Welcome to Human Rights Here

Dear Reader,

We are delighted to introduce you to Human Rights Here, the new blog of the Netherlands Network of Human Rights Research (NNHRR)! Human Rights Here (HRH) aims to support the critical exchange of research, analysis and ideas between scholars and practitioners. If you are reading this statement, this includes you!

Our feeling was that we needed a blog that could forge a closer connection between human rights research and rights in practice. We envision HRH to be inclusive - promoting strategies resulting in an awareness and culture of human rights for all stakeholders.

Stakeholder groups include government and international organisation officials, practitioners, civil society and non-governmental organisations, national human rights institutions, independent administrative authorities, students and the media. We are ambitious and would like our audience and contributors to extend beyond The Netherlands. We therefore welcome contributions addressing human rights topics relevant to national, regional and international audiences.

The blog’s focus on Human Rights “Here” - on the ground - will be operationalised by:

  • Publishing high-quality contributions submitted by academics as well as by practitioners;
  • Requesting contributors to demonstrate and discuss the societal relevance of their piece;
  • Reaching a broad range of stakeholders in society, among others through an accessible yet professional language and clear analysis; and by
  • Posting occasional blog entries on events demonstrably relevant to human rights, such as academic conferences, and legal or political developments.

Join us in celebrating the launch of HRH by reading one of our first blogs, and please consider making a contribution!

Sincerely,

Human Rights Here (HRH) Editorial Board

Elif Durmus
Stephanie Rap
Felisa Tibbitts
Aikaterini Tsampi

Tackling violence against women in the Netherlands: some thoughts on the GREVIO baseline report on the Netherlands


Photo credits: Anthony Tran - Unsplash

Adriana van Dooijeweert

President, Netherlands Institute for Human Rights

Introduction

Just like everywhere in the world, also in the Netherlands violence against women is a widespread and serious problem. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (the Dutch national human rights institution) has had this issue on the agenda since its establishment. It has, for example, encouraged the Netherlands to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) and discussed with Dutch government officials and professionals, on various occasions, the human rights aspects of violence against women.

National human rights institutions fulfil an important role in promoting and protecting international human rights standards. It does so, among others, by monitoring the implementation of the recommendations of regional and international monitoring bodies. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (“the Institute”) therefore takes due note of the comprehensive report of the Group of Experts on Violence Against Women (GREVIO) on the Netherlands situation, published on 20 January 2020. GREVIO monitors the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. GREVIO based its findings on the report submitted by the Dutch government, reports submitted by the Institute and by many non-governmental organisations, in addition to information obtained during a five-day evaluation visit to the Netherlands. All reports, as well as the government response to GREVIO’s report, can be found on the country page on the Netherlands. In this blog, I discuss key recommendations from GREVIO’s Baseline report addressed to the government.

Violence against women in the Netherlands: some data

Each year in the Netherlands, approximately 33 women are killed by their partners or ex-partners. According to recent research, in the past five years approximately 747.000 individuals over 18 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the private sphere. Notably, more than half of the domestic violence cases concern violence by partners or ex-partners. It is worth noting that these figures do not include psychological violence. This form of domestic violence is also grave and pervasive.

In almost 20% of the reported cases, the violence is of a structural nature, that is, occurring regularly each month, week or day. The majority of the victims are women: approximately 97.000.

These figures are alarming themselves. However, what is also alarming is that the number of victims has not decreased over the years.

Why is this happening? According to Statistics Netherlands, which annually publishes the data on murder and manslaughter in the Netherlands, killings by a partner or ex-partner can be explained by domestic circumstances, such as fights between spouses and jealousy. Such language seems to imply that it is a fact of life that lovers fight, and that by accident such fights get out of hand. However, all these incidents should not be seen in isolation. It is not a coincidence that in almost all lethal domestic fights it is a woman who is murdered by her partner or ex-partner. Similarly, it is not a coincidence that mostly women are confronted with sexual harassment in the workplace, or with sexist remarks and physical harassment in the street and other public places. 

