On July 12th 2021, almost 2 years after the presentation of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty (GSCDL) at the United Nations General Assembly, while the High-Level Political Forum was ongoing in New York, and in a context where the COVID19 pandemic had disrupted child protection and justice systems, hindered access to justice for children in detention and exacerbated health risks for children deprived of liberty, Defence for Children International, and Human Rights Watch as co-chairs of the NGO Panel on Children Deprived of Liberty, organised a webinar on Promoting Alternatives to Deprivation of Liberty, Integral Protection and Access to Justice for All Children. The participants had the opportunity to hear from a varied roster of panellists, which involved practitioners, experts, state representatives, UN officials, NGOs and youth representatives, a panel moderated by Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on violence against children.
H.E. Ambassador Lansana Gberie reiterated Sierra Leone’s commitment towards promoting child justice and reducing the rate of detention and prosecution of children in conflict with the law, and shared good practices and initiatives already being implemented in the country on combatting child detention and child trafficking. H.E. also emphasized the need to strengthen alternatives to detention and alternatives to the justice system in general, especially in the context of the pandemic, as well as the need for multi-stakeholder partnerships to achieve the targets of the 2030 Agenda. Likewise, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, stressed the need to rethink the role of justice for and with children to ensure it has a preventive role and it protects the rights of all children, so as to avoid the contact of children with the justice system in the first place. Of particular importance was the ample inclusion of the voices and perspectives of youth through panellist Mohamed Bangura, a youth representative from Sierra Leone who stated the efforts to prevent children from coming in contact with the law begin with emphasising the legal instruments at our disposal, investing in resources and training to support children in their access to justice, and ensuring information to access justice is child-friendly and accessible for children and their parents.
Moreover, Alexandra Souza Martins, Representative from UNODC on behalf of the UN Inter-agency task force for the UN GSCDL, shared good practices in assisting states to carry out the safe release of children from detention in a smart, and sustainable way for their successful reintegration, and also to widen the use and application of alternative measures to detention, and stressed the need for coordinated efforts to implement the recommendations of the GSCDL. The event also included interventions from Benoit Van Keirsbilck, GSCDL Advisory Board and Member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, who encouraged states to assess their own legislation and practice and develop tailor-made action plans to end child detention, stressed the need of funding to support programmes implementing effective alternatives to detention, and fostered cooperation to ensure a follow-up mechanism is formalised in the form of a UN General Assembly Resolution that ensures the recommendations of the GSCDL are mainstreamed. The webinar also counted with the intervention of Manaff Kemokai, President of DCI and Director of DCI-Sierra Leone, who acknowledged progress in Sierra Leone in the field of child rights, and called for a multidisciplinary, case-by-case approach based on the needs and peculiarities of children, and the development of comprehensive laws with clear procedures and strong implementation institutions that ensure the distinction between children in conflict with the law and children in contact with the law.
Watch the full event with all the interventions, including among others the experience of youth representative Mohamed, the statement by H.E. Ambassador Lansana Gberie, and the intervention of Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Benoit Van Keirsbilck.
“COVID-19 has underlined the need to strengthen alternatives to detention and alternatives to the justice system in general”
The COVID- 19 pandemic has given rise to justice challenges faced by children and created additional obstacles for realising the vison of justice for and with children and revealed and exacerbated social inequalities and injustices around the globe. H.E. Ambassador Lansana Gberie stated the need to fulfil the central promise of the 2030 Agenda to “leave no one behind”, for which SDG16+ can be the foundation for reset and recovery efforts that are guided by multi-stakeholder partnerships in the face of lagging progress towards achieving Agenda 2030, and for building more resilient societies and institutions going forward. Thanks to the findings and recommendations of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, governments are “in better conditions to address COVID-19 in child detention facilities, with the recommendations and good practices that are enumerated”.
Reiterating Sierra Leone’s commitment to towards promoting child justice and reducing the rate of detention and prosecution of children in conflict with the law, H.E. Ambassador Gberie shared good practices in the country, including the implementation of “Justice App5”, an innovative digital case management application which ensures that women and children, victims of sexual and gender- based violence, in remote areas, can access justice. Yet, further progress must be achieved by introducing community-based prevention and rehabilitation programs for children and carryout crimes awareness raising in schools and communities, by developing and implementing new Child Justice Strategy that sets a roadmap for child justice reforms, and by legislating good practices of diversion and alternatives to detention by including them in the Child Rights Act and Criminal Procedure Act.
