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Interview: The right thing for children - Jaap Doek, chair, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child

Children & Young People Now (
7 December 2004
Asha Goveas

Jaap Doek is a diplomat by profession, but when it comes to children he has no qualms about embarrassing the Government. In fact, he hopes ministers will squirm at his criticisms of the UK's record on children's rights, especially since they coincide with the launch of the Government's 10-year strategy for childcare and the Change for Children framework for implementing the Children Act.

Doek's criticisms are fuelled by a damning report by the Children's Rights Alliance for England, which found there has been progress on only 17 of the 78 recommendations his committee issued the UK with two years ago to make its law, policy and practice compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Though his comments in the press last week focused on the fact that the UK locks up more children than almost any other industrialised country, he is equally frank on other subjects.

Dismissing the government's compromise position on smacking, he rejects the very words children's minister Margaret Hodge used in her evidence to describe it to the joint committee on human rights.

"There is no 'middle way'. It is unacceptable to compromise children's dignity and the right of the child not to be subject to violence," he says.

Under article 19, states that have ratified the convention have signed up to preventing all forms of abuse, he adds.

"There is a clear commitment to prevent it. To do that you need to first set a standard, and the standard is, you don't beat the child."

He says only a third of the 25 European Union nations have managed to do this, but is heartened by the fact that the latest to join them will be his native country, the Netherlands.

He is also unimpressed with the downgrading of the independent powers of the children's commissioner for England, from safeguarding the rights of children, to promoting awareness of their views and interests.

Doek questions how effective the commissioner can be with such limitations.

"Experience from other countries shows you need an independent advocate that has political clout.

"That makes news for the media, and that, ultimately, works. The next day you see politicians raising questions in Parliament. You get that kind of momentum."

He also points out that although the issue of accepting the rights of asylum-seeking children is a "very sensitive" one in most EU countries, the UK is the only one that has sought to cut them off from the human rights protection the convention offers.

"The UK is the only country that has made a reservation on this. They want to have the room to decide what they do themselves. According to them, they are not under obligation to provide asylum-seeking children with education or health care. They'll do it for humanitarian reasons, but it's not based on the right of the child."

He acknowledges the limitations of the UN committee's role, admitting "in practice we cannot do very much" but hold them to their commitment. "They can ignore it. But we will come back to them."

But he adds: "The recommendations are not only meant for governments but also for non-governmental organisations, and we know that they do use them to put pressure on governments."

One of the two countries that have not even ratified the convention is the United States, and Doek admits that to do his job "you need a real capacity for swallowing frustration".

His message to non-governmental organisations, to never give up, could apply equally to the committee itself. "You have to keep knocking on doors of the people you think are useful. Read the Convention. Use it. The countries that have ratified it have committed themselves to taking it seriously."

And he smiles as he points out that though the Netherlands' ban on smacking was announced last week, he first started campaigning on the issue 25 years ago.

BACKGROUND - A career promoting children's rights

- Elected as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1999. Became chairperson in May 2001

- Currently a deputy justice in the Court of Appeal in Amsterdam and has worked as a juvenile judge in the district court of The Hague

- Founding member of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and Defence for Children International.

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