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Committee on the Rights of the Child reviews the report of Cyprus on children in armed conflict

GENEVA (26 September 2017) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the initial report of Cyprus under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Christos Malikkides, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence of Cyprus, in the introduction of the report said that Cyprus had ratified the Optional Protocol in 2010 when it had also entered a reservation with regard to the declaration by Turkey.  In the context of a continued illegal military occupation of 37 per cent of the national territory of Cyprus by a foreign State, the provisions of the Optional Protocol applied only to the areas controlled by the Government.  Cyprus had recently reduced the military service from 24 to 14 months for both conscripts and volunteers, and the number of minors enlisted for military service had been diminishing and stood at 35 per cent in 2016.  Due to the 43 years of the illegal military occupation, Cyprus had to maintain a certain level of conscripts to ensure adequate levels of operational readiness for military purposes, and additional outflows of the conscription system were not possible without endangering the defence of the country. 

During the dialogue, Committee Experts acknowledged the progress made by Cyprus and regretted the events and the division in 1974, but stressed that such circumstances should not be used to justify the practices that run counter to the Optional Protocol.  By the wording of its Declaration, Cyprus retained the possibility to deploy 17 years old members of the armed forces to areas in which hostilities were taking place, thus defying the objective and purpose of the Optional Protocol and compromising its raison d'être.  Experts inquired about the application of the Optional Protocol in the territory of Cyprus outside of the control of the Government, extraterritorial jurisdiction for crimes under the Optional Protocol, and the system in place to identify and provide adequate support to asylum-seeking children – including unaccompanied ones – who had been involved in armed conflict or in hostilities.

In closing, Mr. Malikkides said that the Committee’s stimulating questions would help Cyprus to develop a more robust policy in line with the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Jorge Cardona Llorens, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Cyprus, recognized the efforts of Cyprus to comply with the provisions of the Optional Protocol, but concern remained about the areas where the implementation was lacking, and those would be the focus of the concluding observations and recommendations.

The delegation of Cyprus included representatives of the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance, and the Permanent Mission of Cyprus to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee’s concluding observations on the report of Cyprus will be published on the session’s webpage after 29 September 2017. 

The Committee will next meet in public on Friday 29 September at 5 p.m. to officially close its seventy-sixth session.

Report

The Committee is considering the initial report of Cyprus under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC/C/OPAC/CYP/1). 

Presentation of the Report

CHRISTOS MALIKKIDES, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence of Cyprus, said that the strong political will and commitment of Cyprus to strengthening the protection of children was reflected in the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and the ratification of all three Optional Protocols to the Convention.  Cyprus had ratified the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict in 2010, when it had also entered a reservation with regard to the declaration by Turkey.  In the context of a continued illegal military occupation of 37 per cent of the national territory of Cyprus by a foreign State, the provisions of the Optional Protocol applied only to the areas controlled by the Government.  The authority responsible for the implementation of the Optional Protocol was the Ministry of Defence.  The 2012-2013 international economic crisis had had serious repercussions in Cyprus, and had led to the economic collapse, necessitating the prioritization of the work by the Government; this explained the delay in the submission of the report, said Mr. Malikkides.

Informing the Committee about the efforts to bring the age of conscripts in line with the Optional Protocol, and about the new policy to reform the National Guard and adopt a model of a semi-professional army by gradually replacing conscription with professional soldiers, the Permanent Secretary said that Cyprus had recently reduced the military service from 24 to 14 months for both conscripts and volunteers.  The annual National Guard enlistments now took place only once, in July, which meant that only persons aged at least 17 and a half would be enlisted for service; volunteers had to be at least 17 years old.  The number of minors enlisted for military service between 2012-2016 had been diminishing, and in 2016 minors represented 35 per cent of conscripts.  The completion of secondary education would be at the age of 18.  Due to the 43 years of the illegal military occupation, Cyprus had to maintain a certain level of conscripts to ensure adequate levels of operational readiness for military purposes, and additional outflows of the conscription system were not possible without endangering the defence of the country. 

Minors had not been involved in armed fighting for the last 43 years and the current conscription system, which allowed a young man to complete army service straight after the secondary school and before joining the labour market, had never been challenged.  The Consultative Committee of the National Guard assessed and decided on the conscripts’ and volunteers’ applications for discharge, reduction, or postponing of the military service; it had examined 882 cases between 2012 and 2017 and had discharged from the service or postponed the service in 363 cases.  A permanent telephone line had been established to provide psychological service to the newcomers in the National Guard.  A set of incentives for conscripts had been introduced following the decision to reduce the military service to 14 months, which included university scholarships, distance learning degrees, youth entrepreneurship and innovation programme, and vocational and physical training.  In closing, Mr. Malikkides reiterated that Cyprus would continue with its efforts to safeguard the rights and interests of the child, reflected in the improvement of legal framework and administrative practices.
 
Questions by the Committee Experts

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Cyprus, regretted the events and the division in 1974 and stressed that such circumstances should not be used to justify the practices that run counter to the purpose of the Optional Protocol. 

The wording of the reservation entered by Cyprus meant that the State party had reserved the possibility to deploy 17 years old members of the armed forces to areas in which hostilities were taking place.  As such, the reservation defied the objective and purpose of the Optional Protocol and compromised its raison d'être, and was a violation of international standards.  When would the reservation be withdrawn and could the laws be changed to prohibit forced recruitment of children?

