GENEVA (24 January 2017) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the combined second and third report of Serbia on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Introducing the report, Suzana Paunović, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, said that Serbia had established the strategic, legislative and institutional framework for the protection of children; the Constitution prohibited every discrimination, direct or indirect, while the rights of the child were incorporated into the specific legislation on education, health, home affairs, justice, social welfare, child protection and other laws. The Deputy Ombudsman for Children’s Rights had been appointed in 2008 and was also in charge of the independent supervision of the protection of the rights of the child in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. The strategy for the prevention and protection from discrimination aimed to establish an integrated system for the prevention of children from discrimination, with special attention to children at risk of multiple discrimination such as Roma children and children with disabilities. The new law on the prevention of domestic violence, adopted in 2016, provided for additional support to victims, as well as measures for the immediate removal of perpetrators from the family, thus further contributing to the more effective protection of children from violence.
In the ensuing dialogue, Committee Experts welcomed the efforts made to reform the legislation and public policy in areas relevant to child rights, and recognized the existence of good sounding laws addressing most issues relating to children; however, the implementation of those laws was problematic, there was no statutory definition of a child, and a comprehensive child act was not yet in place. Experts raised concern about the situation of Roma children: many were sent to special schools simply for not performing well on school entry tests conducted in Serbian, about 60 per cent of Roma girls married before the age of 18, Roma infant and child mortality rates were much higher than in general population, and some 8,500 Roma children needed birth registration. The delegation was asked about legal and policy mechanisms to protect children from violence and abuse, and steps taken to change the attitude that what happened in the family was a family matter; about the impact of austerity measures on budgetary allocations for children; and the assistance and support to families to ensure they could care for their children with disabilities.
Amal Salman Aldoseri, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Serbia, in her concluding remarks recognized the progress Serbia had made and expressed the conviction that such work would continue.
In her closing remarks, Ms. Paunović said that the dialogue was very useful and that Serbia would devote maximum interest and attention to the Committee’s concluding remarks.
Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Committee Chairperson, concluded by commending Serbia for sending a large and multi-sectoral delegation and for the implementation of a large number of the Committee’s previous concluding observations.
The delegation of Serbia included representatives of the Office for Human and Minority Rights, Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, Ministry for State Administration and Local Self-Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Culture and the Media, Office for Kosovo and Metohija, Institute for Social Protection, and the Permanent Mission of Serbia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will reconvene in public on Wednesday, 25 January, at 10 a.m. to consider the fourth periodic report of Georgia (CRC/C/GEO/4).
The combined second and third report of Serbia can be read here: CRC/C/SRB/2-3.
Presentation of the Report
SUZANA PAUNOVIĆ, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, started by saying that as a candidate country for the European Union membership, Serbia was undertaking a comprehensive reform devoted to promoting the rule of law and the protection of human rights, while the recently opened negotiations on Chapter 23: Judiciary and Fundamental Rights was a confirmation of the clear commitment to establishing and developing legal and institutional mechanisms for the development of an open, democratic and tolerant society, based on respect for human rights. Ms. Paunović also reminded the Committee that Serbia was not able to monitor the implementation of the Convention in parts of its territory, in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija, since the management of the Province was entirely entrusted to the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo. The strategic, legislative and institutional framework for the protection of children had been established, the Constitution prohibited every discrimination, direct or indirect, while the rights of the child were incorporated into the specific legislation on education, health, home affairs, justice, social welfare, child protection and other laws.
The Council for Child Rights, established in 2002, coordinated activities in the field of children’s rights, while the National Assembly, the holder of constitutional and legislative power, carried out its activities in the field of the rights of the child though the work of the Special Committee on the Rights of the Child that was set up in 2012. The Deputy Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, appointed in 2008, had formed the Child’s Rights Council as a professional and advisory body of the Ombudsman, and was also in charge of the independent supervision of the protection of the rights of the child in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. An independent Commissioner for the Protection of Equality had been set up in 2010, enabling children to express their opinion on discrimination and propose activities that would achieve best effects among young people.
Serbia had faced the migrant crisis in a very responsible manner, and with full respect for European standards and values. More than 700,000 migrants and refugees had transited through the country without any incidents. Over the past two years, 384 unaccompanied migrant children had been registered in the reception centres and provided with accommodation, support and protection. Serbia had adopted the national action plan for children 2004-2015, while the strategy for the prevention and protection from discrimination aimed to establish an integrated system for the prevention of children from discrimination, particularly children at risk of multiple discrimination, including children with disabilities, Roma children and others. Important progress had been made in the deinstitutionalization of children, and Serbia today had one of the lowest rates of the institutionalization of children in Europe, with 90 per cent of children in care placed with foster families.
The general protocol for the protection of children from abuse and neglect had contributed to the development and expansion of a network of multidisciplinary teams for the protection of children in local communities throughout the country, while a specific protocol on child protection had been adopted in key departments. The new law on the prevention of domestic violence, adopted in 2016, provided for additional support to victims, as well as measures for the immediate removal of perpetrators from the family, thus further contributing to the more effective protection of children from violence.
