Children's Rights at the United Nations
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Each year the UN Human Rights Council spends one day focusing on children’s rights. Thursday was that day, and the focus of this year’s annual day on the rights of the child was access to justice.
Access to justice for children means that children, or their appropriate advocates where applicable, must be able to use and trust the legal system to protect their human rights. It covers every instance in which a child comes into contact with the law, whether the child seeks out the legal system or the legal system seeks out the child.
Children’s rights in this area, namely their ability to enforce their rights and challenge violations, are largely neglected. This is because children are often not viewed as human beings with human rights, but rather as objects of pity and charity, mere appendages of their parents or thugs menacing communities.
CRIN reported live from Geneva throughout the day using #HRC25 on twitter. Below is a summary and some analysis of the key points raised in the discussions. You can also visit our website for more on the maze that is access to justice for children.
Annual day on the rights of the child - access to justice
Access to justice for children is at the core of children’s rights; it is “not just a fundamental right by itself but also a prerequisite for the protection and promotion of all the other human rights”, said the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, in her opening statement to the Council.
Barriers children face accessing justice
The barriers children face in accessing justice were well known to the morning panel. As Ms. Pansieri noted in her opening statement, justice systems are complex and difficult to understand and are daunting for an adult, let alone a child. Mariangela Zappia, Head of the Permanent Delegation of the EU to the UN, picked up on the theme of barriers children face, noting the perceived low status of children exacerbates the problems they face. “Children don’t know how to access justice”, she said, and “[they] feel that they are not heard or taken seriously.” As Ms. Pansieri noted, in practice this low status takes the form of a lack of legal capacity to act without parents or representatives, a particularly problematic situation where there is a conflict of interests between a child and parent or where the perpetrator of a violation is within the child’s family environment.
Tom Julius Beah of Defence for Children International returned to this theme during the afternoon session when he spoke of the ways that traditional justice mechanisms can prioritise community cohesion over seeking redress, a problem that can prioritise parental interests over those of children.
Marie-Pierre Poirier - Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States - emphasised the way societies prevent children accessing justice: “most countries’ social norms make it culturally and socially unacceptable for children to lodge complaints without parental consent”. She also spoke of the ways that this problem can be exacerbated for particularly vulnerable children, specifically children with disabilities, those from ethnic minorities and girls.
Overcoming the barriers
Despite the above, the Council was not in complete despair about access to justice for children. A number of ideas for overcoming the barriers children face in the access to justice maze were also discussed.
Access to information
The need to provide children with information about their rights and how they can access justice was a recurrent theme throughout the day, as was the need to involve families and communities in the dissemination of this information. Marie Derain from French Children’s Defender stated that child-friendly material can be provided in the form of videos and brochures adapted to the child’s needs, that courts should provide an adult to advise the child on how the justice system works, as well as provide for direct, confidential communication between the judge and the child.
The importance of legal representation
Getting the right assistance, advice and representation from a trained professional can help children through the access to justice maze.
Tom Julius Beah from Defence for Children International (DCI) emphasised that States must “ensure free, consistent, enforceable and accountable legal representation” through the enactment and enforcement laws to that effect.
One of the biggest blocks to obtaining legal assistance for most people is cost. Children’s low status and lack of income means that this is an even higher barrier to them. Rosa Maria Ortiz, Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) said that children must be afforded free legal assistance for professionals especially trained in children’s rights. This point was reiterated by Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Violence against Children who emphasised the special provisions for children in the UN Principles on Access to Legal Aid, which provide that legal aid should be free of charge, guided by the best interests of the child and available to children when there’s a conflict of interest with their parents.
Access to all legal settings
Courts are a powerful but not exclusive means of challenging children’s rights violations. Non-judicial means of challenging violations, which may be less intimidating, were also discussed in the Council, with Ms Derain, discussing the role of ombudspeople to defend and promote children’s rights. She said that depending on their specific mandates, ombudspeople can be empowered to investigate complaints, conduct hearings and inspections on site, and support actions in the court if necessary.
Read our fourth editorial - Find a solution - published on Thursday for more on different types of legal settings that should be available to children.
Remedies and speedy resolution
Every human rights violation must have a remedy. Otherwise, human rights are rendered virtually meaningless in law because victims cannot obtain redress for the abuse they have suffered. A justice system that respects human rights is one that holds perpetrators responsible, provides remedies for victims and works to prevent the wrong from happening again.
Both Mariangela Zappia, Head of the Permanent Delegation of the EU, Rosa Maria Ortiz, Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), discussed the importance of remedies for children. After expressing her “anger” with justice systems and how they treat children, she made it clear that children must be given access to all the legal remedies that are available to adults. Ms Ortiz spoke about the importance of ensuring a speedy resolution to proceedings involving children, and the prompt application of effective remedies.
Juvenile justice and deprivation of liberty
The issue of juvenile justice returned throughout the day - many States that intervened seemed more comfortable with speaking about children in conflict with the law rather than children who might want to seek remedies for violations of their rights. Nikhil Roy of Penal Reform International (PRI) managed to address both issues in his statement during the afternoon panel where he spoke of the need for safe, accessible and child-friendly complaints mechanisms for children deprived of their liberty or in institutional care. The presentation drew out the ways that these mechanisms can be designed to address the particular vulnerabilities of such children who often have little recourse to justice and few avenues of complaint. Information, advice, confidentiality and effective remedies all featured as ways of guaranteeing that these vulnerable children can access justice.
You can read more on the right of children deprived of their liberty to make complaints in PRI’s recent report on the subject.
A timely theme, the plight of children deprived of their liberty was picked up in the side event hosted outside the doors of the Human Rights Council Room. Launching the call for a Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty, experts, states and civil society called for a study that would fill the void in information on the detention of children in conflict with the law, in relation to their physical or mental health, for drug use, for their protection, for national security or in immigration settings.
Find a solution
A justice system that respects human rights is one that holds perpetrators responsible, provides remedies for victims and works to prevent the wrong from happening again.
So children can find a solution to the access to justice maze, States need to ensure their justice systems include effective remedies for violations of children’s rights, including:
Fair compensation for victims;
Rehabilitation (both physical and psychological if needed) to help victims rebuild their lives;
Changing any laws, policies or other structures that caused the rights violation. This should include a review of statute of limitations (i.e. time limits on when cases need to be brought) when the victim is a child.
Read an editorial - Find a solution - on the importance of remedies for children in accessing justice.
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