Building a Europe for and with children

Follow up to the UN Study in Europe

by Marta Santos Pais
UN Special Representative on Violence against Children

It is a great pleasure for me to participate in this important meeting and celebrate with you the significant developments the Council of Europe has been steadily promoting in support of the realisation of the rights of the child and very especially of the protection of children from all forms of violence.

The launch of the children’s rights platform with the participation of national focal points from countries across the wide European region marks a critical achievement in this process and it also represents a very promising development for the years ahead. Indeed, the expertise you all bring and your committed association provides a unique potential to:

promote information sharing and cross fertilisation of experiences, both on the prevention of violence and the protection, recovery and reintegration of child victims;

open avenues that are mutually supportive and to scale up positive initiatives;

gain a deeper and shared understanding of the challenges that prevail, and

anticipate with confidence an evidence-based strategy to promote children’s right to freedom from violence and more broadly to place children at the centre of the political agenda.

The launch of the platform also represents a strong renewal of member states’ political commitment to follow-up on the UN Study on Violence against Children, conducted under the strong leadership of Professor Paulo Pinheiro.

The guidelines for integrated national strategies against children, which have been prepared under the auspices of the Council of Europe, provide a tangible policy framework to move this agenda forward.

I was delighted to be closely associated with the drafting of the guidelines and to see their development tailored by a range of country experiences and pursued through an evidence-based and participatory process. No doubt your discussions and the process ahead will help refine the guidelines further. I am confident that, once finalised, they will provide a significant navigation chart for national efforts to implement the recommendations put forward by the Pinheiro study.

The guidelines are anchored on a sound human rights normative foundation: they pursue a comprehensive and integrated approach to address all forms of violence and overcome fragmented or simply reactive solutions. They recognise states’ accountability, acknowledge civil society’s decisive contribution and highlight the family’s central role in promoting a violence free environment and an effective system of child protection, recovery and reintegration. Moreover, they strongly call on a child centered perspective and on child and gender sensitive solutions, services and mechanisms, and, not less importantly, the guidelines recognise the critical importance of mobilising human and financial resources for implementation and monitoring progress over time.

These dimensions are instrumental for national action, but they gain a special relevance at the regional and global levels. Indeed, within and across borders, they are instrumental to maintain momentum around this agenda, to enhance visibility and generate concern at the harmful effects of violence on children, to stimulate behaviour and social change, strengthen social pressure and mobilise political support and resources.

These are processes I am committed to support, nurture, and also learn from, as I anticipate the official start of my mandate as Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on violence against children). I see these important developments with great confidence and I look forward to collaborating very closely with all of you in the steps ahead!

As you know, the position of SRSG was recommended by the UN study on violence against children and later endorsed by the UN General Assembly. The UN Study, the general assembly resolution, the UN Secretary-General’s decision shape the SRSG’s mandate and provide guidance for future work.

The SRSG will act as a high profile and independent global advocate and serve as a catalyst of action by a wide network of partners  to prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against children, in all regions and help keep this issue high on the international agenda.

To ensure the independence of this position, the SRSG reports to the UN Secretary General and has the prerogative to select her own staff. The SRSG and her office will be funded through voluntary contributions and based in New York.

What are the main dimensions of the SRSG’s agenda? They are to:

promote and support implementation of UN Study recommendations and move the agenda forward;

identify and share good practices to prevent and respond to violence against children;

assist member states in their efforts to stimulate change, to build on positive initiatives and overcome challenges;

promote comprehensive and systematic data collection;

ensure cross-fertilisation of experiences including between sectors (for example human rights, child protection, well being, education, development, public health);

capture and evaluate progress;

report annually, providing relevant, accurate and objective information.

The SRSG’s mandate will be evaluated after 3 years including with regard to funding.

There is therefore a strong sense of urgency to address violence and effectively protect children and also to achieve tangible and strategic results within these next few years.

To make this possible, strong partnerships are needed and should be further consolidated, including with the UN and civil society, such as:

UN human rights treaty bodies and mechanisms;

the UN system including UN funds, programmes and specialised agencies;

the SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict, in close co-operation to ensure that no child is left unprotected;

civil society.

The SRSG will chair an Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence against Children with UN agencies and the NGO Advisory Council and will also collaborate closely with governments, regional and intergovernmental organisations and children and young people.

The agenda of the SRSG will build upon the strong foundation provided by the UN Study, will strengthen further the strategic partnerships it has promoted and pursue a broad participatory process around its development.

TheUN study recommendations are a critical reference for the steps ahead and the sense of urgency they have conveyed has generated a sense of pressing impatience. The recommendations are comprehensive and may be perceived as ambitious; although a prioritisation of actions will be needed, the recommendations largely confirm core commitments undertaken by states upon ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As we celebrate the convention’s 20th anniversary, active implementation is certainly due and cannot be postponed further.

This explains the sense of frustration young people often voice when they assess the limited change that has been so far achieved. In reality, time is running out if we are to be effective in our actions and reach the time bound targets anticipated by some of the recommendations. As you know, the study called for:

the development by 2007 of a national comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to all forms of violence, a strategy mainstreamed in the national planning process and promoted and coordinated by a high level focal point with leading responsibilities in this area;

the introduction by 2009 of a legal ban on all forms of violence against children;

the promotion also by 2009 of a national data collection system and research agenda.

These are dimensions where progress has been made in Europe but where much more can be done. In Europe, the guidelines for integrated national strategies provide a strong basis to widen the number of countries in the region with a thoughtful and realistic plan to protect children from violence. The children’s rights platform brings together national focal points from virtually all European nations and more than one-third of the countries in the region (19 of 24 around the world) have introduced legal reforms to prohibit violence in all settings, including within the home.

