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The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - Implementation in Canada

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Signed, Sealed But Not Delivered

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child popular, but hard to enforce

Embassy, Ottawa, Ontario, By Sarah McGregor, April 13th, 2005

The construction of a legal framework required to fully satisfy obligations under a United Nations convention to protect children will be an ongoing process in Canada, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told the Senate Human Rights Committee on Monday. Mr. Cotler said that each new law or regulation passed by Parliament will continue to obey the rules of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as with all international norms. However, he stopped short of endorsing complete compliance with each one of the Convention's elements, some of which have provoked controversy since its UN approval over 15 years ago.

One of the most memorable came several years ago, when a UN committee reported that Canada should prohibit the use of "reasonable force" against children, stirring a hot debate on the right of parents and caregivers to spank children. The Supreme Court shortly after upheld a law that permits the reasonable use of force in physical punishment.

Mr. Cotler, a widely respected lawyer and fervent human rights activist, explained that legal and jurisdictional restrictions prevent the adoption of a comprehensive law mirroring the Convention. He noted that child welfare, including many social services, is largely a provincial responsibility and global treaties don't bind the Canadian judiciary. However, he said that the Criminal Code, the new Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), and several other pieces of federal legislation and government policies provide the similar protections for children. He also noted that outspoken child rights advocate Senator Landon Pearson, known as the Children's Senator, has worked alongside the Justice Department to incorporate the "voice" of children in drafting new laws that directly impact their age group.

The UN General Assembly passed the Convention in 1989, and since then it has earned almost universal acceptance, with the exceptions being the United States and Somalia. The U.S. has come under fire for its refusal to agree to a treaty that bans the death penalty for children under 18 years old.

Canada ratified the Convention in 1991.

Mr. Cotler noted that the positive early signs given by countries quickly signing the convention starkly contrast with their unwillingness to then abide by its rules. Governments violate this non-binding global convention more than any other, noted Mr. Cotler.

In Canada, Mr. Cotler said a new bill designed to protect vulnerable people, including children, is currently being blocked by a "traffic jam" of legislation before Parliament.

Committee chair, Senator Raynell Andreychuk said in an interview following Mr. Cotler's testimony that the Minister simply repeated the status quo, but that the federal government could do much more for children if it wanted to. I hoped that the Minister would think beyond what we already have," she said. "We have a long way to go." She noted that her own convictions will be part of larger debate of the Senate committee studying Canada's obligations to children. Its members aim to complete a draft report this summer, and submit a final one to Parliament in October.

Ms. Andreychuk cited several examples of how federal legislators could act. For instance, Canadian youth accused of crimes are held in adult detention centres even though the Convention says children should be kept in separate facilities. She says a provision in the YCJA as well as additional financial resources could change that. "They aren't ready to embody (the convention) fully in law," she said.

The federal government will meet with provincial and territorial counterparts next week to discuss new ways to fulfill the Convention, according to the Justice department. In addition, the government is trying to better inform legal professionals about the Convention's principles.

Mr. Cotler said his department is hopeful the Senate committee will offer new ways to improve child rights in Canada, and suggested coordination mechanisms such as a secretariat or ombudsman that could handle complaints as possible solutions

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