Need to treat gender-based violence as a human rights issue

As reiterated in the Istanbul Convention, violence against women is a violation of women’s human rights, and should be addressed as such. A comprehensive human rights-based approach should be taken to address the underlying causes of violence against women and to protect victims. Action should be taken to empower women, strengthen their human rights protection and eliminate stereotypical views on the role of women and men in society.

Violence against women is not a women’s problem, it is a problem of society as a whole. While the Dutch government accepts this in theory, this is insufficiently reflected in policy, especially in the policy on domestic violence against women. As GREVIO observes in the Baseline report, the programme entitled Violence does not belong at home insufficiently addresses the power imbalance between women and men and its impact on women’s exposure to and experiences of violence. It concludes that Safe Home organisations tend to treat male intimate partner violence against women as a problem among equals, and insufficiently seek to clearly establish responsibility for abuse and control.

The Institute is concerned by the lack of a thorough understanding of gender as a factor in domestic violence and the absence of comprehensive and coordinated gender-sensitive policy measures to address violence against women and domestic violence. It is clear that current policies insufficiently address the root causes of violence against women.

Some examples may illustrate this. Men may find it difficult to accept that a woman breaks up a relationship and moves on without him. We have encountered dramatic incidents where this resulted in men stalking their ex-partners, online and offline. During my recent visit to the Caribbean part of the Netherlands, NGOs informed me about the gravity and scope of domestic violence against women in this part of the Kingdom. They explained that it is difficult to address, because many people regard it is as part of their culture, and beating is even seen as a sign of affection. This makes clear how important it is that there is not only adequate support for victims of violence, but also that the root causes of gender inequality are addressed. Only then will violence against women be eradicated.

In order to address gender-based violence, it is imperative to strive towards gender equality and to apply a gender perspective in the implementation of human rights. As the European Court of Human Rights concluded in the 2019 Volodinav Russia judgement, ‘Substantive gender equality can only be achieved with a gender-sensitive interpretation and application of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights] provisions that takes into account the factual inequalities between women and men and the way they impact women’s lives.’

The Baseline report identifies the consequences of the gender-neutral policy on domestic violence adhered to by the government. As GREVIO concludes: the main policy document on domestic violence in the Netherlands sets out a view of domestic violence that is gender neutral with no recognition for women as a group at particular risk from gender-based harm. It states on p. 6 that ‘Gender-neutral policies bear the risk of interventions by professionals that lack gender sensitivity, lead to gaps in protection and support and contribute to the re-victimisation of women.’ In concrete cases, this can imply that professionals treat violence by a male partner as a problem among equals. The consequences of exercising power and control are not recognised, or are not addressed properly. The Dutch government needs to take this overall conclusion to heart.

Increased risk of domestic violence due to COVID-19 pandemic

Present day circumstances, where many are confined to their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, imply a risk that domestic violence against women and children increases. Home is not a safe place for everyone. As the president of GREVIO observed in a statement, the restrictions on movement offer abusers additional power and control. There is a risk that some women victims of violence are deciding against seeking medical attention for fear of contagion, or that shelters are unsure how to manage the risk of infection. In the Netherlands, we see that shelters and support services are reaching out to (potential) victims by offering on-line counselling and counselling by phone when possible. Emergency shelters remain available. The government has recognised the work of professionals offering shelter and support services as a ‘crucial’ service. This means that services continue to be offered as much as possible, in an adapted form when necessary. The government provides funding for additional digital support services and care without physical contact. It is encouraging to see that the increased risk is taken so seriously and we have great respect for all professionals who continue to provide these crucial services under these challenging circumstances.

NIHR strategic programme gender equality

The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has recently adopted its new four-year strategic programme. Gender equality is one of the two strategic themes it will focus on. Domestic violence against women by partners or ex-partners is one of the core issues we will work on. With the new strategic programme, we commit ourselves to further intensify our efforts to contribute to a society in which women and girls can live a life free from violence. We will do so from our unique position as an NHRI: by advising the government on laws, policies and practice and critically monitoring the progress in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. We will closely cooperate with all relevant partners in society, including professionals, non-governmental organisations and academics. We welcome readers of this blog who are interested in cooperating to contact us.

