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Speech by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General
”The development of child-sensitive counselling, complaint and reporting mechanisms”
Panel on “Protecting boys and girls from sexual violence: prevention and response”,
Annual full-day meeting of the rights of the child - Human Rights Council
10 March 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
If I were brave enough, I would ask the adults in this room who have been victims of violence during their childhood, to raise their hands. If the shame, social codes and emotional barriers often created by this problem were not ever-present and imposing, standing before me like giants, I would then invite those who have been victims of sexual violence to raise their hands.
If we, the women in this comfortable room, were all brave enough, we would face the truth and would raise our hands to show that the numbers of girl victims of violence is much higher than anybody dares to imagine.
Among all the victims of sexual violence, children are the most vulnerable and, at the same time, the least protected.
Last month, once again one of the major international news’ headlines revealed the atrocious scandal of sexual abuse allegations of around 30 former pupils by 2 teachers at an elite school in Berlin from 1975 to 1983. More than 100 estimated victims have kept their secret for 30 years and carried the burden of pain, fear, guilt and shame on their own. They remained in the dark probably because they did not know what to do and whom to turn to. Like most victims of sexual abuse, they were terrified by the possible consequences of the allegations for themselves and their families, by the idea of nobody believing them and the threat of retaliation from the abusers.
Other scandals in residential institutions and schools in Portugal, Ireland or Canada involving priests show that sexual violence can happen anywhere and that anyone can be an abuser.
I would therefore like to draw your attention to our obligation towards children to take all necessary steps to ensure that children have access to child sensitive services and mechanisms guaranteeing their protection, effective preventive measures and adequate responses to sexual violence, wherever it takes place.
The Council of Europe has focused much attention on the rights of children and the protection of children from various forms of violence. The elimination of sexual violence is one of the mandates of the Programme “Building a Europe for and with children”.
First, we have elaborated a convention covering all forms of sexual violence (the Lanzarote Convention);
I. A new international treaty covering all forms of sexual violence
The Council of Europe has contributed to the global effort to combat sexual violence by establishing an effective legal framework and promoting international co-operation through an international legally binding instrument.
The Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (the Lanzarote Convention) was adopted in 2007. In this “ground-breaking” treaty, also open to ratification by non-European countries, the Council of Europe calls on States to establish specific legislation and measures in various fields which will, notably, further facilitate children’s access to counselling as well as to reporting and complaint mechanisms. The following measures deserve being highlighted:
FIRST, the Convention recognises the need to adopt a multidisciplinary and co-ordinated approach on a national or local level between the different relevant agencies. Specialised authorities and co-ordinating bodies should be set up to facilitate the reporting of suspicions of sexual violence.
SECOND, awareness-raising and education measures addressed to children themselves on the topic of sexual violence should be taken, especially in primary and secondary schools, in collaboration with parents. Children should be given the appropriate information related to sexual violence to ensure that they are able to recognise themselves as victims and that they possess the information allowing them to seek advice and report the abuse. The Convention also promotes the participation of children in the development and the implementation of state policies, programmes or other initiatives concerning the fight against sexual violence.
THIRD, children must be provided with information on their rights and on how they can exercise them.
FOURTH, the Convention clearly underlines that the public at large and professionals have a duty to report suspicions of sexual violence to child protection services, or to any other competent authority. Professionals working with children cannot remain silent on the ground of rules of professional secrecy. Reporting and complaint mechanisms should take into account the risks of pressure and threats faced by children when disclosing sexual assaults. Investigations or prosecution of offences should not depend upon the report or accusation made by the victim; the proceedings may continue even if the victim has withdrawn his or her statement.
FIFTH: Once sexual violence is reported, it is essential to minimise the child’s exposure to the justice system in order to avoid secondary victimisation associated with the court proceedings.
AND FINALLY, the Convention stresses the importance of international co-operation in criminal matters. Where the offence was committed in the territory of a Party other than the one where they reside, victims will have access to complaint and reporting mechanisms in their State of residence.
