New frontiers: A comprehensive strategy on children’s rights
The European Commission welcomes the opportunity to join with UNICEF and partners in the global celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 November 2009. Respect for children's dignity and efforts to allow them to develop their full potential are subjects close to my heart. The Convention recognizes the unique vulnerability of childhood and calls on States parties and also the global community to do everything we can to protect children and provide for their material and emotional needs.
The European Union is committed to the promotion of, and respect for, children’s rights, and through our 27 Members and the EU institutions adds considerable value to international efforts promoting children’s rights. Despite not being a signatory to the Convention, the EU acts as a committed partner to the treaty, underpinning the efforts of its Member States, collating good ideas and promoting the exchange of best practices.
I believe there are three fundamental strategies that will allow the framework of the EU to continue enhancing children’s rights.
The first strategy is protection. We must relentlessly combat all types of violence that confront children today, particularly child trafficking, abduction and the extremely serious problem of child pornography and exploitation. The EU has already taken concrete steps in this domain. The Commission identified children’s rights as one of its strategic priorities for 2005–2009. In its Communication of 4 July 2006 ’Towards an EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child’, the Commission proposes the establishment of a comprehensive European strategy to effectively promote and safeguard children’s rights in the European Union's internal and external policies, and to support similar efforts by Member States. Since 2007, there has been a universal phone number (116 000) for all of Europe to use to report the disappearance or sexual abuse of children. Furthermore, in November 2008 the Council welcomed the Commission's working paper on best practices for launching a child abduction alert.
Enhancing children’s rights
Following these initiatives, in March 2009 the Commission adopted two proposals with new rules to strengthen the fight against trafficking in human beings, the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. The aim of these two proposals is to reduce the incidence of these children’s rights violations by improving communication and cooperation among Member States. It should be impossible for a paedophile to leave a Member State in which he or she has been prosecuted, and then to engage in a profession involving children in another Member State.
These legislative measures will also make it possible to initiate the prosecution of paedophiles who are EU citizens even when they commit crimes outside EU territory. Moreover, the proposal on combating sexual exploitation and abuse of children should facilitate the adoption of sanctions against perpetrators. Child victims will be able to testify in court without having to face their abusers, and they will also receive free legal assistance.
Another important component of preventing perpetrators of these violations from reoffending includes providing them access to individual examinations and suitable treatment. Measures to prevent them from engaging in activities involving contact with children should be applicable not only in the country where they were convicted but also throughout the whole of the EU.
Mindful of future challenges, the 116 000 number must be made operational throughout the EU, and Member States that have yet to adopt a child abduction alert mechanism should be supported in doing so. Above all, we must adapt quickly in order to be able to deal with the new threats emerging from modern technology. To date, approximately 3,000 Internet sites have been identified that exploit children commercially, and the number of child pornography sites increased fourfold between 2003 and 2007. Children now face dangers that did not exist in the past, including being contacted via the Internet for sexual purposes and cyberbullying. The EU proposals of March 2009 take these new risks into account, reinforcing the importance of security instruments that are already in place and the need for continued cooperation between civil society, governments and national criminal justice authorities.
The second strategy that is fundamental to the EU’s ability to promote children’s rights is to integrate all children into our societies. In the European Union as a whole, 19 per cent of children under the age of 17 live in conditions of severe poverty. I believe that the welfare of children is a very precise indicator of the democratic credentials of a society and its government. We must therefore act to ensure that children take part in economic and social life, focusing in particular on those at greatest risk of social exclusion, such as disabled children, unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe clandestinely and children belonging to ethnic minorities.
If children are to develop to their full potential, they must have access to high-quality, inclusive education. Member States remain responsible for the content and organization of their educational systems, but the EU must contribute to the realization of universal education by exchanging best practices and consolidating partnerships. On a more general note, the challenge of reducing disparities and integrating impoverished and marginalized children and families forms part of a broader struggle against poverty and exclusion, which must be a priority for Member States and for the EU.
Lastly, the third strategy that in the EU’s role of advocating for children’s rights is leadership. The EU has led the charge to address the problem of child soldiers and their reintegration into society, and it is working to protect them from being coerced into exploitative labour. An important component of leadership includes mainstreaming respect for children’s rights into the criteria governing accession to the EU.
Despite these and many other significant improvements in the protection of children and the realization of their rights over the past two decades, governments, international organizations and common citizens must persevere and go further with endeavours that advocate for children, and we must regularly propose concrete solutions in multilateral forums. Together we must act to protect our children from all threats to their rights so that they can become the future architects of our democracies.
Jacques Barrot is currently Vice President of the European Commission for Justice, Freedom and Security; he served as Vice President of the European Commission for Transport from November 2004 to May 2008. Prior to his positions in the Commission, Mr. Barrot served in a number of local, regional and national offices in his home country of France. He holds advanced degrees in sociology and the law.