Bio

Adriana van Dooijeweert has been chair of the Dutch national institute for human rights since 1 September 2015. She previously chaired the Advisory Committee on Immigration Affairs. She has been a judge and coordinating vice president in various sectors of the courts in Den Bosch and The Hague for nearly 30 years.

For further information: i.boerefijn@mensenrechten.nl

Youth and the Right to be Elected: Are We Beginning to Explore an Uncharted Frontier?

Daniella Zlotnik Raz

University of Haifa, Israel

daniella.zlotnik@gmail.com

Introduction

Youth political rights and political participation is (still) evolving in academia as a new frontier of children's rights. To date, much of the changes and discussions 'on the ground' concern lowering the voting age, developing mechanisms to enable youth participation in government, and acknowledging youth' role in political and social protest.

While the attention is focused on youth' right to vote and political participation, the closely linked right to be elected remains overlooked. This commentary will briefly explore what, if at all, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) can contribute to the discussion on youth and the right to be elected, by considering the CRC provisions themselves, as well as relevant views of the CRC Committee on this theme. Based on a children's rights perspective, the commentary will also review a recent decision by the Israeli High Court of Justice on youth' right to be elected, and consider what can be learned from this case example in relation to litigating youth' political rights in the future.

Youth' and the Right to Be Elected: A CRC Perspective

The CRC incorporates the full range of human rights for children, including civil and political rights. These rights include basic freedoms (e.g., freedom of expression, thought and conscience, association and peaceful assembly), and other rights related to political participation (e.g., protection from violence; access to information; education) (§13-15, 17, 19, 28-29 CRC). The CRC also introduced the concept of the child's evolving capacities (§5 CRC), recognising that with age, maturity and enhanced competences, youth require less guidance, and should enjoy greater agency in decision-making and in exercising their rights under the Convention, including in the political context.

In particular, the right to be heard (§12 CRC) is a significant provision in that regard. It provides a child (or a group of children), who is capable of forming his or her own views, to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, and requires that the views of the child are given 'due weight' in accordance with the child's age and maturity, echoing the concept of 'evolving capacities'. The provision has been broadly conceptualized as 'participation', and it extends beyond hearing the child,  ensuring that the views and opinions expressed are carefully considered, and have an impact (though not necessarily a decisive one) on a broad range of issues that impact the child's life, including in the political context.

Indeed, it is only recently that the CRC Committee began to comment on the political rights of children - particularly youth - and how these impact States' obligations under the CRC. Among others, the CRC Committee, in its 2016 General Comment, interpreted CRC provisions in relation to youth participation in political and social issues, and called for States' action regarding youth consultation. The Committee also encouraged States to lower the voting age (e.g., in Austria and Scotland where the voting age was lowered to 16 in national elections), and recently published a decision under the CRC Optional Protocol on a Communication Procedure concerning the exclusion of youth from the right to vote (the communication was ruled inadmissible on procedural issues). Yet, while the children's rights discourse on youth political rights and political participation is emerging, one aspect of  youth political rights remains absent - the right to be elected.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides every citizen with a right to 'vote and be elected' (§25(b) ICCPR). The Human Rights Committee noted this right is at the 'core of democratic government' but allows restrictions that are 'justifiable on objective and reasonable criteria', including in relation to the minimum age to stand for election (HRC, 1996). Indeed, the CRC drafters at the end of the 20th century did not envision a child's right to vote, let alone a right to be elected. §12 CRC - which is the most appropriate 'hook' for political rights for youth - does not (yet) include a right to impact or decide, but only to be heard in others' decision making processes. The CRC Committee, in its 2009 General Comment, mentioned that §12 CRC does not provide a 'general political mandate', seemingly referring to the rights to vote and be elected - which are absent from the Convention.

