A grass-root activist at the Committee on the Rights of the Child

INTERVIEW WITH BENOIT VAN KEIRSBILCK, Director of DCI-Belgium 

 

Benoit Van Keirsbilck, Director of DCI-Belgium and former President of the DCI Movement, has been elected as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in November 2020. He is the first-ever Belgian to be elected to this Committee. Mr. Van Keirsbilck has a 35-year career dedicated to the promotion and protection of children’s rights at the national, European and international levels. 

He has been a leading force for campaigns to release children deprived of liberty and advance access to justice for children. He was a member of the Expert Group in charge of the drafting of the Council of Europe Guidelines on Child-Friendly Justice. In this interview, Gemma Cavaliere, from the International Secretariat asks Mr. Van Keirsblick the current challenges and future perspectives as newly elected member of the CRC.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues for children’s rights in 2021? 

I do not think I will be very original here. We know that COVID-19 will affect children’s rights in 2021 and the years to come. Nevertheless, it is important to stress the fact that children’s rights have not always been considered a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. In national lockdowns, for instance, the right to education was easily sacrificed in many countries, with the closure of schools and leisure centers for children and youth.
Especially for children in dire conditions, raised in a poor family, and often in overcrowded areas, the restrictions of movement increased the exposure not only to the virus but also to violence, especially domestic violence. This will have consequences on the future of children, their capacity to continue their studies, as many of them may not resume school any time soon. Moreover, I have the feeling that we are losing some advancements in the international 2030 agenda ; we can fear substantial delays in the achievement of some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Therefore, some of the Objectives, like the elimination of poverty (SDG 1), or quality education for all (SDG 4), will hardly be achieved on time.
Nevertheless, there are signs of hope in some issues related to children rights, like the participation of children and youth, especially in the fight against climate change. There are a lot of children who have taken the lead in the demonstrations at national level and on-line campaigns to really convince the politicians to invest in the future of the planet. Although it often falls on deaf ears, I believe that society is moving, little by little, and that we must support children in this fight.  And I see, indeed, that some children are really willing to shape the world after the pandemic. We need to ensure an enabling environment for children to speak and participate and trust their maturity in public debates. It is amazing to see children speaking up and engaged in society.

You recently took office as an elected member of the CRC, what do you see as current priorities? What do you think will be on the agenda of the CRC for the years to come? 

I would like to recall that DCI was co-lead of the NGO panel for the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which brought a clear added value to this international treaty.

Since only few members of the CRC Committee come from the Civil society, I am among the ones bringing this experience and a concrete knowledge of the situation of children in the field.

One important issue I expect to tackle in my mandate is the backlog of State Parties’ reports: we know that there are more than 60 countries that are waiting to be reviewed. And, as I reiterated in many interventions, children of those countries deserve their rights to be monitored. It is a duty of the International community to ensure that the review takes place.

The States who have ratified the Convention and/or its Optional Protocols need to assess progress and shortfalls in their implementation in due time, without letting States and children wait too long. This is certainly one of the most important priorities. Another important issue is the backlog of individual communications. The number of individual communications is increasing, which is good because it shows that this mechanism seems to be more known and accessible, and people start using it. But once again, a child should not wait years to receive a decision on their complaint. Child-friendly justice means to me also providing decisions in a reasonable period.

Finally, there is still, I would say, a global issue: many States, despite having ratified the convention, leave the recommendations of the CRC on a shelf, and only very few implement them from one round of revision to the other, and that to me is a reason of major concern.

Giving full weight and a serious follow-up to the recommendations of the Committee is paramount. In order to ensure a proper follow-up, the Committee must improve the way the recommendations are redacted and make sure those are realistic and doable in the time allocated for the implementation.

I would say that the feasibility or the real possibility to implement the recommendation is essential, as well as the coordination between different Committees monitoring child rights implementation.

In conclusion, we need to prioritise the most worrying trends and issues, and try to really obtain a few but crucial changes in society.

In the past, you were also part of the Expert Group in charge of the drafting of the Council of Europe Guidelines on Child-Friendly Justice. What are the main obstacles for a child-friendly justice in Europe?

This experience was probably among the most interesting ones I had at the international level. Gathering people coming from different countries and backgrounds and trying to develop a tool that would be useful in different judicial systems has enriched me greatly.The guideline on child-friendly justice is a practical tool rather than a new legal instrument and it helps legal professionals and practitioners in different European countries to ensure that the justice system is adapted to children. Moreover, the importance of these guidelines was acknowledged by many European institutions, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights contains a reference to these guidelines. Other institutions refer to the guidelines to establish their standards for the justice system and adapt them to the specific needs of children. Yet there is much to be done in some areas, such as international protection procedures for asylum seekers (e.g., the application for asylum in Europe is not fit for children). Another field of concern is children in conflict with the law, i.e., the way the police records child hearings; the number of children deprived of liberty, etc.

At DCI we organised trainings on child-friendly justice for European lawyers and for other professionals in contact with children

The guideline on child-friendly justice is a practical tool rather than a new legal instrument and it helps legal professionals and practitioners in different European countries to ensure that the justice system is adapted to children. Moreover, the importance of these guidelines was acknowledged by many European institutions, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights contains a reference to these guidelines. Other institutions refer to the guidelines to establish their standards for the justice system and adapt them to the specific needs of children.

Yet there is much to be done in some areas, such as international protection procedures for asylum seekers (e.g., the application for asylum in Europe is not fit for children). Another field of concern is children in conflict with the law, i.e., the way the police records child hearings; the number of children deprived of liberty, etc.

Finally, the guidelines have been used in professional training and were promoted in many European projects, for instance at DCI we organized training on child-friendly justice for European lawyers and for other professionals in contact with children.

As you may know, the UN Treaty Bodies currently face major financial constraints. Why is governmental support moving away from these important human rights mechanisms at a time of critical need?

COVID-19 had probably been used by some states as an excuse for failing to meet the agreed amounts, but to be fair, the financial constraints started a long time before the pandemic. We see that the States are more and more reluctant to dedicate funds to the UN in general, and especially for the promotion of human rights. We can identify two main reasons for that.

The first one is that human rights are not seen as a priority in public policies: States prefer to provide funds to an organisation supporting the health systems or fighting infantile hunger instead of promoting children’s rights as a whole. For countries and donors alike, it is more rewarding to fund initiatives in humanitarian aid, even though they rarely lead to systemic change.

On the contrary, I believe that human rights organisations can provide long-term solutions and, more importantly, change children’s lives effectively. When we promote a project dealing with the human rights of children in prison, for example, it can have a more important and long-lasting effect.

The second reason is that an increasing number of states feel that their policies are under the observation of the UN system and the international community. Therefore, weakening the system allows some States to be exposed to less criticism from external actors and international institutions.

This post is also available in: FR, ES

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