Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Matters of Public Interest

Inter-Parliamentary Union Delegation

1:41 pm

Photo of Lin ThorpLin Thorp (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week I had the privilege of being a member of the Australian delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva. Delegations from 141 countries met to discuss and craft resolutions on a number of issues important to Australia and to parliaments around the globe.

I took a particular interest in the work of the Standing Committee on Democracy and Human Rights. At the conclusion of the conference, all member countries voted to support a resolution on the role of parliaments in protecting the rights of children, in particular unaccompanied migrant children, and in preventing their exploitation in situations of war and conflict—a subject with particular resonance for us here in Australia, grappling with the fair, humane treatment of people coming to our shores.

The 130th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union considered the arguments, debated them and came to the following resolution. I will summarise its content: the conference reiterated that Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as 'every human being below the age of 18 years'. It acknowledged that efforts have been made globally to promote the protection of and respect for the human rights of unaccompanied migrant children, separated children and children involved in armed conflicts pursuant to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The conference recognised that the fundamental principles and rights that must be guaranteed to all children, especially unaccompanied or separated children, boys and girls, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and states other obligations under international law. This includes: the best interests of the child; nondiscrimination; nonpunishment; non-refoulement; family unity; the right to physical and legal protection; the right to an identity; the right to life, survival and development; the right to be heard and to participate in decisions that affect them; the right to be protected from violence; the right to education; the right to due process guarantees; and the right to health care and psychological support, reintegration assistance and legal aid.

The resolution noted that paragraph 7 of General Comment No. 6 (2005) on the Treatment of Unaccompanied and Separated Children Outside their Country of Origin, issued by the Committee on the Rights of Child, defines 'unaccompanied children' as those who have been 'separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who by law or custom has responsibility to do so'; while paragraph 8 defines 'separated children' as ' those separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary care-giver, but not necessarily from their relatives'. It went on to restate that paragraph 13 of General Comment No. 13 (2011) on the right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence, issued by the Committee on the Rights of Child, states:

Addressing and eliminating the widespread prevalence and incidence of violence against children is an obligation of States parties under the Convention. Securing and promoting children’s fundamental rights to respect for their human dignity and physical and psychological integrity, through the prevention of all forms of violence, is essential for promoting the full set of child rights in the Convention.

It is important to remember that in accordance with articles 26 and 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties from 1996 any state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child must ensure that the rights and principles enshrined in the convention are fully reflected and given legal effect in relevant domestic legislation. Importantly for our parliament, the resolution recognised that parliaments have a crucial role to play in ratifying international legal instruments on the protection of children and accordingly in implementing domestic legislation. It affirmed that parliaments like our own have a role in protecting the rights of children, in particular unaccompanied migrant children and children in situations of armed conflict or affected by organised crime, that they must be in line with international law and based on the best interests of the child. The resolution also acknowledged that we must consider that policies criminalising migrant children have a negative impact on children's access to basic rights. The resolution encouraged parliaments of states which have not yet signed the three optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to urge their governments to proceed with their signature and full accession.

All countries need to design efficient legislative tools for the legal protection of minors, thus establishing a legal framework effectively guaranteeing the rights of children, and to enact legislation aimed at establishing comprehensive and effective protection systems with adequate resources and coordinated by high-ranking government officials in order to ensure the best interests of the child. This is vital. Further, the resolution encouraged parliaments to enact legislation aimed at addressing the special needs of separated and unaccompanied children and children involved in armed conflicts which, as a minimum, should provide for specific procedures in keeping with the rule of law. Importantly, parliaments are encouraged to underscore the importance of working together with United Nations bodies, non-governmental organisations and other entities in order to collect accurate and reliable data on the number of separated or unaccompanied migrant children and children involved in armed and internal conflicts and situations of organised crime in their respective countries. They are also encouraged to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of children, children involved in demonstrations and political rallies, including their right to protection from violence and freedom of association and expression.

We called on parliaments to share best practices on the protection of children from the perspective of restorative justice with the governments, parliaments and human rights organisations of countries where armed conflict and situations involving organised crime are developing; to ensure compliance with international standards for the protection of separated or unaccompanied migrant children, including the principles of non-discrimination and non-punishment; prohibition of inappropriate detention of the child; the best interests of the child; the right of the child to life and development; and the right of children to participate in decisions that affect them. One significant suggestion is to, in partnership with UNICEF and in consultation with Interpol, promote the establishment of a comprehensive international and up-to-date register of foreign separated or unaccompanied minors as an efficient tool for safeguarding the rights of such children, and to entrust the responsibility for coordinating such data to a single national authority.

The resolution urges parliaments to hold governments to account for their humanitarian duty to provide children, especially separated or unaccompanied migrant children and children in situations of armed conflict, with the necessary services in order to guarantee basic human rights such as education, medical treatment, counselling, rehabilitation and reintegration, child care, accommodation and legal assistance, bearing in mind the special needs of girls. It also urges parliaments to support the establishment of national referral mechanisms to this end. It was recognised that it is very important to support initiatives aimed at training, education and continuously building the capacities of child protection professionals, specifically offering training in international human rights law to all members of the armed forces, law enforcement and immigration officials, border guards and other individuals and agencies involved in protecting the rights of children, especially separated or unaccompanied migrant children.