Questions from the Experts
GEHAD MADI, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, welcomed the efforts made to reform the legislation and public policy in areas relevant to child rights and raised concern about the lack of a comprehensive child act that would encompass all laws in one policy approach.
The Committee recognized the existence of good sounding laws addressing most issues relating to children, but their implementation remained problematic, due to the lack of trained employees, and also due to the law limiting the number of public sector employees in certain sectors or departments, which affected the services provided to children.
Serbia should urgently consider the ratification of the third Optional Protocol on a communication procedure.
What efforts were being made to strengthen the role of the Council for Child Rights in order to ensure the effective coordination between ministries and agencies?
The delegation was asked to provide more detailed information about the new national action plan for children and how it built on the findings and assessments of the previous plan.
The Deputy Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights lacked resources which hindered its effectiveness, while Parliament had not reviewed its report for the past two years. Could the delegation comment and also explain why an Ombudsmen for Children had not been established?
Mr. Madi also raised issues of inadequate data collection, the impact of austerity measures on budgetary allocations for children and measures taken to ensure that budgets were adequate and linked to policies, and the need to strengthen the efforts in awareness raising about the Convention among the public at large and children in particular.
With regard to anti-discrimination laws and policies, the Country Rapporteur noted that Roma children were still suffering from different forms of discrimination, particularly in education, and asked how the newly adopted strategy for the inclusion of Roma women would address the issue? What was the situation with migrant and refugee children?
Infant and under-five child mortality rates continued to be way higher than the European average, particularly among Roma. What efforts were being made to tackle those problems?
The Committee was concerned that the principle of the best interest of the child was not fully implemented in practice, nor was it fully included in relevant laws, policies and programmes. At which age could the child express their opinions in a court and at which age was the judge obliged by the law to seek the views of the child?
AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Serbia, noted that there was no statutory definition of the child in Serbia, while several laws defined the child differently. How would this be harmonized with article 1 of the Convention?
On birth registration, it was noted that the new amended law allowing for the procedure of the determination of the date and place of birth of unregistered persons was not being implemented in practice, and Roma children whose parents lacked identity documents continued to remain unregistered. At the moment, some 8,500 persons remained unregistered at birth – most of them Roma – what was being done to solve the problem, including the procedure for registration of new-borns in maternity hospitals and lifting registration fees? What procedures were in place to allow the registration of all children born in Serbia to refugee and migrant parents, regardless of whether they possessed identity documents or not?
Was corporal punishment explicitly prohibited in all settings, including at home? A study claimed that 66 per cent of Roma children experienced physical violence at home – what was being done to educate parents about corporal punishment?
Were the protocols for the protection of minors from neglect and abuse legally binding? Were there any protocols protecting children with disabilities specifically?
Child marriage was not a serious issue for the general population, but was very common among Roma girls: some 60 per cent of Roma girls got married before the age of 18. The legal age of marriage was 18, but marriage at the age of 16 was allowed with a court’s permission. When were such marriages allowed? What could be done to ensure the strict implementation of the legal age of marriage without exception?
What legal and policy mechanisms were in place to protect children from violence and abuse, and ensure that professionals were trained and equipped to detect and respond to violence against children? Would the new national strategy for the protection of children from violence be adopted, as the previous one had expired in 2015? What measures were in place to target violence in the family, including the attitude that what happened in the family was a family matter?
Another Expert took up the issue of the participation of children and inquired about student parliaments in schools, which were mandatory according to the law, but which did not function well due to poor student motivation and lack of understanding by students and teachers. The Youth Offices seemed to be the mechanism dealing with children’s participation in communities – could the delegation explain what the role and mandate of those Offices were? Would the participation of children at the national level be made mandatory?
What measures were being taken to improve freedom of expression for children, as well as freedom of assembly, and what measures were in place to fully guarantee the right to freedom of religion and conscience for all children?
Responses by the Delegation
In response to the questions concerning the adoption of a comprehensive law on the rights of the child, the delegation said that the drafting had started seven years ago, but the work was suspended. It was certain that the drafting process would resume, possibly in the first half of this year. The delegation confirmed that a new national action plan for children and a strategy for protection from discrimination would be developed and presented to the Council for Child Rights by February 2018, and would focus on children with disabilities, children in conflict with the law, and Roma children.
The legislative opinion on the ratification of the third Optional Protocol on a communication procedure had been presented to the Government, and Serbia had decided to first hear the experiences of countries which had already ratified this instrument before proceeding with its own ratification.
The delegation stressed that no children’s rights had been influenced by austerity measures – all allocations for the rights of the child had been exempted from austerity measures and the Government continued to implement the activities in this domain as before, and had even increased financial support to families with children through the establishment of a new fund.
