A conversation on children and young people’s right to participation

Thomas Davin, UNICEF Representative for Thailand, answers questions on children and young people’s participation in light of the protests in Thailand.

UNICEF Thailand
Thomas Davin, the Representative for UNICEF Thailand, is sitting next to a group of children who are studying in the classroom.
UNICEF Thailand/2019/Sukhum Preechapanich
29 October 2020

1. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, how can children exercise their right to participation?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child embodies the right to participation in Article 12. It is very clear that children have the right to participate and to express their opinions freely and peacefully. This means they should not be at risk of threats or any forms of intimidation or violence when expressing their opinions. It also means that they themselves should not be a source of threats to others when others express their opinions.

2. How can children and their families engage in conversation when they disagree?

The key word is “engage.” To truly engage with people, not only within the family – it means there is a time when you speak and there is a time when the other person speaks, and you create a space for the person to desire to engage with you. This means a safe space in which all speakers feel that their views will be heard, respected or even possibly countered, but always in a respectful manner. The sentiment of safe space is the most important, in the family or in any given conversation. 

We often say that children are like sponges. Children will understand, monitor and take note of how their parents engage with them. And if they feel that a space does not exist or that it’s a fake space, they will not engage.

What is important is that the parents who hold power in family relationships have a duty to foster a sense of safety for children, so that engagement can occur without the fear of judgement or repercussions. 

3. How can children and families in severe disagreement about political views that has led to stress seek counseling and mental health support?

UNICEF believes that the core of child well-being lies at the family unit level. I would say before seeking professional help for their children, it is important for parents and caregivers to make them feel safe and supported in sharing their thoughts and feelings. We know that a very important portion of these mental health issues or psychological distress can be managed simply within the family, in putting issues on the table, in talking through these issues. This way, children will know that they are safe, protected and not alone in facing their fears and anxieties. If this is beyond the family’s capacities, there are channels that UNICEF is connected with such as Lovecare Station, where young people can anonymously reach out to professional counsellors online and be referred to specialized services for severe cases. Young people can also seek confidential, professional help from trusted sources such as Hotline 1323, @KhuiKun on LINE and the Mental Health Clinic at general hospitals.

4. What is UNICEF doing to protect children’s rights amid protests in Thailand?

Many people in Thailand would have seen our statement released on August 18 in which we expressed our concern vis-à-vis the spaces that have to be respected or created for children and young people to be able to express their views and opinions in a peaceful manner, freely without fear of intimidation or any forms of violence. From our experience around the world, we know that governments as duty bearers of child rights need to focus on the protection of children throughout such events. We hold very dearly to what our statement communicates because that message is grounded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Thailand was one of the first to ratify. 
Beyond the statement itself, we quickly engaged with a range of partners to try and make a difference for children affected on the ground. We worked with the Ministry of Education to evaluate and improve the existing guidelines for ensuring children’s right to the freedom of expression in schools and learning institutions, as well as to support mechanisms for students or education staff to report rights violations, including through the Ministry’s 1579 hotline created to specifically support such cases.

We also met with groups of students to understand their views on what is happening in schools and learning institutions, if they feel that they are being heard, how they were treated and how we can better support them in ensuring their rights at schools and learning institutions.

We worked with the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Ministry of Public Health and civil society partners to address any tension and violence in families and communities resulting from political disagreement. We also reflected on whether the existing hotlines are accessible to children and young people and functioning as early alert and protection systems for those who may be at risk because of their political beliefs. We know there are quite a few of these, including the Ministry of Education’s 1579 hotline and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security’s 1300 hotline. At times it can get confusing as children and young people may not know which one to call. We believe however that providing several options means more opportunities for them to feel supported and heard. We are working with the partners aim to better understand whether these hotlines are being used, and if they are making a true difference for children calling for help. 

UNICEF is a UN organization. As the custodian of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, our duty is to remind nation states of their commitment to children’s rights and help them realize and protect these rights, including the freedom of expression.

However, we are not a government, which is the primary duty bearer in the realization of such rights. We are there to support the government and civil society in identifying gaps in the realization of children’s rights and co-creating solutions in line with the country’s laws and international human rights and child rights conventions. The Royal Thai Government is fully sovereign in its decision-making, as it is the ultimate and primary duty bearer for children’s rights in the country, and our role is to offer expertise on how to better protect and realize these rights that it has made a commitment to through its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

5. What can UNICEF do to protect children and young people who are speaking up?

We have closely monitored the situation and impact felt by children and young people who expressed their opinions, and understand that there are a number of cases in which they are still experiencing intimidation, harassment, expulsion from school or, in some rarer cases, being kicked out of their homes. We have worked with the relevant ministries to ensure that the guidelines to provide safety for children are followed up by meaningful actions, and that early alert mechanisms are responsive to the protection of children and young people. This is to ensure that the needs of those whose rights have been violated, who have been intimidated or harassed or who seek professional help can be addressed immediately through channels such as the Ministry of Education’s 1579 hotline and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security’s 1300 hotline. We have also continued to work with our NGO partner Path to Health to expand their ability to offer completely anonymous, one-on-one counseling to children and young people in need through their Lovecare Station website

As we are non-political and impartial, it is not our role to be present at the protests. We rely on our sister agency OHCHR to monitor these protests and report on possible issues around civil and political rights. We try to play a constructive role in highlighting the sanctity of children’s rights, and work with government agencies and civil society partners to ensure that children’s rights are respected and protected, that children whose rights have been violated can seek immediate support and that duty bearers, with our support, can better protect children and young people’s rights. 

