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Column: Ireland needs an international safeguard for our children

We need to draw a line under our tragic history of child abuse – and a new international standard is the perfect opportunity, writes Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

Tanya Ward Children's Rights Alliance

WE CAN ALL agree that we need to draw a line under Ireland’s tragic history of child abuse, as recently exemplified by the Brendan Smyth case, where the child’s rights – and voice – were ignored. The Government has an opportunity, this year, to set up an international insurance policy on behalf of children and their families that will help safeguard them, should the State fail again in the future.

Like any good insurance policy, the devil is in the detail and the name – rather dryly – suggests this: the ‘Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Communications Procedure’. Let me explain why this rather tiresome-sounding Protocol will make a difference to children’s lives.

As Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, a coalition of over 100 NGOs working for the rights of children in Ireland, I am already excited about the positive impact that 2012 will have on children. In all probability, this will be a historic year. There are a significant number of nationally driven initiatives in the pipeline that will truly make a difference to children’s lives. These include a referendum likely to be held in October to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution, a new Child and Family Support Agency that will overhaul our child protection system and new laws that will oblige those in contact with children to report suspected child abuse.

Our vision, at the Children’s Rights Alliance, is to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child, and all of these initiatives will help to make our vision a reality. Our mission is to advocate for the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the UNCRC) in our laws, policies and services, so that Ireland can make better decisions and achieve better outcomes for children.

‘We already know in this country what it is like when adults fail children in their care’

This Convention is important to us, because it recognises that a child is not property or a possession, but instead an individual with his/her own special rights. These rights take account of the fact that children are dependent on adults for their care and to all intents and purposes powerless.

We already know in this country what it is like when adults fail children in their care. This is why we are now calling on Government to sign up to the new Optional Protocol to the UNCRC that includes a new complaints procedure for children. We, at the Alliance, do not see any legal obstacles in doing so. Indeed, we see this as almost an insurance policy, safeguarding any bad decisions potentially made in the future by the State. But the Government remains tight-lipped on the matter.

This new Optional Protocol is essentially a complaints mechanism for children and their families. If the State has failed to uphold their rights in some way, then this is a new avenue to seek redress. Children, their parents, families or representatives can bring a complaint before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and on to the international stage. The Protocol also empowers the Committee to undertake inquiries if it receives reliable information indicating grave and systematic children’s rights violations.

There is no doubt that if a mechanism like this had been in place earlier, it may have gone some way in targeting institutional failures to tackle child abuse, such as the Brendan Smyth case. There were serious and systematic breaches of children’s rights and this could have prompted the UN Committee to set up an inquiry, bringing widespread international attention to the issue.

‘This offers Ireland’s children and their families further insurance that we value children’

In addition, where there are gaps in our existing national system, children and their families would not have to accept these injustices. If John is being discriminated against and not getting the education he deserves, then he can take a case to the Equality Tribunal. Or if Aoife’s parents believe she has been unfairly treated during a stay at hospital, they can ask the Ombudsman for Children to investigate. The outcomes offered through these mechanisms differ and are not always satisfactory.

So, for example, if John were to win his case at the Equality Tribunal, then he could be awarded compensation of up to €6,349 together with an order forcing the school to take specified action. However, with the Ombudsman for Children, Aoife wouldn’t get compensation and there is a possibility that the hospital would ignore the Ombudsman’s decision. The new Optional Protocol would mean that Aoife’s parents wouldn’t have come to a dead end, and they could take the issue to an international stage.

If Government is truly committed to children’s rights and a comprehensive child protection system in Ireland, then it makes absolute sense to sign up to this Optional Protocol. This offers Ireland’s children and their families further insurance that we value children, their rights and childhood.

Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, spoke in Galway yesterday at a symposium organised by the Children’s Rights Working Group of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway on the new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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About the author:

Tanya Ward  / Children's Rights Alliance

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