12th European Forum on the rights of the child
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be here for this Forum.
As you have heard from our speakers so far, we have come a long way over the past three decades.
Thirty years after the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, those rights are better understood and better protected at least in Europe.
Both the EU and the Council of Europe have contributed to this positive trend.
We have adopted legal standards;
We have established platforms for intergovernmental co-operation, including the EU expert group on children, the Council of Europe Committee on the Rights of the Child – and, indeed, this Forum here in Brussels;
And we have adopted co-ordination structures that help to mainstream children’s rights in our policy-making processes.
This shared commitment, this common approach, has resulted in joint action too.
Take, for example, our Guidelines for child-friendly justice, adopted nine years ago.
These make clear that due process must be followed: due process that is accessible, understandable and age appropriate, so that every child interacting with the justice system has their rights, their privacy – their dignity – upheld.
These Guidelines prompted further work by the European Commission, which has funded related programmes and projects across EU member states.
They were also a spur for important research by the Fundamental Rights Agency, and they are just one example of joint work.
Together, we can multiply the effects of our instruments across our common member states, and long may that continue.
But of course the Council of Europe’s mandate extends far beyond the EU’s borders too.
We have 47 countries in total, each of which has signed up to our commonly agreed legal standards.
Among these countries there are stark differences in the way that the rights of the child have been traditionally understood or acknowledged.
Nonetheless our common concern for our young, and often our most vulnerable, people has allowed us to reach agreement and put in place powerful safeguards in areas of key concern.
For the Council of Europe today, these fall within the scope of our Strategy on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 2016.
This is a coherent and holistic Strategy built around five priority areas: equal opportunities; child participation; a life free from violence; child-friendly justice; and the rights of the child in the digital environment.
It is in these areas that we focus our activities, and in which we embrace co-operation with others too.
There is not time today to go into each in depth, but let me give you three important examples: action against violence; action to protect against abuse in the digital age; and action to support migrant and refugee children.
The Council of Europe has an integrated approach to the elimination of violence, and a long-standing commitment to tackle violence against children in all its forms: for example, in the use of corporal punishment.
Over the years we have also taken measures against the specific forms of violence that still, tragically, blight so many young lives – often among poorer, disadvantaged and minority groups.
These measures include our Convention on Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.
This protects girls under the age of 18 from early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation: itself a form of torture under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Our Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings is also of central importance for protecting children – and so too is our work through the implementation of the Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.
This seeks to address the twenty-first century outrage that a fifth of children in Europe today are victimised in this manner.
The Convention has also been central to the development of standards and tools for combating such abuse in the digital sphere.
In this area we have been active on a number of fronts.
Our Committee of Ministers adopted last year a Recommendation on Guidelines to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the child in the digital environment.
This is designed to equip our member states with the knowledge and practical solutions that will help keep young people safe online.
These include prevention strategies, guides to due diligence, and impact assessments and remedies.
It also points the way to a combined effort: public and private involvement, legal and voluntary measures, national action and international co-operation.
But it is not realistic to expect others to provide all of the protection; we must also equip children to protect themselves.
They must acquire the skills, knowledge and critical understanding to confront the challenges posed by the online environment, so that they can also make best use of its opportunities.
For this, our Internet literacy handbook is important.
It is designed to help parents, educators, and others to provide young people with the competences they need as they navigate the digital world.
Alongside our Cybercrime Convention, which helps our member states to prevent, protect and prosecute crime online, we have established a body of law and practical measures that helps reduce the risks for children.
But I also want to make particular mention today of the measures that we have taken to protect a very specific group.
Our Action Plan to Protect Refugee and Migrant Children is central to these efforts.
Since 2015, around 400,000 such young people have arrived in our member states, often in dire need, sometimes separated from their parents and carers.
The law is very clear: the European Convention on Human Rights protects every individual who sets foot on our member states’ soil.
It is our duty to ensure that those rights are applied to all children – indeed to all people – who arrive here, and I am proud that it is a priority of my Organisation to see this happen.
Our Action Plan puts child-friendly procedures in place, provides effective protection such as guardianship and family reunification, and enhances the integration of those children who will remain in Europe, through education, for example, and by providing them with real opportunities to participate in society.
This is not just about rescuing children from disaster but about giving them a route to better future – as is their right.
And isn’t that what this is really about? The proactive measures that change lives?
Not just imposing these from top down, but ensuring that children take part where possible in the design of our guidelines and standards so that these are not alienating but sympathetic to their needs.
This is what we mean when we talk about child participation.
Its essence was captured in our 2006 programme, Building a Europe for and with Children and because of this ethos, young people have fed directly into the key strands of our Strategy on the Rights of the Child.
But does all of this add up to the right approach? Are we doing enough, going fast enough, collaborating to the greatest possible extent?
Unfortunately, Europe is not a children’s rights safe haven: violations continue, remedies remain hard to reach and accountability is often missing.
Put simply, the gap is too big between our ambitions and the reality of daily life for millions of children across our continent.
How do we know this?
Independent research and the work of our relevant monitoring bodies show that all too often standards fall short of those set out in our legal frameworks.
For example, our progress on tackling violence against children is still too slow and fragmented.
The risks remain horrifyingly real – especially for girls – in every setting: online, in schools, in justice institutions, during sports and leisure activities, and in all forms of care and the home – everywhere.
Some groups remain particularly exposed: those with disabilities and those without parental care, children from minorities and migrant children too, and those deprived of their liberty or who live or work on our streets.
Hate is of course often a precursor to violence and our own European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has noted an increase in scapegoating, hate speech and racist violence, with children targeted on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, or perceived sexual orientation, for example.
Meanwhile, Eurostat has found that children experience the highest rate of poverty and social exclusion.
The economic crisis, austerity measures, and the resulting pressure on social services and child protection systems: all of these impact negatively on children’s rights and children’s futures.
It is also a fact that state services – including access to justice – often remain remote, faceless and impenetrable for young people.
For young children in detention, the rights to education and health care, and to be heard, informed and protected – including from discrimination – may exist in theory, but not in practice.
It is common to hear that the rights of the child are a priority for those in power.
But this is not always reflected in the policies, processes and – crucially – budgets of local, national, or international authorities.
It is important to keep in mind just how far we have come in thirty years.
But, our awareness now raised, it is also heartbreaking to confront how far short we fall of the standards to which our children are entitled.
So how do we move forward?
We need more leadership at the national level to ensure that the rights of the child are mainstreamed, not an afterthought.
But does that mean we need more leadership at the international level too – and, what does that look like?
The Council of Europe must continue to support our member states’ efforts to make children’s rights a national cause.
But should we concentrate on ensuring that current standards are met, or does this set the bar too low?
Should we in fact be setting new standards that respond to the realities of the modern world?
And have we got the balance of accountability correct – both for the state and for families? Do we need change there too in order to better protect the rights of every child?
I hope that this Conference will provide answers to those questions because on one thing I am clear:
The organisations that we represent share a commitment to the human rights of children across our continent and beyond.
We must work in concert to amplify our impact, and I have no doubt that this is something we can do.
Events like this, and the high level conference on the same subject that the Council of Europe’s French chairmanship will organise in Paris, this November, are opportunities to tell us what more must be done.
So let’s work together and ensure that for the next generation of children, there is another step change in their favour.