Peter Newell, Coordinator of Global Initiative to End All Corporal
Punishment of Children, delivered the following presentation for the side event, "The impact of violence on children's right to health", at the 22nd Session of the Human Rights Council.
Side event: "The impact of violence on children’s right to health"
March 6 2013, Palais des Nations Room XXIV, 13.00 to 14.45
Peter Newell, Coordinator, Global Initiative to End All Corporal
Punishment of Children
Corporal punishment is the commonest form of violence which children suffer,
in all regions. And there are many perspectives from which to condemn it. The
imperative for prohibiting and eliminating it is children’s equal human right to
full respect for their dignity and physical integrity and to equal protection under
Sometimes it seems that dwelling on other perspectives, other arguments, can
actually undermine acceptance of the immediate human rights imperative for
action. We don’t look for proof that domestic violence against women damages
their physical or mental health in order to justify prohibiting it and ending
impunity. It would be insulting to women to do so, and it is equally insulting to
children to suggest we have to prove harm in order to justify extending to them
the legal protection that we as adults take for granted from being deliberately
But of course, in the context of today’s meeting, we can safely assert that hitting
children is not healthy and directly conflicts with their right to health. Corporal
punishment kills thousands of children every year, including many babies and
young children and injures millions more. It causes disabilities, and research
additionally suggests that disabled children suffer disproportionately from
violent punishment. It places a huge and entirely unnecessary burden on health
No research can conclusively prove that mild physical punishment is bad for
children, because child development is dependent on multiple interrelated
factors and because, ethically, children cannot be subjected to randomised
But there are more than 100 studies reviewing the developmental outcomes
of physical punishment and their findings are strikingly consistent: there is no
research demonstrating that physical punishment leads to positive long-term
outcomes; all findings reveal negative effects on children’s development.
In the UK recently, one of our senior Ministers, our Justice Secretary, no less,
said that he smacked his children “to deliver a message”: the overwhelming and
potent message to his children is that using violence is an acceptable way to
sort out problems or conflicts; hitting children is a lesson in bad and dangerous
behavior, the last lesson we want to teach our children - as well as a clear
violation of their rights.
We all know that this is not an easy issue for governments. Unlike challenging
other more severe and less common forms of violence, there is no public
consensus against corporal punishment until it has been prohibited and
prohibition linked to sustained public and parent education. The 33
governments and parliaments across the world which have banned all corporal
punishment, including in the home, have acted on the basis of their human
rights obligations, supported by the very strong research evidence of the damage
that violent punishment does to the health of children and societies.
The phrase “elephant in the room” is a cliché, but it is one that accurately
describes the treatment of this issue by many of those involved in public health
and child protection across the regions. A majority of states still try to keep
what they term child “abuse” and corporal punishment in two separate boxes,
pretending they can have effective child protection and child health systems
while their law authorises hitting, hurting, even injuring children as punishment.
Canada appears to be the only country so far to analyse the role physical
punishment plays in reported child abuse cases, including deaths. Three large
Canadian studies of reported child abuse found that 75 per cent of substantiated
physical abuse of children “occurred during episodes of physical punishment”.
Perhaps a tiny proportion of physical abuse is pure sadism, psychotic behaviour,
but it is obvious surely that almost all of it is administered in the context of
control and punishment.
We should not let governments or UN agencies or INGOs get away with the
pretence that they can design effective national child protection systems while
their laws still justify violence against children.
The more explicit pressure there is confirming the obvious human rights
obligation to prohibit violent punishment of children, from the Treaty Bodies,
from regional human rights mechanisms and now from states in the UPR, the
more quickly we will approach universal prohibition. I believe there is justified
confidence now in saying that the achievement of that priority goal for children
is inevitable. The small minority of states which persist in actually defending
violent punishment of children in UN forums is getting smaller.
In the Human Rights Council context, surely we should hope that very soon
there will be an end to the opposition of a few States to including in the
Council’s - and the General Assembly’s - resolutions an explicit, human rights-
based call for prohibition of all corporal punishment in all settings of children’s
lives, marking another important symbolic step towards universal prohibition
I was pleased to see that the Secretary-General’s Report to the current
Commission on the Status of Women session on ending “all forms” of violence
against women and girls acknowledged violent punishment of girls – the
most common form of violence they experience too - for the first time. But I
was then saddened to see that the explicit mentions had disappeared from the
recommendations in the draft outcome document. We are not there yet.
The growing band of countries which have moved on from justifying violence
and have effectively challenged violent punishment of children internally
through law reform linked to sustained public education need to work
strategically and collaboratively together, in the UN and in inter-governmental
organisations, to build on the momentum and maintain progress.
Why is this issue so important? As Paulo Pinheiro said when he addressed a
Panel Discussion here in January during the UPR, “This is not simply a child
protection measure. The legality and social approval of violent punishment
reflects the low status of children in so many societies; states which allow
children to be hit and humiliated with impunity are denying children their
dignity. Moving on to an equal respect for children, to equal protection under
the law, is fundamental to reducing all other forms of violence in our societies”.
(Refer to Global Initiative publications available in the room - Global Report;
Progress and Delay)
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