While the CRC certainly anchors a broad 'right to be heard', standing for election means a right to be 'listened to' and represent others. This seems to go beyond the (current) scope of 'participation', and perhaps conflicts with other provisions (e.g., education, role of parents; §18, 29 CRC), as well as, perhaps, with the basic concept of the CRC itself: that children, due to their status, need special assistance and protection. A discussion on a right to be elected, then, raises new important questions relating to youth' legal status, evolving capacities, political rights, leadership and participation, and the adaptability of the CRC to youth' role in society in the 21st century.

Adjudicating Youth Right to Be Elected? An Israeli Case Example

In February 2020, Israel was (and still is) amid a political crisis. It was facing its third election in the span of a year, after attempts to form a coalition and establish a government continually failed. These were the circumstances for a petition filed by an NGO ('LEAD' organization) to the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ), requesting a legislative amendment to enable youth over the age of 16 to establish and register a political party for the upcoming elections.

The Israeli Political Party Act (1992)  holds that only adults may establish a political party. This, according to the petition, deprives youth of their basic civil rights, including their right to take part in decision-making on political, civil and social matters, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and right to equality (claiming the current law amounts to age-based discrimination). Interestingly, the petition maintained that due to societal, educational and technological advances, youth in the 21st century are more capable and informed than ever before, and that their abilities to express their views, initiate and lead change at the national and global level require States to establish new mechanisms to fulfil their civil rights, including through parliamentary representation.

The HCJ dismissed the petition on procedural grounds, namely non-exhaustion of measures (HCJ Decision). Specifically, it ruled that the applicants did not provide adequate time for the State to respond to the claims before filing the petition (which is mandatory in Israeli law), and that by the time it was filed, the deadline to register political parties had already expired. Thus, to date, the question of whether excluding youth in Israel from the right to be elected violates their rights is still unresolved.

As the HCJ did not have the opportunity to consider the merit of the case, other points salient to the political participation of youth were ignored.  First, why weren't individual youth included as applicants, alongside the NGO? What does this suggest in relation to youth' access to justice and the right to be heard? Second, why was 16 selected as the cut-off age to establish a political party, and can this be justified as an 'objective and reasonable' criteria, adapted for youth in the 21st century? Indeed, setting a minimum legal age in which a child can engage in specific activities and be entitled to certain rights and responsibilities is common practice in legal systems, and linked to the concept of the child's evolving capacities (e.g., minimum age of criminal responsibility, consent to sexual activity, driving). Yet, rigid cut-off ages are also inconsistent across States, may lack scientific or legal basis, and have been criticized as insensitive to children's individual capacities. While the petition referenced legal capacity in Israeli law and (some) minimum age requirements in comparative law, the grounds to petition for this specific age limit seem insufficient. Third, the most obvious omission in the petition concerned the related 'right to vote'. Israeli law only enables adults (18+ year olds) to vote in national elections. The petition focused solely on the right to be elected, neglecting the fact that youth themselves could not have voted for a youth-led political party. Indeed, it is strange to envision a 16-year-old being elected for parliament, while she herself is disenfranchised. This demonstrates how closely linked and inter-dependent the right to be elected and the right to vote are. Perhaps, even, it is equally strange to enable a 16-year-old to vote (as is the case in Scotland and Austria, for example), without allowing her to elect a peer to represent her needs and interests?. This generates additional discussions on the relationship between the right to vote and to be elected, youth representation in politics, and on political commitment to to youth-voters on matters relating to their lives.

Despite the dismissal, the HCJ implied in its decision that a future petition on the issue is possible, provided compliance with procedure. Thus, in Israel a judicial decision on the minimum age to establish a party and the right to be elected may only be a matter of time.

Strategic Litigation on Youth Political Rights - A Future Trend?

The Israeli case example shows how a youth' 'political' right is advocated for through strategic litigation, (as opposed to campaigns thorough advocacy or awareness raising) on the ground that youth exclusion violates their fundamental rights. This represents a new development that will likely bring about more cases and questions at the national and international level. For example, how the jurisprudence on youth political right will evolve, and how youth' access to justice and remedies will be fulfilled in this context?

Bio

Daniella Zlotnik Raz is a PhD researcher at the University of Haifa (Israel). Her PhD concerns the political rights of adolescents and their participation in electoral democratic governance, from a children's rights perspective. Daniella is also a lawyer and works at the legal department of the Israeli Council for the Child (NGO).

