Defence for Children International (DCI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) hosted a webinar on COVID19’s impact on children deprived of liberty, which was attended by more than 250 participants from different countries. This online event highlighted the key findings of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty (GSCDL) in the context of COVID19 and was moderated by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, Najat Maalla M’jid. It was co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Austria to the UN Geneva and the Permanent Mission of Uruguay to the UN New York and featured the participation of the UN inter-agency Task Force for the GSCDL.
Before giving the floor to other panellists, Najat Maalla M’jid noted the importance of ensuring a follow up to the GSCDL. The Special Representative remarked that COVID-19 adversely and disproportionately impacts children deprived of liberty and that it provides us with an opportunity to bring about sustainable long-term changes, such as using all alternatives to detention and institutionalisation. Particularly, she wondered: “if it is safe to release children now (in the context of COVID19), why were they detained in the first place?”
UNICEF’s Child Protection Programme Division Cornelius Williams welcomed the fact that some States have released children in the context of COVID19. He alluded to the recently produced UNICEF’s Global Guidance of COVID19 and Children Deprived of Liberty and referred to the “protests of the movement ‘black lives matter’ in the US, which was triggered as a response to the universal scourge of racism and discrimination.” For him, “these events provoke the need to redouble our efforts to root out racial discrimination and all forms of discrimination from the very system meant to protect children.”
Alexandra Souza Martins, who spoke on behalf of UNODC’s Global Programme on Violence against Children, stressed that the challenges linked to the treatment of children deprived of liberty have been exacerbated during COVID19. For her, “the majority of children in detention should not be there in the first place. Amongst them are children with mental and substance abuse problems and children who have committed minor offences. More recently, she highlighted, we have witnessed a worrying trend of detaining children for national security reasons, such as their alleged association with terrorists and so-called violent extremist groups.”
From the perspective of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Carina Ferreira-Borges said that “all the people that have been deprived of liberty, including children, have been part of a population that has been left behind.” Dr. Ferreira-Borges added that children deprived of liberty “have a very poor health status, even poorer than their peers in the community.” She also noted that “detention can cause or exacerbate already existing physical and mental health issues.” She also referred to WHO’s interim guidelines on how to respond to COVID19 situations in prisons whilst also calling on States to release more children in order to reduce overcrowding, which has a positive impact in preventing the spread of the virus.
The last panellist intervening in the webinar was Cedric Foussard, Advocacy and Global Learning Advisor at Terre des Hommes (TdH), which is also a Member of the NGO Panel on Children Deprived of Liberty. He noted that “TdH has worked on a global campaign for accelerating the release of children from detention in the context of COVID19” and has produced a Policy and Practice Brief on this issue, “which captures the initial phases of how justice systems are reacting to COVID19 with a specific focus on children in conflict with the law.” Cedric Foussard applauded the efforts of civil society and academia in involving children in the creation of the child-friendly version of the GSCDL. He stressed that the follow up of the GSCDL should continue to consider child participation and involve children in its future implementation.
Close to 11 million detainees including hundreds of thousands of children worldwide may be strongly impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, detention facilities for children in particular do not meet the minimum requirements set forth in international and regional legal instruments. The lack of adequate healthcare services in these facilities can lead to the spread of the coronavirus disease, putting at severe risk not only detainees but also the staff, the families and communities. Therefore, the vulnerability of detention facilities to an outbreak of COVID-19 must be of grave concern to all countries and become an integral part of a national response to COVID-19.
PUBLIC HEALTH • Within detention facilities, COVID-19 prevention and control measures alone may prove insufficient due to several factors: overcrowding; increased vulnerability, including gender-based violence; illness, leading to staff reduction below acceptable levels for care and protection; increased number of detainees, especially children deprived of liberty or those unable to be released due to closures of courts, suspension of trials, etc. - which equally undermine infection control measures and thus significantly increase the risk for infection, amplification and spread of COVID-19. Children, who are already more vulnerable because of the confined conditions are also more likely to have compromised access to information about the outbreak, including much needed information about how to protect themselves, identify symptoms and seek treatment. Therefore, evidence-based COVID-19 prevention and control measures in detention facilities for children are urgently needed and should be implemented in full compliance with human rights as well as international standards and norms for justice for children and child protection.
UNODC’S POSITIONING AS PART OF THE OVERALL COVID-19 RESPONSE - UNODC has the mandate to support countries in preventing crime and violence and in strengthening justice systems. In particular, the work of UNODC to ensure that children – defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child as all persons under the age of eighteen – are better served and protected by justice systems, has been implemented since 2015 through its Global Programme to End Violence against Children (Global Programme to END VAC). In April 2020, UNODC took part in an inter-agency process and contributed to the development of an Inter-Agency Technical Guidance on COVID-19 and Children Deprived of Liberty. The interagency group is composed of UN entities and CSOs and is a joint effort with the Alliance on Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. It was in response to the recent guidance issued by UNICEF and the Alliance on COVID-19 and Child Protection, and the identified need of States for more specific guidance in relation to children deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 outbreak.
TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE IN RESPONSE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC - The Inter-Agency Technical Guidance is aimed to provide States with recommendations on how to ensure the well-being of children in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic and how to support child victims and witnesses and/or the role of the justice system in prevention of VAC (Violence Against Children). In addition to this Guidance, UNODC, through its Global Programme to END VAC, offers a number of Technical Assistance Services to support Member States, upon request, in better protecting the rights of children in detention during the COVID-19 outbreak. In this context, the Global Programme’s action-oriented guidance is based on three key services:
1. Support to strategic planning to the public sector (Decongest juvenile detention facilities, Combat the COVID-19 outbreak within locations, Minimize risks of violence, exploitation and abuse).
2. Institutions and capacity building (Improve conditions of detention, Support the provision of legal aid and legal representation programmes, Enhance the probation services or other supervision/monitoring systems of non-custodial sanctions and measures, Support and strengthen independent inspection bodies, Support technology solutions that uphold children’s rights, Enhance national and local professional capacities to comply with international human rights standards).
3. Information, advocacy and awareness raising (Develop communication strategies, public information and education programmes to raise awareness about the protection of children deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 outbreak).
The vast majority of children deprived of liberty will eventually return to their communities. Thus, the failure to address protection and care needs for children could lead to a rapid increase in the transmission of COVID-19 within detention facilities, while compromising the safety and health of the general public. In the interest of public health protection, States should plan coordinated approaches to accommodate protection needs within detention facilities for children when devising and implementing their national response plans to ensure the recovery of the whole community.
Following the the Secretary General’s policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on children, the UN Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence against Children has put together an Agenda for Action. The Agenda for Action is based on the different mandates of the entities involved and provides a child rights and multi-sectoral framework for action. The Agenda aims to mobilize Governments and other stakeholders around the world in defense of social services for children. A global crisis calls for a global response. Solidarity, multi-stakeholder cooperation and multilateralism are needed now more than ever.
The Agenda calls for strong mobilization of governments, bilateral/multilateral donors, civil
society and private sector to:
• safeguard social protection, health, education and protection of children's services;
• ensure children are duly protected and have the possibility to thrive and reach their full potential, when this crisis will be over;
• achieve the Goals and Targets of the Sustainable Development Agenda.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerability of those children already at risk as growing economic vulnerability will increase the threat of child labour, child marriage, child trafficking, sexual exploitation and recruitment into criminal groups, and armed groups and forces. In addition, movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety have added a new group of invisible at-risk children who are at increased risk of experiencing and observing physical, psychological and sexual violence and neglect at home. There is emerging evidence that violence against children is increasing in all different forms, from domestic violence and abuse at home to excessive use of force by law enforcement while enforcing lockdown decisions against street children. In the words of the UN Secretary General: What began as a health crisis risks evolving into a broader child-rights crisis.
The United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence against Children calls on governments, the international community, civil society, human rights institutions, the private sector, workers’ organizations and leaders in every sector to ensure a child rights and multi-sectoral response to COVID-19 on three fronts:
1. More information
2. More solidarity
3. More Child Rights and Multisectoral action
The Agenda lists parts of a child rights and multisectoral framework for action for children recalling that all decisions and activities that concern children should be guided by the principle of the best interests of the child in the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as States’ international human rights, obligations and recommendations from international and regional human rights mechanisms.
The immediate priorities are: violence against children, child participation, access to computer and internet, online protection, mental health, alternative care, case management, children in detention, child labour and trafficking, children in humanitarian settings, children and armed conflict, social cohesion and the mid and long-term actions relate to transitions and fiscal policies and budget.
The Agenda provides concrete examples on how member states can place the protection of children’s rights as a top priority during the crisis and calls for using the protection of the world’s children as a common cause that can stoke a greater sense of unity among people.
The proposed actions include: Ensuring that essential child protection services are recognized as life-saving and continue to be provided, providing opportunities for children’s views to be heard and taken into account in decision-making processes on the pandemic; providing practical support to parents and caregivers, including how to talk about the pandemic with children, how to manage their own mental health and the mental health of their children, providing opportunities for children’s views to be heard and taken into account in decision-making processes on the pandemic, through consultation and dialogue; providing adequate responses to online violence, including guidance and tools for parents and carers on how to better protect children online and offline, including how to respond to and, if needed, report harmful contacts, conduct and content. ensuring border and movement restrictions are implemented in ways that ensure that children and families fleeing conflict and persecution can seek asylum and internally displaced children and families can move to safer areas in their own country, among others.
The Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence against Children is chaired by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children with representatives from UNHCR, OHCHR, UNICEF, UNODC, ILO, IOM, ITU.
Download the Agenda for Action PDF
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