Maud de Boer-Buquicchio has for many years been a passionate advocate of children's rights at the Council of Europe. She was the impetus behind the Lanzarote Convention, which sets the highest global standard for protecting children from sexual violence. She also played an important role in the UN Study on Violence against Children. Now, Maud has been elected as the next UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. In this interview Maud talks to CRIN about the children's rights landscape globally and her plans for this role.
Let me start by expressing my gratitude to all those who have placed their trust in me, Governments and civil society alike. It is a daunting task and I hope to meet the expectations and soon to be able to reach out to many children as well. I care immensely about children and this is an extraordinary opportunity to actually do something very concrete and important about the respect of their rights. Continuing to be part of the global family of children’s rights advocates is both a serious responsibility and a source of great satisfaction.
‘Children are regarded as objects, not as rights holders’
In the Council of the Europe, I saw the gap between children’s rights as written in many texts, and the daily reality of children. And I saw how a thoroughly and carefully developed agenda with all stakeholders can impact that reality - and I want to bring this experience to the UN. Children still bare the brunt of all the terrible vicissitude of adults and what we need to do is create a culture of respect for children’s rights - this would really be my objective - because without that respect, I don’t believe any serious progress can be made. I think I have succeeded in promoting that culture in Europe and I will try do the same at the global level.
I started my career as a lawyer in the European Convention of Human Rights protection system, first at the European Commission, then the European Court of Human Rights, and what really struck me, and which became an incentive and an opportunity to act upon later when I became Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, was that children were really regarded as objects, not as rights holders. Cases involving children’s rights were mostly about parents’ rights claiming their rights over them. They were never part of the proceedings. I was able to contribute developing the jurisprudence, in particular the concept of positive obligations of States in respect of the respect for family and private life including physical and personal integrity, which was a gateway for further developing the respect for children’s rights.
When I became Deputy Secretary-General, having in mind the importance of existing international standards, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Chils, I thought it would be interesting to connect with UN institutions to change people’s attitude towards children and their rights.
My experience with the United Nations included the signing of a cooperation agreement with UNICEF and a dialogue with its Executive Board and representatives in Europe. I also had interesting exchanges with the Committee on the Rights of the Child. One very important experience was working together with Paulo Pinheiro, the [then] Independent Expert for the UN Study on Violence against Children, to whom I offered the Council of Europe as a platform for exploring together certain ideas and priorities in the process of his preparation of the UN Secretary-General’s Report on Violence against Children.
I could see that the methodology we used in the Council of Europe, which consisted in combining all these tools, the standards, the monitoring, the awareness raising and assistance and cooperation activities, and the support and input of civil society, all these elements together [indeed] had an effect and impact on children’s rights. That was why cooperation and coordination was so important - and it worked.
‘The focus should be on providing solutions, not to judge’
With regards to how this mandate might be strengthened or evolve, what I would like to say at this point, and on the basis of my experience, that violence against children, whatever form it takes, and children’s rights in general cannot be separated, especially when it comes to prevention. For that reason, it is important to focus attention on the possibility for children to express their concerns and victimisation through a complaints mechanism, and reporting mechanism, and if necessary have access to courts which normally they don’t have access to.
What I would like to explore, but of course I would have to discuss with more experienced people in [the] UN and also with representatives of civil society, is how, for instance, the OP3 could be a vehicle for facilitating this access [for] children to international complaints mechanisms. Therefore, I believe there should be room for developing further mechanisms for contact and exchanges between CRC and this mandate.
It is perhaps too detailed here but I was thinking of an analogy: the role of Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights and the European Court of the Human Rights. The Commissioner can act as an amicus curiae in cases which go beyond the interest of an individual case. This could be something where the mandate holder could assist the CRC. And vice versa the findings and Recommendations of the SR could be of relevance to the CRC in relation to specific country Reports.
Whatever form this cooperation will take, I am absolutely convinced that a good mandate holder works with existing mechanisms, including of course the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children. This is a question of efficiency. The other thing I find important is that we need a better follow-up to country reports. There have been brilliant country reports but I have a feeling that a lot of it is lost afterwards. We have to think about setting up some kind of mechanism for following up these reports, with a focus on providing solutions, not to judge.
Last point, I think there is room for more opinions, spontaneous opinions, when issues arise for problems that are not necessarily foreseen or anticipated. There are situations where the public voice of the mandate holder is very important. It is a systematic reference point for governments, civil society, for children, and as a balanced independent institution it should express opinions and views on specific occasions when there is a need for it.
Are there areas that have been overlooked? - ‘The issue of prevention’
I think one area which this mandate should be able to address is sexual abuse. We did it in the Lanzarote Convention [on the protection of children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse]. I cannot see how you can ignore such a major violation of human rights when you are dealing with children. Sexual abuse and sexual exploitation are intimately linked.
The issue of prevention needs to be addressed by developing national child protection capacity through proper training. The short and medium term health consequences of victims also needs further research, which can be undertaken by universities and global research institutions, many of whom can provide solid analytical analysis and data, which may be a further incentive for more commitment at [a] governmental level.
We also need to look at the support to victims who need rehabilitation. It is not just about their physical and mental health; it’s really about doing everything to offer these children a future. Many exploitation issues are cross-border and sometimes children sent back to their countries of origin are regarded as criminals by society and authorities and without any reassurance for their rehabilitation.