Promoting health and environmental rights through participatory noise mapping in the city


Photo credits: https://scistarter.org/noisetube

Anna Berti Suman*

Tilburg Institute for Law Technology and Society, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands

*Telephone: +31134668403; E-mail: a.bertisuman@uvt.nl.

Postal address: Prof. Cobbenhagenlaan 221, 5037 DE Tilburg, The Netherlands.

Excessive noise levels represent a pressing issue seriously affecting people’s health and wellbeing in contemporary cities. High levels of noise can threaten both mental and physical health, causing persistent stress and impinging over environmental rights such as the right to a healthy environment. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has often reflected on the connection between environmental protection and human health. In a number of cases, some expressly dealing with noise-associated nuisances, the ECtHR has been lenient in identifying causal links between environmental harm and resulting health effects. In the Dubetska case, for example, the Court found a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) enshrining the respect for private and family life because of severe water pollution. The Court noted that it is “often impossible to quantify [pollution] effects in each individual case” (para 106) but it suffices that pollution is “in clear excess of applicable safety standards [creating an] elevated risk to health” (para 111) to determine a breach of Article 8 ECHR. Specifically addressing noise-induced pollution, in the Deés case, the Court again affirmed that the mere fact that the noise exceeded substantially statutory norms was sufficient to constitute a violation of Article 8 ECHR. This open interpretation may allow citizens monitoring their environment to stand in court for violation of their right to health or to a healthy environment whenever they can demonstrate a substantial exceeding of (national or international) environmental standards.

The right to a healthy environment was recognized at the first global conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972, through the enactment of Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration. Yet the Declaration for its non-binding nature does not create a true obligation for the states to respect such a provision. It is rather the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998 and having the nature of a binding legal text, which at its preamble recalls Principle l of the Stockholm Declaration (and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development). The Principle reaffirms the right of every person to a healthy environment, to which realization the rights of access to information is considered functional. This understanding of access to environmental information as a means to ensure a healthy environment is particularly relevant for this discussion on civic environmental monitoring and production of environmental information. In the European region, the right to a healthy environment has evolved through an extensive interpretation of relevant provisions of the ECHR as the Convention itself does not explicitly refer to the environment. The ECHR has indeed assessed environmental human rights’ infringements against other rights recognized in the Convention, such as the right to life and physical integrity (Article 2 ECHR) and the right to privacy, home and family life (Article 8 ECHR). Over recent history, requests have been advanced by scholars to urge the Council of Europe to adopt a right to a healthy environment but, up to now, the Council has not embraced this push to include in the ECHR such a right. Also the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union, played a significant role in terms of environmental protection. Article 37 of the Charter is the most relevant for the aim of this discussion, affirming that “a high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be [..] ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.”

High noise levels may seriously threaten the enjoying of the discussed rights. Proximity to transport hubs often worsens the noise burden that the dwellers have to bear. Political and economic interests related to the growth of transport networks in the city frequently conflict with the interests of the citizens for a peaceful living environment. Increasingly, lay people (that is, non-expert people or experts not acting in their professional role) are engaging in measuring environmental parameters affecting their own health. These actors can be described as  ‘Citizen Scientists’.  The phenomenon of grassroots’ actors monitoring environmental condition is bringing in new evidence on the effects of persistent high noise levels – among the other environmental factors – on human health. Such evidence can inform policies aimed at governing noise risks and foster a higher respect of the right to health and individual and collective environmental rights. Practices of participatory noise monitoring qualify more specifically as ‘Citizen Sensing’.  ‘Citizen Sensing’ can be defined as a sub-set of Citizen Science entailing the monitoring of environmental (health) parameters using smartphones and networked devices, which may foster citizen participation in tracking environmental (health) risks. ‘Risk’, in this context, can be defined as the probability or threat of damage or any other negative occurrence caused by external or internal vulnerabilities (e.g. environmental risks), which may be avoided through pre-emptive action, and which affects public health. ‘Noise’ can be framed as an unwanted sound that is perceived as unpleasant, loud or disruptive to hearing and which, in some cases, can impact public health.

