Children’s Rights Referendum

October 17, 2012 at 10:24 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Children Rights referendum is long overdue and badly needed. The proposed amendment recognises and affirms the ‘natural and imprescriptable’ rights of all children. But we need to ask a fundamental and critical question. What rights are we actually talking about here and who is, in fact, the greatest offender of them?

The truth is we should not be misled by a conceptual and ideological mistake. We may assume that a breach of rights primarily involves individuals not acting as they should. But rights are also breached by structural and systemic processes which centre not simply on failures by identifiable individual actors but by the State itself. In short, failures may be due to the economic and political system rather than by an errant parent.

The situation may be clearer if we examine some specific rights. The rights referred to in the amendment are not mentioned. They presumably belong to the unenumerated rights implied by Article 40.3.1 of the Constitution. But let us consider some of them. Might they include the right to food, to shelter, to education, to health? What about the right to be free from exposure to environmental hazards such as toxic dumps, incineration, high pressure gas pipelines, fracking? These are economic and political rights, the vindication of which may challenge current economic and political orthodoxy. Will the State act to vindicate these rights?

Recent reports have shown that 40% of Irish children go to school or to bed hungry. Research commissioned by the Department of Social Protection has found 10% of Irish people now live in food poverty. That’s 450,000 people, a significant proportion of whom are children. So, the question: who is responsible for this child neglect? Who must vindicate the right to food of the child? Is not the answer to both questions the State itself?

Thus, the State is both abuser and protector. We have just had the most recent report on the inhuman conditions operating in St Patrick’s prison in which children’s human rights are being contravened. Another instance of this is the State’s role in the direct provision accommodation system for asylum seekers. In all the fallout and response to the multiple reports of child abuse in Ireland, from the Ryan Report to the Report into Child Deaths, there was a consistent failure to recognise one of the most visible occurrences of current institutional child neglect and abuse in Ireland – our direct provision accommodation system. This system has many echoes of the regime described in the Ryan Report. 1,789 children are confined with their families and other families and adults in over-crowded, inappropriate long-term accommodation with inadequate supports. The mental and physical health consequences are well documented. This is happening in plain sight and yet it barely merits a reference in public debate. The recent Irish Refugee Council Report could not be clearer in its title: State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion. In its Executive Summary the Council Report states: ‘Direct Provision is an example of a government policy which has not only bred discrimination, social exclusion, enforced poverty and neglect, but has placed children at a real risk.’ The Report asks: ‘does the sustained and prolonged restriction of human rights and civil liberties inherent in the Direct Provision system amount to child abuse?’

That is a serious question. If the answer is yes then the State itself, as architect and maintainer of this system, is the cause of an abuse of children. But under the amendment the State pledges to affirm the rights of children. This commitment is hypocritical if the State does not immediately act to end the direct provision system.

The point here is clear. In this amendment the State is itself bound by the requirement to uphold children’s rights. It should tell us how it proposes to do so. Or does it think that only parents are in question?

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