined in a raft of international laws, but the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is special because it sets out a number of articles which specifically protect civil and political rights for children (articles 12 to 17). Article 15 embodies children's rights to freedom of association and assembly, including their right to form and join associations and gather peacefully as well as to associate freely with friends and others in public spaces.
Freedom of association is closely linked to other articles of the Convention. Article 13 on children's right to freedom of expression is particularly relevant: restricting children's freedom of association of course restricts children's right to freedom of expression and vice versa.
Article 12 (the right to be heard) is also connected. The latest General Comment of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which addressed this article, stating that it “relates to the right of expression of views specifically about matters which affect the child, and the right to be involved in actions and decisions that impact on her or his life”.
In many countries, adults also face barriers to associating freely. Both adults and children participating in anti-government protests in Belarus in December, for example, were dealt with repressively. A number of those involved, including children, were subsequently detained, prompting the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to issue recommendations to Belarus about children's freedom of association in its Concluding Observations published last week (paragraphs 35, 36).
However, in other countries, where adults' freedom of association is well established, young people are barred or inhibited from using public spaces or from forming their own organisations simply because of their age.
The most obvious example is the imposition of curfew laws. Curfew laws typically apply only to children. Such laws not only stigmatise and criminalise young people, but also obstruct them from building relationships and getting involved in society. For examples of curfew laws and how to challenge them, see CRIN's Global Report on Status Offences.
In the United Kingdom, a range of measures have excluded young people from public spaces. These include evening curfews, antisocial behaviour orders that restrict children's conduct and movement, and the proliferation of the 'mosquito' - an electronic device heard only by children and young people which is used by small businesses to deter children from gathering in public spaces. Read: "Freedom of Association? Not if you’re young and living in the UK", CRIN, 2008, p. 26). Also read about how use of the 'mosquito' device has been challenged in Belgium.
Japan's 2004 report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child revealed that children cannot join an association until they turn 18 without permission from their parents (Concluding Observations, 2004, paragraph 29).
The Committee has noted inconsistencies in Costa Rica's legislation and reports on freedom of association. While information submitted by the Ministry of Education stated that students have the right to freedom of association, including to participate in political activities, but article 18 of the Childhood and Adolescence Code provides that under-18s have the right to freedom of association, except for political or lucrative activities. (Concluding Observations, 2005, paragraph 23).
Children have also been punished for or prevented from exercising their right to protest by schools. In Jamaica in 2008, for example, when children launched a peaceful protest against the poor condition of their community's roads, the country's Education Minister Andrew Holness, announced that they were in “breach of the peace”, according to the Jamaica Gleaner. He then asked the police to investigate children's involvement in "unlawful protests" and warned educators who fail “to protect children from these illegal acts” that sanctions will be applied.
On a more positive note, Malaysia withdrew its reservation to articles 1, 13 and 15 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in June last year. Full story.
There are some circumstances in which children’s right to freedom of assembly may be restricted, but these must be in strict conformity with paragraph 2 of article 15, which says that any restrictions must be “imposed in conformity with the law and … are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
However, in many cases arguments about “public safety” and “child protection” have been invoked spuriously to restrict children's right to freedom of assembly.
In 2007, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern in its Concluding Observations that “a repressive policy [in Honduras] combating 'maras', the crime of 'illicit association' (art. 332 of the Penal Code) has been interpreted too broadly, which in some instances may amount to a violation of article 15 of the Convention, which recognises the right of the child to freedom of association.” (paragraphs 41, 42).
In Moldova, the Ministry of Justice attacked children's involvement in demonstrations against a proposed law mandating Russian language classes for children from age seven. Specifically, they alleged that the Christian Democratic People's Party, which organised the demonstrations, had violated children's rights to freedom of assembly under article 15. The CDPP sued the government before the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that although a ban on their activities had been lifted, the original decision to impose the ban was never expunged. Full details on CRIN's CRC in Court database.
A better environment
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has encouraged States in its Concluding Observations and other guidelines not only refrain from banning children's participation in the public sphere, but to create an environment respectful of children's right to freedom of association. In its General Comment on article 12, the Committee stated that “Children should be supported and encouraged to form their own child-led organisations and initiatives, which will create space for meaningful participation and representation.” (paragraph 128).
In its Concluding Observations to Mozambique, the Committee expressed concern that children's freedom of association is limited by “the condition that they have the capacity to exercise the right to register an association” and recommended that it “encourage children to form associations on their own initiative” (Concluding Observations, 2009, paragraphs 39, 40). It has recommended to a number of States that they consider systemically involving children's associations in all stages of implementing the Convention.
The Committee's 2010 Guidelines for Periodic Reports further request information on “Child and youth organisations or associations and the number of members that they represent” (p. 12). This point was reinforced by the recommendations made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child following its Day of General Discussion on Children's Right to be Heard in 2006 which state:
“The Committee welcomes the increasing number of youth-led organisations in various parts of the world. In this context, the Committee reminds States Parties of the right to exercise freedom of association as stipulated in article 15 of the Convention (Report on the 43rd session, September 2006, paragraph 33).
And in September 2010, the UN Human Rights Council created a new Special Procedure mandate to monitor for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly with resolution 15/21. The mandate holder will be appointed during the sixteenth session of the Human Rights Council (March 2011). This presents a new opportunity for children's rights advocates to raise the rights of children in this context.