‘Citizen Sensing’ practices take place in the social context of an ongoing debate questioning the exclusive role of authorities and professional scientists in taking decisions and producing knowledge over risk problems affecting citizens’ daily life but also – and importantly – health and environmental human rights. Such a debate entails the fundamental question on whether political and social issues are better resolved through reliance on technical expertise only or, rather, also including civic knowledge and deliberation when fundamental rights of the concerned citizens are at stake. The discussion is also, ultimately, a reflection on boundaries: what counts as legitimate knowledge for informing (environmental) decision-making is increasingly blurred. Leaving affected people’s input out of the debate may be seen as a way to reinforce environmental injustice(s). Moreover, projects of participatory monitoring not only engage laymen but often include also experts, just not acting in their professional role, which demonstrates that the divide between citizens and experts is not straightforward (anymore). In these experiences, expert opinion and lay perception meld and complement one another, rather than compete, pushing for forms of participatory democracy ‘on the ground’. Lastly, laymen engaging in such initiatives ultimately aim to ‘cross-check’ official environmental data, challenging or aiming at restoring trust in appointed institutions. In doing so, as recognized in the preamble of the Aarhus Convention, sensing citizens draw a link between access to environmental information and promotion of healthier environmental conditions.

One may question why citizens engage in such alternative or complementary monitoring practices when official environmental impact assessments - mandatory under domestic legislation - already provide for public participation and consultation. The problem is that, often, citizens perceive these ‘institutional venues’ for public engagement as detached from their actual needs and as too formalized. Moreover, in case of highly politicized infrastructural projects, citizens may struggle to ‘trust’ officially offered spaces for participation as they expect the institution will not take account their perspective. Lastly, citizens could consider it more effective to appeal to (social) media instead, publishing there their data and claims on noise. This way, ‘Citizen Sensing’ becomes a way to actuate participation and environmental rights otherwise. A case, the NoiseTube project in Paris, shows this potential. Tackling the issue of noise pollution, the NoiseTube project was initiated in Paris by the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in 2008. Choosing as an example a project that started even before the ‘boom’ of ‘Citizen Sensing’ (identified by Boulos et al. in 2011) and that is still active and growing today demonstrates that these practices can be sustained over time. The project was launched to develop a “new participative approach for monitoring noise pollution [..] enabling each citizen to measure […] exposure in his everyday environment and participate in the collective noise mapping.” The project entails citizens gathering, analysing and sharing risk information on open access, collective noise maps, by installing a free application on GPS-equipped mobile phones (yet, ownership of a smartphone is a gate-keeper). Engaging with the measurements, citizens can gain an understanding of their daily exposure to noise but also contribute to creating a collective data source on noise based on local knowledge for improving institutional governance.

Ultimately, this can be seen as a form of ‘enhancing’ environmental rights, both giving people control over environmental information for taking individual and collective action and making them more informed on noise trends and thus more able to argue with competent institutions on noise management decisions. In the end, as recognized by the Aarhus Convention, knowing about your surrounding environment is the first step to be able to argue about eventual violations and demand actions for environmental protection. That said, it can be concluded that ‘Citizen Sensing’ has a potential in terms of generating awareness among the public on environmental issues and creating citizens cross-check mechanisms of institutional information. The citizens with their own measuring equipment flip the relationship with the institution(s) responsible for the risk problem, from passive recipients of information to active collectors, thus claiming their role in a space not traditionally reserved for them. The sensing individuals, this way, become able to discuss on an informed basis the data gathered by themselves with the data presented by experts. As found by the ECtHR in the Deés case, the citizens may eventually become able to prove that perceived noise levels exceed statutory norms and thus demand intervention from the competent authorities. These participatory systems cannot substitute official noise monitoring platforms. Yet, they can bring fresh new evidence, which can trigger a social but also judicial debate and ultimately promote the respect of health and environmental human rights. Lastly, these initiatives may bring useful data to decision-makers, attending to the fact that often local knowledge is not sufficiently taken into account in official interventions.