Other areas I would like to look into further are the link between child labour and sexual exploitation as some domestic child workers are subject to sexual exploitation. Some forms of entertainment also lead to or are similar to sexual exploitation and should be explored further.
As [for] online exploitation of children, the phenomenon of webcam sexual tourism, live streaming, is developing at high speed. The Council of Europe treaties cover that, in terms of production of child abuse images. But some international texts do not address this sufficiently. The problem with [the] abuse of children through the Internet and the need to respect freedom of expression requires robust answers.
The last point is the issue of birth certificates and registration related to children on the move after natural disasters, or after conflict, where children move away from their homes and communities, often [on their own]. [A] lack of registration and documentation hampers their protection and often these children disappear and end up in the hands of exploiters.
Of course we want to catch all those who exploit children for their own financial benefit. We want to stop this. But there is also the abuser: the consumer! I have admiration and sympathy for all the attempts which have been made for making business conduct responsible behaviour. [For example,] the Code developed by ECPAT. But I think the need to report on this should not be left to private voluntary initiatives. The State must see to it that there is an obligation to report. If you look at the OP, there is a legal obligation that these crimes must be reported.
‘One day in the Human Rights Council is great. But is it enough?’
On the question of mainstreaming children’s rights in the UN, we should follow the example of women’s rights, where real progress has been made. Texts and strategies have been adopted, structures created, and mainstreaming is a real target. I saw recently, for instance, that there was a resolution adopted on human rights defenders on women’s rights - why isn’t there one for children’s rights? That would be excellent to have as well.
As a mandate holder, I will seek all the opportunities to mainstream when I report back, twice a year to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. I have been going through the list of existing mandate holders, and there are a number with whom I would like to achieve concrete objectives, both short and long term objectives. For instance, there is an expert on education, obviously we need to discuss sexual education; migration is very important to what I just said, then of course dealing with the problem faced by children that are disabled would require interaction with Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
I am always very impressed by how the Commission on the Status of Women galvanises every year the mood for action on gender equality. Can we not have something similar for children’s rights? One day in the Human Rights Council is great. But is it enough?
‘I will show my independence, even if there is no obligation to do so for the SPs’
On the independence of the mandate-holders, I would say this: as an elected official in the Council of Europe, I made a solemn declaration to that effect (also as Deputy Registrar to the ECHR). That was a very important moment in my professional career. Even if there is no obligation to do so for the Special Rapporteurs, I will show my independence in acting in the exercise of my mandate, and show that independence does not mean ‘enemy of the State’. On the contrary, because of their very objectives, special procedures are naturally State-friendly. We care about the people, which is (or should be) the State’s first concern. What matters is that you listen to all concerned, make up your own mind and come up with constructive proposals for remedial action when you find something to be wrong.
Where human rights defenders follow that same pattern, I want to support them and consider concerted action. When this is problematic, I will raise this with the authorities. That will be another show of my independence.
‘If you are looking for children’s expertise, ask children’
That children's rights are not on the same playing-field as human rights? [I use the] expression: ‘Children are not mini human beings, with mini human rights’. There is frequently the perception that children are immature and incapable of understanding and that they cannot be involved in policy making and decisions that affect them.
The capacity of children to contribute is underestimated. On some levels, it is a reality - some are of course very young, and are not in a position to vindicate their rights, so that is of course a big difference with adults. But children’s contribution has proved to be extremely valuable. Children are really great experts. If you are looking for children’s expertise, ask children. I have experience of this in the Council of Europe and I am sure it is true everywhere [that] this is something that must be developed. The current mandate holder is very much aware of this, and I want to build on her experience in that respect. The General Comment of the CRC is also very helpful.
How I would work with children? For many of the practical questions, I would want to work with UNICEF and their regional offices. They have a good view of who are the representative youth organisations composed of children. Obviously I do not want to display token children for the sake of being seen consulting children. I want to rely on inside information which UNICEF and local actors can provide. And of course, I want to listen to them, organise gatherings, where they can express themselves and feel free to do so.
‘Men should be more present in children’s rights’
My most important achievement is that children are now on the political agenda of the Member States of the Council of Europe. As Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe I had the status and power, but above all the will to achieve that. But we need more people with political power to do that, and in particular men, because the sad reality is that men still govern the world, and women are only allowed to deal with women and children’s rights often without decision-making power. So I want to create a network of children's rights champions in governments, parliaments, in business, in the arts, and I think men should be very present there.
‘That is where the power of the public voice comes in - by making visible the invisible’
Disregard of children’s rights is everywhere. I think awareness-raising is very important and the mandate holder can make a major contribution. I believe in the power of the public voice, the possibility to address the media and the public at large, not only reporting to the UN institutions and those who have subscribed to the commitments and are accountable [to them]. The Human Rights Council has developed into quite an effective body where people listen to each other and share the same commitments. Of course there are problems here and there, but I would like to see it as a Human Rights family. That is in Geneva and New York. But then if you are in a country, it’s so important to get people on board, to make them realise that there are big problems which can and should be solved. That is where the power of the public voice comes in. Not by megaphone diplomacy, but by making visible the invisible, to put an end to suffering of so many children.