Making Europe a violence-free region is within reach but will only happen if we accelerate action to achieve genuine and lasting change. The Council of Europe is uniquely placed to help move this process forward. For that reason, it has been formally recognised by the Council’s strategy for 2009-2011 as the regional forum for follow up to the UN Study recommendations.

With 60 years of historic leadership and commitment to the promotion of democracy, respect for the rule of law and the safeguard of human rights, and bringing sound expertise on a wide range of fields of relevance to children, the Council can help ensure that the next steps of implementation will be anchored in these values and will also ensure that the child’s face, uniqueness and experience will not get lost, ignored or compartmentalised through the consideration of individual topics or disciplines. The Council can help preserve and consolidate further the human rights and child centred foundation for our work.

With its pan-European membership, the Council represents a strategic platform to share information, expertise and lessons learnt from national experiences and initiatives to prevent and respond to violence against children.

Using the guidelines as a strategy for implementation of the UN Study recommendations, avenues are opened to stimulate reforms guided by sound data and analysis, to gain perspective on progress made and assess the real impact laws, policies and interventions have on children’s daily lives.

The expertise and active contribution of national points will be instrumental and indeed indispensable to move this process forward. And it will in turn help to consolidate the Council’s potential to act as a clearing house, with an enhanced capacity to support, advise and assist member states in their efforts. This is a core component of the 2009-2011 Council’s Strategy and, although sound resources will be needed to make this possible, the returns on this investment will be high and certainly less costly than confronting later the problems arising from inaction.

As this meeting so clearly indicates, the Council of Europe plays a significant bridge building and convening role. It gathers strategic and influential actors who share a strong commitment to the protection of children from violence while also bringing a rich and complementary diversity of backgrounds and experiences. This is critical for the follow up to the UN Study.

In fact, this process will be most effective once pursued through a close collaboration amongst stakeholders and across sectors – building upon the essential individual contributions from policy makers, children’s organisations, independent institutions, academics and professionals – and by further realising that no single group can by itself generate the process of mindset and policy change that is required to effectively prevent and respond to violence against children.

UN Study follow up is inherently linked with political leadership and commitment at the national, regional and international levels. Within the Council of Europe, violence against children has been a constant priority for the Deputy Secretary General and a high priority in the agenda of the Committee of Ministers. This is vividly illustrated by the adoption of the 2009-2011 strategy, the appointment of a strong thematic co-ordinator and also the visibility given to child rights by the present and past presidencies.

Similarly, the recent past has been marked by the adoption of key standards, including two important treaties on trafficking and on the sexual exploitation and abuse of children whose ratification and implementation need to be urgently pursued. Moreover, through its human rights mechanisms, the Council of Europe has been a strategic and authoritative human rights voice.

Strong political will remains essential to move this significant process forward. With so many competing priorities and an increasing difficulty of securing funding at a time of financial crisis, children’s questions run the risk of being forgotten or simply placed in a waiting slot.

And yet, by investing in children and preventing violence, we know well how strong the opportunity is to limit the human impact of the crisis and reduce social cost in the long run.

As an essential institution in the Council of Europe’s structure and a strategic bridge with national parliaments, the Parliamentary Assembly has adopted a number of important policy documents, including towards a Europe-wide ban on corporal punishment of children. The Assembly’s contribution to promote debate, stimulate action and oversee progress in this new stage remains indispensable.

Building upon the very successful debate organised in early 2007, the Assembly is well placed to institutionalise a strategic and convergent agenda on violence against children across its various committees and to promote an annual debate on this topic. This annual meeting could become an important forum for representatives from the different committees to reflect on sectoral and overall progress achieved during the year, to engage in dialogue with key partners and to anticipate actions where priority attention should be placed.

Assessing progress and evaluating impact will remain key dimensions of this process. And so will strategic, periodic and public reporting on actions taken across instances and sectors, to monitor change, identify challenges and anticipate a new course of action required.

Monitoring, evaluation and reporting will be important to advance the agenda of the Council of Europe and to inform actions of member states, at the national level and in their mutual assistance efforts.

They will be equally essential to enable cross-fertilisation of experiences with other regions and organisations – an area where there is so much to gain and offer, particularly in a global phenomenon like this one and in an increasingly interdependent world.

These initiatives are a crucial contribution to the SRSG’s global advocacy mandate and reporting. And above all, they are of decisive relevance to enhance the effectiveness of our common actions to prevent and combat all forms of violence against children.

Moving the agenda forward

The Council of Europe’s standards provide a sound foundation for the work ahead. The Council’s institutions have promising processes already underway which can be consolidated further to mainstream children’s rights and institutionalise the Council’s commitment to the protection of children from violence.

The children’s rights platform stands as a strategic pan-European network of governmental representatives responsible for overseeing the design, implementation and monitoring of progress of national strategies on violence against children, in close collaboration with relevant stakeholders.

The guidelines, once adopted will constitute a reference and navigation chart for moving this process forward.

Building upon the unique experience and credibility of the Council of Europe’s human rights machinery, and the critical experience of European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and the Venice Commission, an independent monitoring system would deserve being given consideration in the future – to assess progress in a systematic and comprehensive manner, drawing on the contribution of all other actors, gaining perspective on overall trends and impact, and promoting with authority, further implementation.

If political will is strong and necessary resources are made available, tangible and decisive change is within reach.

And as we move ahead, let us not forget that for children, the waiting time is already too long. Their lives hang in the balance and for many it may soon become too late. We cannot afford to remain indifferent when they powerfully ask, “How long will it take before things get better? A month, a year?”