II. An integrated response to violence against children
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The UN SG’s Study on Violence against Children called for the development by each country of a national strategy to prevent and combat all forms of violence against children, including sexual violence. To support the mandate of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on violence against children, the Council of Europe adopted in 2009 its Policy Guidelines on integrated national strategies for the protection of children from violence.
The Guidelines key components are the design of adequate legal, policy and institutional frameworks, the building of a culture of respect of the rights of the child, the development of child-friendly services and mechanisms, the promotion of research and data collection and the reinforcement of international co-operation.
The setting up of effective and child-friendly violence reporting and referral mechanisms is one of the main objectives pursued by the Guidelines. Such mechanisms should respect the rights of the child and offer children (and where appropriate, their families) the necessary protection without undue delay.
Where this is warranted by the child’s safety or well-being, children should have access to confidential medical counselling and advice without parental consent, irrespective of the child’s age. This is fundamental, particularly in situations where children experience violence or abuse within the home, or in case of conflicts between parents and the child over access to health services.
Child-sensitive counselling that is also gender-sensitive and disability-sensitive requires listening to the individual child with an attentive and trained ear. The professionals working in the field need to be experts with extensive knowledge on theories and practices, but they also need to reflect to what they hear, to interpret the child’s silences, draw conclusions and be able to act accordingly.
The lack of co-operation between professionals working in child protection, health and legal services remains one of the biggest hindrances to developing effective counselling and reporting mechanisms for child victims. The services responsible for the recovery, rehabilitation and social reintegration of child victims and witnesses should follow a multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach, seeing the child in the wider context of the family, community and his/her cultural background.
The guidelines also advocate for the establishment of independent institutions such as Ombudspersons for children. Access to them becomes essential, especially for children living in residential institutions or in other situations in which the abuse takes place in a facility run by a public administration.
III. The development of child-friendly services
Ladies and Gentlemen:
We often call for child-friendly services. The problem is that we do not have a clear idea of the meaning of these words and their concrete implications for some key policy areas. The Council of Europe has taken up this challenge and is currently working on the definition of child-friendly justice, child-friendly social services and child-friendly health care. Our work on child participation can complete this effort in other policy areas.
As the Committee on the Rights of the Child points out, “For rights to have meaning, effective remedies must be available to redress violations… Children’s special and dependent status creates real difficulties for them in pursuing remedies for breaches of their rights.
So States need to give particular attention to ensuring that there are effective, child-sensitive procedures available to children and their representatives”.
And yet, our justice systems constantly fail to take children’s rights, interests and specific needs into account. The current draft of our guidelines for child-friendly justice defines child-friendly justice as referring to systems which guarantee the effective implementation of all children’s rights in the best possible manner, bearing in mind the principles of participation, best interests of the child, dignity, protection from discrimination and the rule of law. Such systems give due consideration to the child’s level of maturity and understanding of the case. It is in particular justice, which is accessible, age appropriate, efficient, adapted to and focused on children’s needs, which respects their rights, including the rights to due process, to participation and to understanding the proceedings, to privacy and to integrity and dignity.
The development of child-sensitive counselling, complaint and reporting mechanisms is a pre-condition for effective access of children to justice both at national and international level. The Council of Europe is also committed to improve children’s access to international justice.
The European Convention on Human Rights provides for an individual complaints mechanism which, unfortunately, is still lacking in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am however hopeful that the Human Rights Council will agree on the drafting of a new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child providing for a communications procedure. In the meantime, the Strasbourg Court’s increasingly frequent references to the UN Convention are a very positive evolution.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
If all men and women here in this room were brave enough, we would get closer to those giants standing in our path, seemingly blocking our way, and realise that we are just tilting at man-made windmills. We would listen to our inner Sancho saying: "Those over there are not giants, but windmills. Those things that appear to be their arms are sails which, when they are taken by the wind, turn the millstone."
If all men and women in this room were wise enough, we would use those sails to produce fruitful results: we would challenge fear, shame, stereotypes, social distress, violence and inequality through laws, institutions, policies, education and awareness-raising.
Let our human dignity and human rights values be the inspiration for a new wind: a wind of change. Let us all raise our hands against violence.