In an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Council of Europe Deputy Secretary-General Maud de Boer-Buquicchio said, “The bill is perfectly in line with the ideas and philosophy of the Council of Europe’s children-friendly justice system, and those children should not be tried in adult courts, but by the specific child court system that deals with children.”
The draft, known commonly as the law for stone-throwing children, makes changes to the Anti-terrorism Law and various other laws to make sure that judges do not give unjust sentences to minors involved in pro-terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) demonstrations. Some court rulings have been criticized for overly harsh sentences of up to 20 years for children participating in such demonstrations. The bill is expected to clear Parliament next week.
Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio noted that she is aware of the draft legislation currently being debated in Parliament and said she applauds the initiative. She expressed hope that it will be pushed through and not suffer from political machinations. “Their [children] comprehension of the judicial system is different, and we have to take into account their perception and their age,” she underlined, stressing that the issue should not be politicized. “Kids are kids after all,” she added.
Abuse of children should be tackled
Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio is passionate when it comes to protecting children from abuse, more specifically from sexual violence perpetrated on minors. She was the driving force in the Council of Europe in adopting the convention to combat sexual violence against children, which entered into force on July 1. The convention is the first international instrument to tackle all forms of sexual violence against children, including abuse perpetrated within the family.
Turkey signed the treaty but has yet to ratify it. Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio said she received positive signals from Turkish officials and is hopeful that Turkey will ratify the treaty soon. Turkey will be taking over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in the fall and is most likely to ratify the convention during the term presidency. “Some states did not even sign it,” the deputy secretary-general lamented, while praising Turkey’s decision to be party to the treaty.
She explained the importance of having a convention on what she described a challenging issue of protecting children from sexual abuse. “The convention can constitute a framework within which national legislators must legislate. Conventions are binding legal instruments the moment a state ratifies and becomes a signatory to it. It includes binding rules for legislators and policy makers. So it is very important that we do this work,” she said.
Another advantage of having an international convention is the function of standard-setting guidelines by which each member state is expected to abide, she emphasized. Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio noted, however, the shortcomings on the convention as well, saying legal norms by itself are not enough to secure protection and prevention. “We need to accompany this with an awareness campaign,” she pointed out, adding that “for that we need the media.” She thanked Sunday’s Zaman for giving her an opportunity to convey her message across the board. “I welcome very much your interest. I count a lot on media also to be instrumental in our campaigns,” she underlined.
The convention also sets up a monitoring mechanism to insure compliance by member states. “It means there will be an independent monitoring mechanism, which will, in cooperation with authorities and with civil society, examine the situation in each member state that has acceded to the convention,” de Boer-Buquicchio explained. “On the basis of such a monitoring mechanism, we cannot only identify gaps in legislation, practice or problems in the mentality but also use this mechanism to share good practices,” she noted.
“If you think, for instance, how to deal with a victim of sexual abuse, this requires paying great attention to children who are already traumatized. When the case comes to the court, they do not get subjected to additional trauma,” she said. There are some formulas found in some member states. For instance the idea of having children’s houses, where victims of abuse are examined by a doctor and by a psychologist in the same child-friendly environment.
The questioning is done by a psychologist who is with the child, not directly by someone who is sitting in some high chair. It happens only on one occasion. The child is not confronted by the perpetrator. “This can be done through the monitoring mechanism and the sharing of good practices. This is not just to tell member states that they are not good enough, but also raises the level of protection for child abuse,” Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio remarked.
The Council of Europe will be launching an awareness-raising campaign in Rome on Nov. 29, the aim being to eliminate sexual violence against children. “One of the principal objectives will be to draw public attention to the extent of sexual abuse perpetrated by trusted individuals, be it within the home, at school or in the context of extracurricular activities,” she said, hoping the campaign will be an opportunity to break the silence surrounding sexual abuse and to educate children and professionals so as to prevent all forms of sexual violence as much as possible.
The whole idea of the campaign is that every member of the Council of Europe reproduces this campaign at the national level. “National parliaments are going to be involved. There will be a focal point somewhere; each parliament will promote this campaign at the national level,” she underlined. The deputy secretary-general emphasized that the awareness campaign should target the right audience. She believes it should be started by children themselves, making sure children know their rights and are not afraid to speak up when sexual violence occurs.
“They must be taught that nobody has a right to violate them physically. First of all they do not know it is wrong; secondly they do not know who to turn to as a sexual abuser very often tries to manipulate children, and they even make them feel guilty. Those children do not even dare to speak. These are huge challenges we have to address,” she said.
The second target audience is professionals who are involved or get in contact with children. “When I talk about professionals, they are, of course, teachers in schools but also doctors, lawyers, dentists and social workers. They need to be able to identify children who were sexually exploited,” she noted. The third group is parents. “They are the protectors of children. They should be able to communicate with children to see what is going on in their lives,” Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio noted.
She believes sexual violence against children is not inevitable. “A lot can be done to prevent sexual abuse and violence,” she said, stressing prosecuting abusers as well. She sounded optimistic and believes that it is fairly easy to get everybody on board when it comes to protecting children. “Ten years ago, the topic of sexual abuse of children was a taboo. Nobody dared to speak about it. It is still difficult. Only now people dare to start talking about it. We want everybody to discuss it and to come to the understanding that sexual abuse happening behind closed doors and kept within the family circle should be denounced,” she said.
She also spoke about legal remedies extended to the victims even if the statute of limitations has expired on prosecuting the case. “Sometimes it may take years, even decades, for children to be able to talk about the abuse. We suggest extending the statute of limitations,” she stated. Mrs. de Boer-Buquicchio suggested establishing help lines to uncover child abuse. She admitted, however, that it may prove very difficult to raise the issue of violence when it happens within close family circles. “That is the challenge we are facing,” she remarked.