What would be the age of soldiers in the professional army?

The new amendments could increase voluntary recruitment, noted the Rapporteur and asked whether school visits to the National Guard promoted voluntary enlistment.

Mr. Cardona Llorens noted the lack of data on recruited children in the report which had stated that this information was confidential as it affected the security of the State, and asked the delegation to provide data on recruited children.

What training on the Optional Protocol was being provided to professionals working with children, such as police officers, immigration officials, judges and members of the armed forces?  Would the systematic trainings on the Optional Protocol be introduced?

The Rapporteur asked about the criminalization of the recruitment of children by armed groups, including by private security companies; extraterritorial jurisdiction for all crimes covered under the Optional Protocol; and whether the recruited children were under military or civilian jurisdiction.

The delegation was asked about identification of asylum-seeking children who had been involved in armed conflict or used in hostilities - was any protocol in place to detect such children, how the immigration officers and border guards were trained on the matter, and the support provided to such children.  What measures were in place to protect asylum-seeking children from refoulement?

An Expert stressed that the identification of children who had been involved in armed conflict or hostilities could be a lengthy and complicated process, however, it was obvious that Syrian asylum-seeking children were all fleeing armed conflict.

Other Experts asked whether a volunteer to the National Guard could submit a complaint against superiors, the dissemination of the Optional Protocol among the public, whether a guardian was assigned to asylum-seeking children, and the deprivation of detained asylum-seekers of legal counsel.

Experts also asked when the implementation of the extension of the mandatory schooling would start and what was preventing the country to make this change now and effectively ensure that children leaving secondary school were 18 years old.

How many unaccompanied minors were in the asylum procedure in the last two years, and how many had a guardian appointed? 

Was there a possibility of a conscientious objection in Cyprus?

Replies by the Delegation

In response to questions and comments by the Committee Experts concerning the Declaration  of Cyprus to the Optional Protocol, the head of the delegation said that the situation of the “frozen conflict” and security concerns arising from the continuing division of the island, made it impossible to withdraw the reservations included in the Declaration.  

The Government had adopted series of measures to converge with the Optional Protocol, hoping that in the future, Cyprus would be able to fully comply.  The National Guard was a small army and the impact of any further changes to the recruitment system would be immediate and drastic as enlistment would see a 40 per cent reduction.

Professional soldiers were 20 years old, since they had to complete the compulsory military service as a prerequisite.

Migrant and asylum-seeking children were under the competence of the Ministry of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance.  Individual assessment was carried out and special procedural guarantees were provided during the asylum procedure.  The Director of Social Welfare Services Department acted as a guardian of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and safeguarded the enjoyment of their rights, to accommodation, care, education, health, mental health, recreation, and family reunification, based on the best interest of the child.  Furthermore, the Director of the Social Welfare Services Department acted as a representative of the minor during the asylum procedure.

Identification of migrant children who had been involved with armed groups  was conducted at an early stage; once it was established that a child had been recruited or used in hostilities, special assistance was provided and all services were involved.  All children, particularly from Syria, were undergoing a fast-track procedure, said the delegation and added that currently there were 200 unaccompanied minors who stayed in child protection homes or foster families, and had the Director of Social Welfare Services Department assigned as a guardian.

Competent authorities implemented alternative measures to detention of migrants and asylum-seekers with children.

Answering the questions raised on the criminalization of offences under the Optional Protocol, the delegation explained that the Ratifying Law contained no specific provisions in this regard as all those offences were part of the Criminal Code, Law on Trafficking in Persons and Article 21 of the Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus, which had already criminalized the establishment and operation of armed groups as distinct from the armed forces of Cyprus, and had also criminalized recruitment, including recruitment of children, by such armed groups.  The possession of firearms by guards employed by private security companies was prohibited under the Private Bureaus Providing Security Services Law.

The extraterritorial jurisdiction of Cyprus was defined in the Criminal Code and applied to all nationals who committed such crimes in another country, provided that certain other conditions had been met; the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Cyprus also applied to a national or a foreigner who had committed the crime in the territory of Cyprus and had subsequently had left the country.  As for the crimes under the Optional Protocol, bilateral agreements on extradition had been signed.

Concerning the situation of children’s rights in areas not controlled by the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, the delegation could not provide any data since it was outside of their effective control.

The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus was not controlled in any way by the national authorities and operated under the mandate conferred upon it by the Security Council.

As for the conscientious objection, civil service was possible in the public sector and lasted five months longer than the military service.

Training activities were conducted in accordance with the Ministry of Defence’s plan, and specific trainings were being provided on the provisions of the Optional Protocol.  The Security and Defence Academy had been established in June 2017.

The crimes committed by underage conscripts -  usually desertion and abandonment of garrison without permission – were regulated under the Military Criminal Code.

Any child could file a complaint to the Commission of the Rights of the Child.

Closing Remarks

CHRISTOS MALIKKIDES, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence, expressed sincere gratitude for the stimulating questions which would help Cyprus to develop a more robust policy in line with the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Cyprus, recognized the efforts of Cyprus to comply with the provisions of the Optional Protocol, but concern remained about the areas where the implementation was lacking, and those would be the focus of the concluding observations and recommendations.

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