Confusion Grows as UN Grills UK on Its Child Rights Record

23/05/2016 12:17 | Updated 23 May 2016

On Sunday, the Guardian reported that 'the government's decision to limit a family's child tax credits to two children, unless a further child is the result of rape, has been referred to a United Nations panel' by SNP MP Alison Thewliss. The paper went on to say that this 'complaint' will be examined by the UN's 'official committee on the rights of the child, before hearings on the impact of Britain's welfare policies next week'.

The potentially brutal policy is accurately reported. But if you read the article, you might be left a bit flummoxed - and the comments underneath the article suggest strongly that a significant number of readers were. Questions that the article raises include: does the UN have a panel that responds directly to complaints sent by letter by individual MPs? Is the Committee mentioned in the article solely concerned with the impact of the UK's welfare policies? Is the UN going to turn around and force the UK to change its welfare system?

The answer to all three of these questions is no. But before addressing them let's start with some facts about UN oversight.

This week will see a UN expert body assessing the extent to which the UK has given effect to children's rights in its law and policy. These rights are set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is an international treaty, which the UK ratified in 1991, thereby volunteering to be bound by it and the rights and obligations it sets out.

State implementation of the rights set out in the Convention is monitored by a UN expert body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child. As part of this monitoring process, the state submits a 'periodic state report' every 5 years or so. The UK sent in its report in May 2014. Based on this report, the UN Committee heard evidence from NGOs and children (at what is called a 'pre-sessional working group') in October 2015 and prepared a 'list of issues' (questions) for the government. These questions - and the government's replies to them - will form the basis of this week's public hearing with the UK delegation in Geneva - more on that later. The Committee has also received information, in the form of so-called 'shadow reports', from civil society organisations, the UK Children's Commissioners and Human Rights Commissions.

So what of Ms Thewliss' 'complaint'? Well, it isn't one. The reporting process does not serve as a 'complaints mechanism' in the sense that an individual can seek to use it to get the Committee to make a finding of violation based on a specific issue. While there is a mechanism by which the Committee can hear complaints about violations of Convention rights, the UK hasn't signed up to that mechanism so a complaint can't be brought against it. All that Ms Thewliss appears to have done is to have written to the UN Secretary General last February asking for an 'investigation' into the proposed policy. At the time this was evidenced by a photo of her on her website bearing an envelope with 'Ban Ki-moon' emblazoned on it and a copy of the letter. It is not clear on what basis Ms Thewliss felt that Mr Ki-moon would be able to carry out such an investigation but that is to whom her request for an investigation was actually sent. The response that Ms Thewliss received from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (to whom the UN Secretary General's Office appears to have sent on her letter) makes it clear that her letter was forwarded on to the Committee as containing information relevant to that body's review of the UK's report. The response also referred Ms Thewliss to the publicly available list off issues which deal with a number of welfare reform-related issues. This is not - repeat not - a complaint.

Nor, despite claims on twitter, facebook and Ms Thewliss' webpage, is the Committee carrying out an 'investigation' or 'probe' on this issue. True, the Committee has an 'inquiry procedure for grave or systematic violations' of children's rights. But, again, this could only happen if the UK had signed up to the relevant mechanism. And the UK has not done so.

But the Committee is indeed carrying out an examination of the UK's child rights record. Will the Committee solely be concerned with the impact of the UK's welfare policies?

Again, the answer is no. The last time the Committee examined the UK's progress in terms of the Convention was in 2008. As such, this will be the first time that the Committee will have a chance to evaluate the impact of post-2010 'welfare reform' on children's rights to an adequate standard of living, including food and housing, social security rights and access to justice. It will also give the Committee a chance to consider the extent to which the UK has protected the human rights of particularly vulnerable children, such as those with disabilities, refugee and migrant children following the post-2008 financial, economic and refugee crises. More broadly, it will enable the Committee to follow up on previous concerns it has raised with the UK about children's rights in the context of corporal punishment and counter-terrorism that remain as pressing - if not more so - in 2016 as they were in 2008. All of these and more are flagged up in the Committee's list of issues. With regard to child poverty and welfare reform specifically, the UK's response to the Committee's queries leave much to be desired from a rights perspective and this is likely to be a crucial - but definitely not the only - issue addressed in the Committee's examination.

So what will the outcome be? Is the UN going to turn around and force the UK to change its welfare system? Again, the answer is no. the CRC will publish its findings, officially known as concluding observations, on 9 June. In these findings, the Committee will highlight key positives and negatives in terms of the UK's implementation of children's rights. Most significantly (and more worryingly from the UK Government's perspective), it will also make a series of recommendations on the steps the UK should take to advance children's rights. Where the Committee finds shortcomings, it will not hesitate to ask the government to respond appropriately through changes to its law, policy and practice. But the Committee cannot force the Government to do so. And there is no human rights police force that will compel the UK to comply with the Committee's recommendations. However, the UK is bound by the international human rights law treaties it signs up to. And it is to be hoped - if not necessarily expected - that it will take seriously the Committee findings and respond to them quickly and meaningfully.

Ms Thewliss' efforts to focus attention on this issue are admirable. However, if the work of UN human rights bodies like the Committee is to be effective, then it is incumbent on both those who would use them - and those who report on them - to get the facts right.