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Vice-President of the European Commission, Justice Commissioner
"Realising the rights of every child – moving forward with the EU"
UNICEF/ Eurochild publication launch
Brussels, 12 February 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear members of Unicef and Eurochild,
Thank you for inviting me to the launch of this important and timely publication.
At the end of last year I had the pleasure of hosting the 8th European Forum on the rights of the child. Over 270 participants from all areas of child protection came together and one thing was made clear: when we combine our efforts, knowledge, experience, and will, and learn from each other, we generate fresh and exciting ideas that bring us forward.
This is also why I welcome the publication that UNICEF and Eurochild have prepared. The reflections shared by people with different perspectives on working for children's rights in the EU are valuable for taking stock of where we are today.
Today I want to speak about what we have achieved in recent years, the ground work we have laid for the future, and about some of the challenges ahead.
Implementation of the EU Agenda: Child-friendly justice
In the EU Agenda, which has been the Commission's work programme on children's rights for recent years, we said that the EU must lead by example. The Commission strives to ensure that the EU Treaties, the EU Charter of fundamental rights and the UN Convention on the rights of the child are fully respected. Let me give you an example of how we have done this by focusing on one particular priority area in the EU Agenda, which was building an area of child-friendly justice.
We have employed a variety of tools and methods. We have adopted legislation. We have provided funding through our funding programmes, particularly to train judicial and other practitioners. We have collected available EU-wide data on children in judicial proceedings. We have gathered information on legislation and policy on children's involvement in criminal, civil and administrative judicial proceedings. We have promoted child participation. And last but not least, for all these actions, we have worked closely with UNICEF, and other international organisations, Eurochild and other non-governmental organisations, the European Parliament and other institutions and EU Agencies, the Member States, Ombudspersons, academics, and practitioners. It is by working together that we can achieve the best results. I very much value your work and commitment.
Our legislative work has produced far-reaching and forward-looking EU-wide rules to safeguard the rights of children when they are victims of crime. We now have safeguards for child victims involved in criminal judicial proceedings, or when they are victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation.
Apart from defining specific safeguards for children, the new rules also focus on preventative measures and make it easier to prosecute criminals and bring them to justice.
Children can also find themselves involved in judicial proceedings where they are suspected or accused of a crime. They may not always understand what is going on in these proceedings and what the consequences of their actions are. They need specific protection. We recently proposed measures to ensure that children get a fair trial, help prevent re-offending and foster social reintegration. Other benefits for children would be mandatory access to a lawyer at all stages of the criminal proceedings, prompt information about their rights, assistance by their parents or another appropriate adult, protection during hearings and interviews and specific protection in case of deprivation of liberty.
It is important, for all children regardless of their status or place of residence, and for mutual trust, to have common rules in the EU, but implementation is still lagging behind. It is important that these rules and commitments do not remain promises on paper only and we will be looking very closely at how Member States transpose recent EU legislation.
– Children's involvement in judicial proceedings
As part of a European Parliament pilot project, we commissioned research to gather data and information on children's involvement in civil, administrative and criminal judicial proceedings in the 28 Member States of the EU. We are currently still processing the data but some of the preliminary results are already quite telling.
The study will reveal on the one hand welcome examples of good practice, such as in Scotland the availability of very clear guidance for parents on reaching parenting agreements in case of separation; good take-up of multidisciplinary training (mandatory training in the Czech Republic, Estonia, France and Italy for judges, police, public prosecutors and defence lawyers, or training for Luxembourg youth police officers that includes modules on child psychology and on communicating with children); in France rules to ensure that any case involving a child (whether offender or victim) is heard by a specialist children's court rather than in 'adult' courts; and in Austria the practice of ensuring that judges and prosecutors in children's courts must first complete a work placement with a social work department.
On the other hand the study will show how difficult it can be for children to access the justice system in the first place, particularly in civil and administrative judicial proceedings, given their general lack of legal capacity. Our findings also show that we have to do better in informing children of their rights and the procedures they're involved in and in some Member States training could be stepped up.
In the course of our work on this study we uncovered substantial data gaps. Moreover, the data we have is often not comparable. For criminal justice for example, it is not possible to say how many child victims of crime there are in the EU, or how many children are in contact with the justice system as a suspect or accused, and data on child witnesses is almost non-existent. For civil and administrative justice, there is even less data available. But if we do not know how many children are affected by a particular situation, it will be difficult to have the right services in place at the right time.
The criminal justice results will be published very shortly and civil and administrative results will be published in the autumn.
I don't need to remind you that all Member States must have a comprehensive child protection system in place as part of their obligations under the Convention on the rights of the child.
When talking about a child protection system I am talking about a system that protects children from violence in its widest sense: against all forms of physical or mental violence as well as abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation, within or outside the family. I am talking about a system where child protection actors work together and coordinate their actions using diverse tools and working across different sectors.
It is clear that Member States have primary responsibility for their child protection systems. However, as underlined by several speakers at the Forum on the rights of the child, European action is needed to support and strengthen national child protection systems. Indeed, there are a number of areas where the role of the EU can support and contribute to national child protection systems and where measures can complement national efforts.
With this in mind we will consolidate the work we have done until now. By bringing together tools and actions developed under the EU Agenda we will take a bird's eye view of all the areas in which the EU has made or can make a contribution to child protection. We will focus on cross-border and transnational aspects in a range of policy areas, and use EU legislation and international standards as a basis for our actions.
We will publish the results in the Guidelines on child protection systems in 2014. The guidelines should serve as a useful resource for policy makers and practitioners working on child protection at EU and national levels. The aim is to ensure that there is more clarity on where the EU does act or can act, and where Member States can benefit from EU support, or where Member States can contribute to EU activities. I am counting on your support and active contributions. In March we will ask for your input during an online public consultation.
I will continue to encourage dialogue and facilitate the exchange of good practice among stakeholders, focusing our efforts on early intervention and prevention. Whilst working towards a comprehensive approach, we should all maintain a focus on children who are particularly vulnerable or face a high risk of violence, such as victims of sexual abuse, victims of trafficking, missing children, children with disabilities, children living in poverty, or children in a migration situation.
I am glad that the organisers have set up a panel of key EU actors who each deal with certain aspects of children's rights. We will continue to work with partners across the EU and we will continue to coordinate our actions across Commission services in order to coherently and consistently embed children's rights in different policies and sectors. Our objective is to address the diverse needs of children requiring protection even more effectively and form a protective and empowering environment for all children.
I wish you a fruitful discussion.