UN takes on the Vatican over children’s rights

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The United Nation Committee on the Rights of the Child has strongly questioned the Vatican’s commitment to children’s rights, as reported in The Guardian [The linked report may contain details that could cause distress].

In particular, the committee slammed the practice of moving priests found to have abused children from parish to parish or to other countries “in an attempt to cover up such crimes”. Last month a Vatican delegation in Geneva for questioning by the panel accepted criticisms of this practice and said it no longer went on.

But the committee nonetheless noted: “The practice of offenders’ mobility, which has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them, still places children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse, as dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children.”

The Committee not only questions the Vatican’s response to the abuse of children, but more generally the Church’s teachings on abortion and homosexuality.

It is great to see that, finally, the Vatican is being held to account for the systemic failure to protect children.

The Committee will undoubtedly come under fierce criticism for its direct assessment of the Vatican’s appalling failings in this area. But religion has shielded the abuse of children, some of whom experiencing vulnerabilities and disadvantage that the Church should have been protecting, for far too long.

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Listening to the voices of children

From April 2014, children from a number of countries will be able to directly take reports of human rights abuses to the United Nations. But not Australian children. Paula Gerber, Associate Professor of Human Rights Law at Monash University, explains.

Australia ratified the convention in 1990 and has also ratified both of its other Optional Protocols, one on child soldiers and the other on the sale of children into prostitution and child pornography. But can we expect Australia to ratify this latest protocol?

The answer is probably “eventually”. In other words, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Although Australia, under the Hawke government, was quick to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has been less keen to submit itself to the complaints procedures under various UN human rights treaties.

 Since the famous Toonen decision in 1994, which found Tasmania’s laws criminalising homosexuality to be a breach of human rights, Australia has been found to have violated the human rights of complainants on at least 33 occasions.

Australia’s history with the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) is complex. Despite ratifying the Convention in 1990, it has been slow to adopt many of the Optional Protocols.

Gerber explains that the UN Committee that oversees the UNCROC has regularly been critical of Australia’s approach to supporting children’s rights. Right now, Australia is actively placing children in danger in immigration detention. We are also receiving horrific stories from the Royal Commission into child abuse on organisational and systemic failings in our support systems for children.

As one of the most prosperous and secure nations on Earth, Australia is in a position to be a standard-bearer for children’s rights. It remains to be seen when, or even if, this will ever be the case.

What if children were “the red line”?

A slight detour for this blog, but something struck me over the weekend as I watched and read some of the horrific reports coming out of Syria.

“Another grim milestone has been reached in the two-and-half-year conflict that has gripped Syria, with the United Nations announcing 1 million children have now fled over the border to escape the relentless violence.

The UN agencies for refugees and children, UNHCR and UNICEF, also estimate another 2 million children are internally displaced within Syria and at least 7,000 have been killed.”

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-23/1-million-children-flee-syria-bloody-conflict/4906314

The UN has also estimated that 6000 children have died in the conflict.

Over the last few days, the international community has responded to reports that the Syrian Government has used chemical warfare on its own citizens.

Many in international governments and the media have described this as a “red line” which, if proved to have been crossed, could be the impetus for military force to be used by the United States and other powers.

I have only an amateur’s interest in geopolitics and the policy decisions of military engagements – but a question struck me as these reports were coming.

What if children were “the red line”?

What if, as an international community, the “line” is crossed when children are massacred, or displaced, or tortured?

What would this mean for international relations? This is a rhetorical question, I don’t have the answers – I would love to hear what people think. Please comment below!

I will just add this. Air strikes and military engagements (including drone strikes) in Iraq and Afghanistan, by our partners and allies and in our name as Australians, have been responsible for potentially thousands of child deaths.

Nelson Mandela once said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.