“The pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink the role of justice for and with children”
Citing strong political commitment and strengthening justice systems as vital elements to successfully end deprivation of liberty, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, underpinned that “building peaceful, just and inclusive societies as well as sustainable and resilient development cannot be fulfilled unless we can ensure all children are duly protected, have equal access to justice without discrimination and justice in its broadest sense, meets the needs and rights of children”.
COVID-19 has increased violence against children and gender-based violence, and has given rise to justice challenges faced by children, mainly for those in the most vulnerable situations. Yet, the pandemic also presented opportunities such as the release of children, wide scale application of alternatives to detention and innovative use of technology for justice service delivery. Indeed, the pandemic provides an opportunity to “rethink the role of justice for and with children, the starting point must be the preventive role that justice can play in ensuring that children’s rights are protected and their development supported”.
Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid also stated that “the majority of children’s challenging behaviour can be resolved and addressed without the need of punitive intervention. Around the world there are children in contact with the justice system for offences that should not be regarded as crimes. The primary goal must be to avoid the contact of children with the justice system in the first place.” Echoing Mr. Van Keirsbilck ‘s remarks, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid highlighted the need to formalise a UN resolution on the GSCDL to establish a follow-up mechanism of the Study, as such initiative will ensure that the results and recommendations of the GSCDL are mainstreamed, both at a national and international level.
Preventing children from coming into contact with the law: Youth perspective
As a young activist in Sierra Leone, Mohamed Bangura identified elements necessary for the successful prevention of children coming into contact with the law. The first element is ensuring justice systems emphasise the legal instruments that protect children and youth which are already at our disposal, including local, national, regional and international laws, practices and treaties. The second element is the need to foster wider government investment in resources for child protection organisations to ensure children are able to receive appropriate support. Mohamed detailed the case of child victims of trafficking in Ethiopia who, due to a lack of resources and information to trace their families and send them back to their homes, the children were detained instead. Fostering data collection and protection through larger investment in local organisations that promote child protection is vital to ensure that when a child gets into the justice system, we ensure the identification of the child and trace back where he or she can get enough support.
Finally, Mohamed stressed that due to the pandemic, most families are staying at home, so parents should be aware and have readily at their disposal all the resources and information of the crimes that could be committed against their children. Especially in the context of COVID-19 and the response to it, “let us feed the parents and guardians of children with more information and awareness of violence against children”.
“Releasing children is not enough: it needs to be done is a smart, planned and sustainable way, for the successful reintegration of these children”
Panellist Alexandra Souza Martins expressed the breakthrough which the UN GSCDL represented, as it addressed child deprivation of liberty in a comprehensive manner beyond the usual terrain of children in the administration of justice. Yet, she acknowledged the Study “was only the first step”, as further action is needed from states, CSOs and communities to end child deprivation of liberty. The UN Inter-agency taskforce for the UN GSCDL works to ensure coordinated action at the national and global level for the implementation of the recommendations of the Study, bringing together a broad range of UN entities which bring specialised expertise and knowledge in different areas related to children deprived of liberty.
Coordinated, efficient and cost-effective action is particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic, as “the challenges during this exceptional crisis have been exacerbated in particular for children deprived of liberty”. States are facing a double crisis, a financial one and a public health crisis. “Releasing children from detention can be a key solution to overcome these two challenges. Releasing children is not enough: it needs to be done is a smart, planned and sustainable way, for the successful reintegration of these children”.
“We call for a UN resolution that will ensure a follow-up mechanism is clearly set up for the future”
Benoit Van Keirsbilck emphasised the importance of the GSCDL findings and recommendations and the need for countries to implement it first at a national level to generate widespread political will and mainstream the Study’s recommendations. Such process begins with an assessment of each State of their own legislation and practice at the national level, and the subsequent adoption of a national plan of action that is tailor-made to the situation of the country, taking into account the six areas of the study where children are deprived of liberty. This plan of action should look at how to reduce the number of children deprived of liberty, while ensuring that it is done properly, and is based on the voices and views of children.
To continue the path towards the long-term reduction of the number of children deprived of liberty, the role of donors remains of the utmost importance to ensure there are real and effective alternatives on the ground, to continue research efforts and knowledge improvement, and to continue implementing prevention initiatives that ensure less children are sent to places where they will be deprived of liberty. Part of the capacity-building efforts can be reinforced with knowledge-sharing with other countries and regions, as “we can learn a lot from one country to another to try to implement positive change, and be of mutual support through sharing good practices”. He called for “global cooperation and coordination” to ensure the follow-up mechanism to the GSCDL is formalised in the form of a UN resolution that will “continue the momentum of the study”.
