In the margins of the Human Rights Council’s 42nd regular session in Geneva, Child Rights Connect spoke at a side event on access to justice for all children.
The event, sponsored by the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Centre, was held on 20 September 2019. It focused on the role of lawyers in child protection and improvement of child protection legislation and systems.
- Tong Lihua, Director of Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Centre
- Mikiko Otani, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child
- Catherine Mbenge, Senior Advisor of ECPAT International
- Alex Conte, Executive Director of Child Rights Connect
The intervention by Alex Conte follows:
Madam Moderator, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,
I am delighted to be part of this panel. As a legal professional myself; as Executive Director of Child Rights Connect; and as we are about to celebrate 30 years since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: I value the opportunity to discuss the important question of access to justice for all children and the opportunities and challenges of legal professionals in this regard.
30 years since the adoption of the Convention, we have seen the development of a deeper understanding of the meaning of child rights; and the significance of the promotion and protection of children’s rights as a means of ensuring a prosperous and fair society. We have begun to give more effect to the right of children to be heard through their participation in decision-making and their participation at the United Nations.
But we remain slow to explore the full extent of what is meant by access to justice for children whose rights have been violated. We should also recall that various obstacles exist that prevent children’s access to justice, including financial barriers and a lack of support for child victims of human rights violations. The Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Centre in this regard plays an important role given that it provides free legal advice and representation to children throughout all provinces of China.
This is despite the fact that it is well understood in other spheres of human rights that – without access to justice; without access to effective remedies for human rights violations; without truth, accountability of perpetrators of human rights violations, reparations to victims and the adoption of measures to guarantee the non-recurrence of violations – the enjoyment of rights is illusory.
That said, an important step towards access to justice for children was taken five years ago with the adoption of the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention, allowing children and their representatives to lodge communications (complaints) directly with the Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning alleged violations of children’s rights. For lawyers, OPIC presents important opportunities, as well as responsibilities, for advancing and protecting the rights of children.
As to opportunities, the lawyer’s litigation role is important in three respects:
- For recourse to the communications procedure to be possible, remedies at the domestic level must be exhausted. It is therefore important that violations of children’s rights be taken up at the national level by legal professionals not only as a means of pursing redress in itself, but also to allow victims to claim their rights at the international level should domestic mechanisms or laws be inadequate, or out of step with international law and standards.
- Where domestic avenues for redress are insufficient, legal professionals have an important role in advising victims as to their right to seek redress at the international level through OPIC and in representing them in OPIC communications.
- Where the Committee finds a violation of Convention rights, lawyers have an important role – alongside civil society organizations – to pursue adherence with the decision of the Committee and, where appropriate, to pursue legal and policy reform to guarantee that such violations do not continue.
As to challenges, I see two key challenges in these early years of the OPIC:
- The first concerns the relatively low level of ratifications of OPIC by States (particularly in Asia: just Thailand and Mongolia) and, as a consequence, the relatively low level of countries in which children and their representatives can make recourse to this important mechanism. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty. All but one State are parties to the Convention. Alongside this, there are also high numbers of States parties to the first and second Optional Protocols on children in armed conflict (80%) and on the sale and sexual exploitation of children (90%). Yet, of the 196 States parties to the Convention: just 45 States have ratified OPIC (20%); 18 States have signed but not yet ratified it; and 135 have taken no action. And in 2019, the year in which we celebrate 30 years of the Convention, only three countries have so far ratified OPIC. So, as we come to celebrate 30 years of the Convention, I call on States who have not yet signed or ratified OPIC to do so now as a means of renewing their commitment to children’s rights.
- Bearing in mind the relative ‘youth’ of OPIC, a second challenge concerns the need to enhance the awareness and technical understanding of OPIC and its procedures to ensure that the opportunities I just mentioned can be taken up by lawyers. It is important that legal practitioners collaborate to share experiences and enhance their technical capacities. In this regard, I congratulate the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Centre in its work to establish and support the Child Law International Alliance. And I would take the opportunity to promote the website launched by Child Rights Connect on Monday this week – on the occasion of the celebration by the Committee on the Rights of the Child of 30 years of the Convention – a website dedicated to OPIC. The website (opic.childrightsconnect.org) includes information on the communications procedure, case law, pending cases, and provides children, States, civil society and practitioners with comprehensive information on the effective use of the OPIC. In that context, we look forward in working with the Child Law International Alliance, and with those of you here, to make OPIC better known and used and to increase the level of State ratification to this important instrument for children’s access to justice.