It also asked individual parliaments to promote action to prevent the migration of separated or unaccompanied minors from their countries of origin by strengthening cooperation and promoting bilateral conventions with countries of origin. A simple but vital strategy was that of taking appropriate measures to ensure than an effective birth registration system is in place for all children, including separated or unaccompanied migrant children. It was clear that we need to raise awareness of children's rights in receiving communities like our own and to work actively for the most efficient coordination between agencies responsible for receiving unaccompanied children, in recognition of the high incidence of post-traumatic stress among unaccompanied children and in order to take every measure to help them—a considerable challenge for our own parliament.

Parliaments and governments must open borders based firmly on values such as the rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights and international conventions, especially when so many victims are children, and to find a way to combine respect for border protection and the right to seek asylum. So the resolution urges parliaments and governments to incorporate the perspective of minors and to place greater emphasis on children in legislation, budgets and policymaking, with a view to ensuring that the voices of young people and children are better heard. All parliaments and governments need to enact all provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in national legislation in order to guarantee equal rights to all children.

It was a privilege to be among legislators from around the globe who were as one when it came to protecting our children. I look forward to the day when Australia can hold its head high and state proudly that we as a country live up to the standards that this resolution embodies.

The international legal framework dealing with children and transnational organised crime includes instruments such as the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and this must be adhered to.

Parliaments are also urged to prohibit all forms of violence and discrimination against children and to pass enabling domestic legislation in order to give full effect to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also calls on parliaments to ensure that adequate resources are allocated from national budgets to enforce laws, implement policies and improve practices related to the protection of children; and invites parliaments to hold hearings and consultations so as to assess the effectiveness of our existing laws, policies and practices on protecting children, especially separated or unaccompanied migrant children.

It also invited parliaments to support awareness-raising efforts, especially by working with the media to address xenophobia and violations of the rights of children. It is noted that Universal Children's Day, 20 November, provides a favourable framework for mobilising and sensitising public opinion to the protection of minors. The resolution calls for a review of international law and international humanitarian law conventions with a view to harmonising the provisions on special guardianship for minors under 18 years of age; and also calls on parliaments to ensure proper and qualified evaluation of whether unaccompanied minors should return to their country of origin.

The resolution calls on parliaments to find ways to ensure the humane and safe return of those who must return after receiving a final rejection of their asylum application, so that no minor returns home without a safe and appropriate reception, acknowledging that an important step in the process is to make sure that minors are reunited with their parents, bearing the child's perspective in mind in every case and ensuring the rights of each individual child. The resolution invites parliaments and other institutions to share with the IPU their best practices in the protection of children's rights, in particular the rights of separated or unaccompanied migrant children.

I commend the website to senators; have a look at details of the dealings of the last week's work by the IPU. It was a privilege to be there with my colleagues from the Senate and from the other place, particularly under the very effective leadership of Jeanette Radcliffe.

1:55 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some brief remarks supporting the previous description of the work of the IPU. As a member of the delegation I can say that it was indeed a privilege to be there in Geneva last week. It was in fact my seventh IPU Assembly. This was a huge opportunity to reflect on the way the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assemblies have developed over the last few years and how the agenda has started to be very focused.

This assembly was focused on the rights of unaccompanied minors. I was able to accompany Senator Thorp to visit the facility for children aged 12 to 18 in Lausanne and to learn about a very different approach that is underpinned by the EU directive on the care of unaccompanied minors. I think it is something we definitely have to start reflecting on more here in Australia when we think about the way we are looking after unaccompanied minors and refugees in our detention centres and in the community. I remind everyone here that there are almost 600 children still on Christmas Island, and we need to thinking about how those international obligations are being met or not being addressed.

The other really important standing committee in which I participated was formalising the standing committee on the United Nations; the purpose of which is to draw much stronger links between the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assemblies and the work of the United Nations and aligning some of the key policy agendas across the world.

We talked most significantly about two things in that standing committee. The first was food security—when you see what is happening in the African subcontinent—and the tragedy that is playing out there in terms of food security. The second issue was how countries are going to tackle the agenda of the post Millennium Development Goals, post 2015. It is important to look at how that whole agenda is going to be shaped, how parliaments across the world can connect with the United Nations agenda and ensure that we have strong benchmarks and strong targets. Most critically, it is important that governments around the world that make commitments to funding the post Millennium Development Goals—which will be called the Sustainable Development Goals—will honour those commitments.

We have discovered some firm promises from countries have not been met, and that in fact is the reason some Millennium Development Goals have not been achieved. Specifically some goals around infant mortality and maternal health in some countries are disappointingly below the achievements that we were seeking. So the critical issue now is that, if people do promise to make contributions to the post Millennium Development Goals program, they honour their promises regardless of financial situations in the world.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union Assemblies play a key role in soft diplomacy—parliamentarians to parliamentarians meeting to discuss these issues. Sometimes they create the opportunity for more formalised diplomatic relations in the future. It was definitely worthwhile and I appreciate the privilege.