“We need professionals that can distinguish between children in conflict with the law and children in contact with the law, especially victims”
There has been a striking upsurge in cases of child trafficking due to the circumstances generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Manaff Kemokai underlined that justice for children is guided by international instruments upholding the rights of the child, as well as principles like the best interests of the child, or the principle of non-discrimination. Yet, every case of children accessing justice has its own peculiarities. General standards are necessary to establish a clear roadmap for justice systems, yet the details and circumstances of each case, the specific needs of children and how we can address them, vary on a case-by-case basis.
The panellist detailed cases in West Africa, an area with high child labour incidence, in which children are subjected to child labour and arrested with fishermen in the sea, yet they are not only not considered victims of child labour and trafficking, they are often criminalised under the law.
Since the problems are multidimensional, they will require a multidisciplinary approach: law enforcement, social welfare services and community involvement are key in the fight against trafficking. “We need comprehensive laws with clear procedures and strong implementation institutions, and law enforcement officials and other professionals that can distinguish between children in conflict with the law and children in contact with the law, especially victims”. Even in situations where children are arrested together with other criminals, children should be seen as victims and should be exempted of prosecution and given the support that they need to be reintegrated and reunified with their families. And for that, systems were services are provided to children in their access to justice need to be “responsive, coordinated, well connected, monitoring and supervising”, he concluded.
During the Q&A, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid raised numerous points on deprivation of liberty and fostered efforts of knowledge-sharing regarding good practices, and the way to tackle the impact of the pandemic on child deprivation of liberty and access to justice.
When asked about the obstacles to children being able to access to justice, and the most important child protection services and reintegration services, youth representative Mohamed expressed concern about untrained officials handling child-related issues, like military groups handling children who are migrating to another country. Governments and agencies should ensure that the authorities that handle child-related issues are properly trained, and always uphold the bests interest of the child. He also expressed the need to promote family and community-based solutions instead of government services provision, which tend to follow a one-size-fits all approach instead of implementing a case-by-case procedure.
Answering a question on identifying lessons learned in terms of child detention on national security grounds, Alexandra Souza Martins shared the support provided by UNODC to children associated with armed groups, including those designated as terrorist groups, have included the development of publications, roadmaps and guides to adequately respond to the needs of children on the ground. Such initiatives have a strong focus on minimising the use of detention on the base of national security ground, guided by the findings of the GSCDL, and have raised awareness on the extent of the problem faced by children deprived of liberty for national security reasons. As Ms. Souza stated “There is no need to choose between our security interests and child rights, these are two complementary objectives that should be pursued to achieve long-lasting peace”.
She also stressed the need to protect children from the use of exceptional detention regimes, especially when national legislation allows for administrative detention on security grounds, by applying diversion measures and ensuring the reintegration of children into society. Children associated with armed groups are first and foremost victims of grave abuses of human rights, and should be treated and considered as such. Their recovery and reintegration should be the priority for all, and those who recruit children need to be held accountable. Where the child protection system fails, the risk of children failing prey to these groups increases dramatically, this is not only a crime problem, this is first and foremost a developmental issue. This is why many states have shown how to use handover protocols and investment in strong child protection system can work.
In regard to how the UN CRC can contribute to the realisation of SDG16 from a child rights perspective, Benoit Van Keirsbilck detailed numerous ways in which the Committee on the Rights of the Child addresses access to justice and deprivation of liberty, which include inquiries into countries where there are grave violations of human rights, General Comments, the reporting process of the CRC, the Day of General Discussion, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure (OPIC). The latter instrument allows the possibility for children to bring their case to the Committee, yet numerous pre-conditions need to be fulfilled in advance, such as the exhaustion of domestic remedies, a condition that requires a national justice system that is child-friendly, effective and accessible for all children, especially the most vulnerable.
Addressing the topic of creating a holistic approach to protection and access to justice, in particular for girl survivors of sexual violence, Manaff Kemokai explained that in Sierra Leone, legislative developments resulted in removing the protection of children under the Child Rights Act by lowering the age of criminal responsibility below 14. This has resulted in young children being charged with sexual offences, thus increasing the incarceration rates of young children. To ensure access to justice and protection of survivors, it is important to have a system that guarantees effective case management and is guided by effective safeguarding. That way, countries will be able to mobilise professionals and service providers with clear procedures, to identify and respond to the needs of children survivors of sexual violence, including legal needs, protection needs or medical and psychosocial support. These procedures should not be ad hoc, they need to be coordinated, high-quality, provided by professionals and institutions who understand what safeguarding is and uphold the no harm principle.
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