Throughout the years I have spent working at the European Commission for Human Rights and the Court of Human Rights – before taking up my duties as the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe - I came across many cases involving children. And what struck me in most of these cases is how adults perceived the concept of rights related to children. They would systematically speak about the rights of their child, but what they had very often in mind were their rights about the child.
I am not nitpicking on semantics. There is a sea of difference between the two concepts, and it is this distinction which is also at the heart of the furore in some European countries, provoked by the Council of Europe campaign to abolish corporal punishment of children. The very idea of European advocacy for a change of national laws regulating the issue of corporal punishment has irritated some people, including politicians. It even provoked comments about Europe wasting taxpayer’s money to meddle in what is clearly not their business. I beg to disagree for two reasons. Corporal punishment sends a message to children that violence is an acceptable mean to resolve conflicts between people, and ultimately, even between peoples.
Moreover, any intentional use of force to cause pain, discomfort and humiliation is an attack on physical and psychological integrity. And it is a violation of human rights. If this is true for adults, it is even more true for children. Yes, they are smaller, but their human rights are not! The Council of Europe is the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no small print in the Convention which would exclude children from the scope of its protection. This makes corporal punishment our business. And this is why we encourage our member states to act. The argument that the state should not legislate what is happening within the family walls is indefensible. The state already legislates to protect women from abuse by their spouses. The state also legislates to protect pets from mistreatment by their owners. How anyone can deny such protection to children is beyond comprehension.
JUST DON’T HIT
A great majority of parents, including those who occasionally resort to corporal punishment, are loving and caring towards their children. They may genuinely believe that inflicting pain is in their child’s best interest. A little slap can do no harm they will say. But it can. And good intentions cannot right a wrong. Corporal punishment is harmful to all children, but to some children it may be fatal. The legality of corporal punishment sends the signal that some forms or levels of violence against children are acceptable. In some cases adults will decide what levels are acceptable in an arbitrary manner – often in the state of emotional excitement, stress, anger even rage. Tragedies often occur when this happens under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
This is why corporal punishment needs to be banned by law. Nineteen Council of Europe member states have already done so, several are expected to do so soon, the others should follow. A legal ban does not mean a crusade against parents. The experience from countries which had already abolished corporal punishment shows that there was no surge in cases brought against parents or children being removed from their family homes. The ban sends a clear signal that corporal punishment is wrong, but the emphasis must be on the awareness raising and on helping parents to learn about positive parenting, which includes measures to discipline children, but without inflicting pain, discomfort or humiliation. Because being parent is not a licence to hurt.
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