Bio

Anna Berti Suman is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (The Netherlands), currently also Visiting Researcher at the European Commission Joint Research Center. Her PhD project aims at investigating how grassroots-driven Citizen Sensing can challenge and ultimately influence environmental risk governance. Anna has work and research experience in environmental risk policy (Ecuador), water management (Chile) and the public health sector (London). Besides academia, Anna volunteers as pro-bono environmental lawyer for non-governmental organizations.

Child-friendly procedures and practices for refugee and migrant children in Europe


Photo credits: Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees, Council of Europe

By Stephanie Rap

On 9 December 2019 the Council of Europe (CoE) launched the report Promoting child-friendly approaches in the area of migration. A review of standards, guidance and current practices as part of the activities taking place during International Human Rights Week. In the report guidance is given to CoE member states on how to make their asylum procedures and practices more in line with the rights, interests and needs of refugee and migrant children.

Since 2013, hundreds of thousands of children have arrived in Europe, many travelling unaccompanied and separated from their families. Although, the total number of children arriving decreased by almost 70% between 2016 and 2018, the number of unaccompanied and separated children has increased during this period. Some countries received more children than others – and the Southern European states are known for having received the majority of refugee and migrant children.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and as of today it is almost universally ratified. The CRC recognises rights to which all children are entitled and it is the first international instrument to acknowledge the unique needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children, including children without parental care (Article 21) and children requiring refugee protection (Article 22). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body of the CRC, has noted that the CRC rights are not limited to children who are citizen of a state, but must be available to all children – including asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children – irrespective of their nationality, immigration status or statelessness (General Comment No. 6, para. 7). In line with the CRC general principles, states have a legal obligation to ensure that migrant and refugee children’s basic needs are met (Article 6), that the child’s best interests are a primary consideration (Article 3(1)), that they have a right to be heard (Article 12) and enjoy their rights without discrimination (Article 2). States must adopt a child-specific approach to migration practices, policies and decision-making (General Comment No. 22). At the regional level, in Europe, quite some initiatives have been undertaken to safeguard the rights of refugee and migrant children, among others by the Council of Europe.

In 2010, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers adopted the Guidelines on child-friendly justice, recognising that “specific protection and assistance may need to be granted to more vulnerable children, such as migrant children, refugee and asylum-seeking children.” In 2016, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe appointed a Special Representative on Migration and Refugees with a special mandate on the protection of refugee and migrant children. In 2017, based on the findings of the Special Representative the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted an Action Plan on protecting refugee and migrant children in Europe (2017-2019), with the purpose of improving children’s access to their rights, access to information and to child-friendly procedures.

The report, that was compiled as part of the Action plan, brings together international and European standards on child-friendly practices in the context of migration and illustrations from practice of initiatives, programmes and procedures on the ground that serve to implement these standards. The examples of every day practices that meet the needs of children aim to support legal professionals, policy makers and frontline professionals who seek to implement or advocate for a child rights-based approach to migration.

One of the findings of the report is that a gap can be identified between the standards set by the various instruments and the reality of refugee and migrant children’s lived experiences. Refugee and migrant children struggle to have their needs met, their rights fulfilled and their voices heard. While there are many projects, initiatives, programmes and interventions offered by states and non-governmental organisations across Europe that support the vindication of the rights of refugee and migrant children, these are not always available to every child; nor are these consistently applied from one country to the next. Many practices generally appear to be ad hoc, small scale or one-off and sometimes very localised, among other things due to limited resources and funding. In order to address this gap, the report illustrates a number of good and promising practices that implement the children’s rights standards. One important barrier that exists to wider application of child-friendly approaches is a lack of awareness of how to make practices more child-friendly. The report provides a first step in sharing knowledge and experience between countries and hopefully this will lead to increased awareness and improvements for refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe. The most important task for professionals is to really listen to what children themselves have to say to develop practices that are more in line with their needs, interests and wishes.

Bio

Stephanie Rap is Assistant Professor in children’s rights at the Department of Child Law, Leiden University, the Netherlands.