May 2006

Eliminating corporal punishment - a worthy aim for the current United Nations Secretary General

The UN Secretary General, authorised by the General Assembly, is carrying out a global study on violence against children which will report to the General Assembly
towards the end of 2006. As part of the Study, nine regional consultations have been
held, including one for East Asia and Pacific region in June 2005. At each the Global
Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children has presented a regional report
on the legal status and prevalence of corporal punishment in each state.
One hundred states worldwide have prohibited school corporal punishment, and 99 have prohibited it in their penal systems - the most recent, last year, being
Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Only 17 have so far completed the task by prohibiting physical punishment in the home as well.

At least 14 countries in Europe have enacted explicit bans on corporal punishment by
parents and all other carers: Sweden (1979); Finland (1983); Norway (1987); Austria
(1989); Cyprus (1994); Denmark (1997); Latvia (1998); Croatia (1999); Germany
(2000); Bulgaria (2000), Iceland (2003); Romania (2004); Ukraine (2004), Hungary
(2004). In addition, Supreme Court judgments in Portugal (1994) and Italy (1996)
have declared all corporal punishment to be unlawful, but this has not yet been
confirmed in legislation. And six more states have committed themselves to full law
reform in the near future: Netherlands, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia and
Beyond Europe, in 2000 Israel removed the common law defence and its Supreme
Court declared all corporal punishment to be unlawful. In Latin America there are
bills to prohibit corporal punishment in the family before parliaments in five countries
- Brazil (where the Bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously in January
and is now in the Senate), Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay - and in October
last year there was a hearing, on ending corporal punishment in the region, before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.

Most countries now claim to have some sort of child protection system. Yet 77 nations still allow whipping or caning of children as part of their penal system for
young offenders, and 89 still allow teachers to beat children with sticks or belts.  It is
unbelievable, but unfortunately true, that many adults, even those working in child
protection, are still trying to defend, or turn a very blind eye, to corporal punishment.
Maybe a tiny minority of perpetrators are psychotic and don't have any punitive motive for assaulting their children. But most of the "abuse" that globally kills thousands of children - mostly very young - and maims and injures countless thousands more, is done in the name of punishment.

The purpose of the proposed law-change in New Zealand is to set a standard and send a clear message into the privacy of the family, that it is no more acceptable to hit a child than to hit anyone else. Prosecution and other formal interventions should only proceed when they are judged necessary to protect the child from significant harm and to be in the best interests of the child.

One immediate context for accelerating prohibition is the current UN Secretary
General's study on violence against children. Professor Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, the
independent expert appointed by Kofi Annan to lead the Study, is convinced of the
central importance of prohibiting and eliminating all corporal punishment of children
and will certainly recommend this in his report to the UN General Assembly later this year. When he delivered a progress report to the UN General Assembly in October 2005, a side event focusing on ending corporal punishment was organised by UNICEF and UNESCO. At it, Paulo Pinheiro said: "A major aim for the Study must be to challenge social norms which condone any form of violence against children and end legalized violence. It is impossible to do so without including corporal punishment. This has to be seen as a starting point: we cannot demonstrate a serious commitment to violence prevention and child protection while states continue to authorize corporal punishment in the home, in schools and other institutions and in penal systems."

In December last year, Professor Pinheiro addressed a meeting in the Westminster
Parliament in London, and stated: "I have to say I have been surprised at the
controversy aroused in some quarters by my statement, made after the regional
consultations, that the study report will certainly recommend a universal ban on all
corporal punishment. Surely, it would be strange indeed if the "expert" leading a
study on violence against children would suggest that it is OK to hit children? ...
The fact is, I could not look those many children I have met around the world in the
eyes and say that I had decided they were worthy of less legal protection from assault
than myself or other adults. Really, it is absurd...."

In New Zealand the Human Rights Amendment Act 1993 gave the Human Rights Commission in New Zealand responsibility for developing a national human rights action plan. In 2004 the Commission released a report Human Rights in New Zealand Today. The conclusions of this were the basis for the New Zealand Action Plan on Human Rights released in March 2005. The Action Plan has identified what must be done over the next five years so that the human rights of everyone who lives in New Zealand are better recognised, protected and respected. The report fully recognises children as humans entitled to rights. The section "Safety and Freedom from Violence" lists as two of its priorities:

  • Strengthen public education programmes aimed at promoting positive, non-violent forms of discipline and respect for children's rights to human dignity and physical integrity.
  • Repeal section 59 Crimes Act 1961.

These priorities are entirely in line with international directions - but who is
responsible for them? The Human Rights Commission Report says that responsibility for implementation rests with the agencies that have the relevant statutory or community mandate. The call for a change in legislation is a challenge to the Government.

In conclusion: There is, at last, rapidly accelerating progress in ending corporal punishment of children. The context is the adoption and almost universal ratification over the last 15 years of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). The body that monitors compliance with the UN Convention on the rights of the child, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, consistently recommends an end to legalised corporal punishment. It has done so on two occasions in its reports to the New Zealand Government, in 1997 and 2003. Other human rights treaty bodies are echoing these recommendations and there have been key judgments by high level courts in many states, quoting the UNCROC and condemning corporal punishment. See

Also over this period, the scale and extent of corporal punishment is becoming visible
in all regions through interview research with parents and with children. And children
are beginning to tell us how much it hurts them - and not just physically. It hurts
you inside is the title of a research report about young children's views on smacking in the UK. This study has been replicated, with similar findings, in New Zealand.
Recommendations from the UN Secretary General Study will be clear and explicit in
regard to measures, including explicit prohibition, to eliminate corporal punishment.
New Zealand has a unique opportunity this year, with the private member's bill
currently before Parliament, to honour its obligations to children and make its
decision in their "best interests".  

(Peter Newell - Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children and Beth Wood - UNICEF New Zealand). Extracts from paper presented at ACCAN Conference, Wellington 2006.