Switzerland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) 20 years ago, but the last UN assessment of the country flagged up some problem areas. What has happened since then?
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that the CRCexternal link has “changed the way children are viewed and treated around the world”. The treaty aims to ensure the protection, survival, and development of all children, without discrimination.
In particular, it noted Switzerland’s reservations about implementing aspects of the treaty, including family reunification for asylum seekers (article 10 of the CRC) and the separation of children from adults in prisons and detention centres (article 37).
The committee also bemoaned the lack of coordination between federal authorities and the 26 cantons – the ones implementing measures concerning child rights on a day-to-day basis. It was hard to gain an overview, and evaluators pointed out that some cantons had policies banning children from being in public areas at night while others didn’t, for example.
Today, Sabine Scheiben, co-head of the child and youth issues section of the Federal Social Insurance Officeexternal link (FSIO), says that Switzerland is working on better cantonal and federal coordination. The FSIO has drawn up a package of measures on implementing children’s rights to be submitted for government approval in 2018.
Taking on a coordinating role, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Social Affairsexternal link has drawn up its own recommendations for the further development of child and youth policies. The government has also given cantons extra financing in this area.
And, for this first time, a centralised platformexternal link has been set up for the exchange of information.
These actions have given a real impetus and dynamism to the implementation of child rights among the various parties involved, Scheiben notes. But she has also noticed a lack of recognition for the CRC and a prevalent view among policymakers that it’s a “nice to have”.
The government has dedicated CHF200,000 ($205,000) per year to improving the situation. The new Swiss school curriculum will also leave some room for addressing child rights, according to Scheiben.
As for the treaty reservations, there has been and will be no change over article 10 on family reunification. It is only allowed under certain conditions for provisionally admitted foreigners and those with limited residence permits, and asylum seekers may not receive permits to bring their family members to Switzerland while still within the asylum application process.
With regards to article 37, the cantons have been given ten years to make changes to ensure youth and adults are housed separately when in prison. Change may be possible by 2020 when the next report comes out, said Scheiben. Authorities plan to review the issue.
Rahel Wartenweiler is coordinator of the non-profit Swiss Child Rights Networkexternal link, whose 44 member organisations monitor and report on how the CRC is applied in Switzerland. She says its implementation has been mixed.
The NGO Terre de Hommes, a network member, recently asked all the Swiss cantons about the issue of children and adult detention. It concluded that in several cantons, minors are still sharing premises with adults, especially in cases involving minor asylum seekers.
It is important for children to be detained separately for their own protection, Wartenweiler says, “but also to comply with their rights as set out in the CRC, for example the right to play, have free time or an education”.
She does not expect any change over the family reunification issue. Provisionally accepted foreigners are subject to strict conditions, including having a job, which is difficult for them to find. This makes it hard for them to bring over families. “In this respect, Switzerland harms the right of the child to live with its family,” she said.
Wartenweiler welcomed the steps towards better coordination but noted that Switzerland still lacks a national action plan or policy, unlike neighbouring Germany that “even has a Ministry of Family Affairs”.
Her organisation would like to see an independent national human rights institution – another UN suggestion – to monitor the implementation of the CRC. This exists worldwide in over 177 countries ( 75 being fully compliant with the Paris Principles for human rights institutions), including in neighbouring Germany and France and most recently in Liechtensteinexternal link.
Another area needing improvement is child data collection in the cantons. This helps flag up problems early on and formulate targeted policies. “There is hardly any data on a national level, especially for vulnerable children like young sans papiers or children affected by trafficking and prostitution,” Wartenweiler points out.
Signal of support
For its part, the Swiss committee for UNICEFexternal link welcomed the fact that Switzerland had joined the Third Optional Protocolexternal link to the CRC earlier this year. The protocol allows those who have exhausted domestic legal routes to submit complaints alleging violations of their rights under the CRC to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
“This is a signal that Switzerland acknowledges the full implementation of the CRC and is not shying away from the direct support of children’s rights,” UNICEF said in a statement.
The organisation also called for more comprehensive data on children, adding that children from poor backgrounds – including migrants - still needed more support, for example through free crèche places or private tutoring. Child should also have more self-determination through bodies like student councils, child and youth parliaments and divorce hearings, UNICEF suggested.
“Children affected by poverty or who are disadvantaged should benefit from targeted support to avoid being disadvantaged in school education or on the work market,” said the NGO.