6. For UNICEF, what does it mean to be impartial and non-political?

Being impartial and non-political is about not taking a side. This is also about not indicating whether we agree or disagree with any stakeholders of any part of society. Our role is, again, to be the custodian of the Convention on the rights of the Child – to ask whether the rights of the children are respected and to ensure that appropriate signals are provided to all parties to ensure that these rights are fully respected and fully realized. 

And that’s what we are trying to do in our statement of August 18 – reminding everyone what the Convention on the Rights of the Child says about children and young people’s right to participation and freedom of expression.

We understand that some people may have read this as a political position – which was certainly neither the case nor the intent. This was simply to remind everyone that no children or young persons should be the victims of any threats or any type of violence simply for expressing their opinions, whatever they may be.

7. What should happen when children come in contact with the law?

In Thailand, the Juvenile and Family Court and its Procedure Act is quite clear. It offers a range of protection for minors based on the approach of redirecting the child’s energy to constructive practices and discourage the perception of children as criminals. It looks at alternatives to judicial measures as much as possible. It states clearly that children have the right to a lawyer and should be supported by specialized child protection services throughout the judiciary process – distinct from that of adult cases. According to the principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, detention of children should be the last resort and for the shortest period as possible. 

8. How can schools be a safe space for children’s participation?

UNICEF believes that schools and learning institutions should always be safe havens for children, a safe space for fun, learning and freedom of thought. That is the spirit of what schools should be. This is reflected in the guidelines on child protection at schools set out by the Ministry of Education following allegations of harassment, threats, intimidation and expelling of children who express their opinions. 

We engaged with groups of students and the Ministry of Education to understand whether the guidelines were followed up by actions and that safe spaces for children’s rights were created and respected with mechanisms for students to signal or appeal if these guidelines were not fully respected. For example, if a student is being threatened or harassed by a teacher for their views, they should be able to file a complaint through the education or the legal system, depending on the form of harassment. 

In the same vein, when we speak about the freedom of expression, of thoughts, that applies to everyone equally. While a number of students feel strongly that these protests are a way for them to express their views on what should happen in the society, it is also quite likely that there are a number of other children and young people who either don’t want to join the protests or don’t agree with the message these protests aim to put forward. There should be a space afforded to these children who have that right to disagree, to have another opinion. That right should equally be respected and equally be cared for, and they should not be bullied or threatened. 

Schools should be the safe space for children to exercise their right to participation and freedom of expression without the threat of intimidation, bullying or violence – whether they support the protests or not.

9. How can we handle bullying and hate speech?

Bullying can take multiple forms. Generally, it is when you feel that you do not have the power to stop intentional and repeated negative comments and pressure on your life, beliefs or engagements without negative consequences, such as physical or psychological violence. Whether the bully is an individual or a group of people or if the bullying takes place online or offline, there is always an imbalance of power felt by an individual.

Bullying happens quite routinely to young people and to many in today’s society. It could be in the form of forcing somebody to say something that they don’t wish to say or forcing someone to discuss the issue or join an activity they don’t wish to join. It goes both ways, it could be that you don’t feel you have the freedom to raise your hand or opinion even if you wish to. 

We have seen bullying on both sides of the political spectrum recently. This is what we need to be mindful of and in our statement on August 18, we hope to alert all parties of the space for freedom and safe expression. That is everyone’s right to be protected from all forms of violence and intimidation, including bullying. 

Similarly, hate speech must not be tolerated. I believe everyone should focus on facilitating a constructive dialogue particularly in the time like this for Thailand when people hold very different views.

It all comes back to the freedom of expression, and freedom starts with safety. Hate speech is counterproductive to building a constructive dialogue and should simply not exist, should not be tolerated, should not be accepted and should indeed be challenged and fought against. 

10. We see many celebrities being called out, what do you think about that?

It all comes back to the same core belief about freedom of expression. I acknowledge that some people in Thailand feel strongly about their political views and are aware of the platform that celebrities have for reaching millions of people. It is healthy to be strong in your beliefs but it is important to not cross the line when exercising the freedom of expression by bullying public figures into making statements, as they too have the right to express or withhold their views. I would argue that a threat of boycott is a form of bullying, and I do not think we should do it because it means one is using the tactic that one does not wish to be used against.

We hold the tenet of the freedom of opinion and the freedom to express that opinion – and you cannot, on one hand, ask for your opinion to be respected and that you are able to express your opinion at any time while do not agree that the same respect should apply to everybody else whether they are celebrities or not. I understand that a celebrity carries a voice but, again, it is back to that simple tenet of freedom of expression, of thought, of decision that should be applied equally, and nobody should be forced to voice their opinion if they do not wish to do so. 

Now whether some of Friends of UNICEF feel like they have to or should express explicit support for UNICEF position, it is not a necessity for UNICEF. It is their own space and their freedom of choice. We respect Friends of UNICEF’s equal right to freedom of expression and regret that they may feel pressured due to call-outs on social media. People can ask celebrities what they think about the situation, and it is up to them to respond. To us in any partnership, the red line is that if there is a strong disagreement with the principle that UNICEF stands for, then the partnership may have to be reconsidered, but otherwise we respect each partner’s decision and choice.