Photo: A glimpse of the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa. Credit: The African Child Policy Forum and Defence for Children International. - Photo: 2018

Conference Calls for Action on Access to Justice for Children in Africa

By J Nastranis

NEW YORK | ADDIS ABABA (IDN) – The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges all members of the world body to respect and ensure the rights of each child “within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind”. While some progress has been made to fulfil the objectives set out in the Convention, too many commitments remain unfulfilled. This is particularly true for children deprived of liberty, who often remain invisible and forgotten.

Most countries lack data on the number of children deprived of liberty, on the reasons, length and places of detention. Judicial, administrative or other bodies, including the police, military authorities, immigration officials, child protection or welfare bodies, health professionals, and non-state actors, including in situations of armed conflict, decide children’s detention.

A major new report aimed at galvanising action on children’s access to justice in Africa was launched on May 8 at the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa, attended by child rights experts, representatives of governments, policymakers, lawyers, academics and journalists.

The report titled Spotlighting the Invisible: Justice for Children in Africa reveals that more than 28,000 children in Africa are being deprived of their liberty and denied access to justice. It paints a distressing picture of discrimination, inadequate funding, poor training, unaccountable traditional justice systems and slow progress on children’s rights.

The report shines a spotlight on three key areas including the fundamental principles and standards of child-friendly justice; “informal justice mechanisms” – religious, traditional or community-based systems which operate outside the statutory legal framework; and certain groups of children who are more at risk including girls, children with disabilities, refugees and orphans.

Against this backdrop, the Call for Action of the Continental Conference to make access to justice a reality for all African children assumes particular significance.

More than 100 child rights experts, advocates, defenders, campaigners, policy-makers, lawyers and academics attended the three-day (May 8-10) gathering organised by Africa Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and Defence for Children International (DCI). They heard repeated warnings about the adverse and lasting impact that failure to access justice has on children in different contexts across Africa.

“It is distressing that in 2018 African children are being let down by an unfair, inconsistent and discriminatory justice system,” said Dr Assefa Bequele, ACPF’s Executive Director. “Despite some limited progress in recent years, we need urgent action to protect children, ban inhumane punishments and bring an end to the detention of children across the continent.”

Several thousands of children across Africa are being deprived of their liberty in prisons, detention centres, rehabilitation units or other such institutions. Even if they avoid detention, many children experience discrimination, a lack of legal support and representation and physical punishment, said Dr. Bequele.

“Traditional, religious and other informal justice mechanisms in Africa also remain largely unaccountable, and the children who access justice through them are vulnerable to violations of their rights,” the ACPF Executive Director adds.

The Continental Conference Call to Action lists a number of ways the different institutions and stakeholders involved – African governments, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, non-governmental organisations, United Nations bodies, academic institutions and development agencies – should expedite the fulfilment of access to justice for children.

Many African countries now have laws and standards to protect children in the justice system, but that does not suffice. Efforts to enhance children’s access to justice have lacked a sustained, multi-pronged and systematic approach, and children’s rights have been insufficiently embedded in justice systems, said Alex Kamarotos, DCI’s Executive Director.

“Access to justice is a fundamental enabler of other children’s rights, but it cannot be achieved in isolation. Now is the time for implementation,” said Kamarotos. “We need a systematic and coordinated approach at the local, national, regional and international levels to best serve the needs of all children seeking justice.”

The third and last day of the conference was a regional consultation for the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. Participants from governments, civil society, academic institutions, and other practitioners met to discuss pathways leading to and conditions of detention, as well as alternatives and non-custodial measures.

“The opportunity to engage with government officials and leading regional experts on deprivation of liberty across the continent during the conference has been a highly valuable contribution to the Global Study,” Kamarotos said.

The origins of the Global Study go back to the UN General Assembly resolution 69/157, which invited the Secretary-General to commission an in-depth report on children deprived of liberty. On October 25, 2016, the Secretary General welcomed the selection of Manfred Nowak as Independent expert to lead the new global study on the situation of children deprived of liberty. By resolution 71/177 the General Assembly invited the independent expert to submit a final report at its seventy-third session in September 2018.

The core objectives of the Global Study are to:

Assess the magnitude of this phenomenon, including the number of children deprived of liberty (broken down by age, gender, ethnic, social and national origin, disability and other grounds), as well as the reasons invoked, the root-causes, type and length of deprivation of liberty and places of detention;

Document good practices and capture the views and experiences of children to inform the Global Study’s recommendations;

Promote a change in stigmatizing attitudes and behaviour towards children at risk or who are deprived of liberty; and

Provide recommendations for law, policy and practice to safeguard the rights of children concerned, and prevent and significantly reduce the number of children deprived of liberty through effective non-custodial alternatives, guided by the best interest of the child. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 May 2018]

Photo: A glimpse of the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa. Credit: The African Child Policy Forum and Defence for Children International.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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