With regard to the establishment of the Ombudsman for Children, the delegation said that a working version of a draft law had been published on the website and opened for consultations with the Government authorities and the public in general. An informal debate on the draft law was currently ongoing. The law set that the Ombudsman must be a public and independent authority.
The implementation of the general protocol for the protection of children from abuse and neglect was to some degree binding, and training for its implementation was being organized by each sector for its employees. Inter-sectoral cooperation was one of the weak links in the implementation of the Protocol and the realization of support to children.
The right of the child to express their opinion in court proceedings was regulated by the home affairs legislation, family law, and of course the Convention, which was a part of the domestic legal order. Each child had the right to express their opinion, regardless of age, and there were procedures in place that ensured that the opinions of children under the age of 10 were obtained. Children had the right to express their opinion about which parent they would live with, which school they would attend, and how they would visit the parent they do not live with.
There were plans to adopt amendments to the family code, which would include explicit prohibition of corporal punishment and the use of physical violence as a measure of discipline. The amendments were due to be adopted by June 2017.
The latest amendments to the criminal code had assured its harmonization with the Istanbul Convention, and had criminalized early marriages. In 2016, a new law on domestic violence had been adopted, the implementation of which would start in June; the law was focused on the issue of the perception of domestic violence, and had also introduced preventive measures and actions of the police and other authorities. A national campaign had been developed which targeted the perception of domestic violence as a taboo.
Follow-up Questions and Answers
GEHAD MADI, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, speaking on the issue of a complaint mechanism, noted that it was not a part of the new law on the Ombudsman for Children, even though such a mechanism existed within the current Deputy Ombudsman, who had received more than 500 complaints from children last year. Mr. Madi stressed that the Committee considered having back-to-back national action plans for children to be a good practise, so Serbia should not wait too long before adopting a new national plan.
AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Serbia, asked the delegation to confirm the plans concerning outlawing marriage for children under the age of 18.
Another Expert inquired about the process through which a child under the age of 10 expressed opinion, and whether it was a child-friendly process?
Responding, the delegation said that children and parents were aware of the phenomenon of violence, but they needed to report it. The Ministry of Education had introduced a helpline and sites for consultations, in order to facilitate reporting of violence, neglect and abuse. A working group had been formed with other ministries on recognizing various forms of violence, with particular focus on children with disabilities and Roma children.
Migrant and refugee children had the right to education, and in order to facilitate their inclusion, special modules had been prepared to ease language learning, while teachers and other staff received necessary training.
The delegation recognized the problem of discrimination against Roma children in special schools: in 2010, more than 30 per cent of Roma children attended special schools, and in 2015 that figure had dropped to 25 per cent. One of the reasons for discrimination was that testing for primary school was carried out in Serbian, and Roma children, many of whom did not speak the language, did not perform well, and as a consequence were sent on to special schools. The problem would be rectified with the introduction of inclusive education, and setting up of pedagogical assistants in Roma communities who promoted the importance of pre-school education among Roma.
Training on anti-discrimination laws and policies had been provided to civil servants and representatives of all local self-government units, as well as non-governmental organizations, while a public campaign had been put in place to raise awareness about the importance of fighting discrimination against Roma, persons with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and other population groups.
Youth Offices were formed in almost all municipalities in Serbia, and they included persons up to the age of 25; efforts were ongoing to protect the Offices from undue political influence. Youth Offices were connected in a network of more than 60 offices, which facilitated the coordination and harmonization of their work.
The right to freedom of religion was guaranteed by the constitution and applied to all citizens regardless of their age. Many measures in the anti-discrimination policy referred to the prevention of discrimination based on religion and confession.
On infant and under-five mortality, the delegation said that the rate had been reduced, putting Serbia on a par with middle-developed countries. The mortality rate among infants during the first six days had been reduced as well.
In the next round of follow-up questions, the delegation was asked to provide additional information about measures taken to fight violence against children in cyber space; explain why the Council on Children Rights, the key coordination body, only had an advisory role and no real authority; and how school entry tests, which were one of the reasons for discrimination against Roma children, would be adjusted not in language but in content.
The delegation explained that Serbia was not waiting for other countries to ratify the third Optional Protocol, but was creating a mechanism which would enable the efficient implementation of the instrument. The Council on Children Rights indeed had an advisory role because it had been established for purposes of coordination, since inter-sectoral cooperation was an issue where more effort was needed.
The opinion of a child was obtained by a professional close to the child – a teacher or a social worker, who also had a responsibility to explain why a child’s opinion in some cases might not be in her or his best interest. A collision guardian was appointed to anyone who did not have the capacity to decide; they were also appointed in divorce cases to represent the interest of the child.
Serbia was focusing on the absolute prohibition of corporal punishment in the law, but measures were in place to prevent any inhumane and degrading treatment and to educate parents on non-violent methods of discipline.
Questions from the Experts
In the next round of questions, a Committee Expert took positive note of the efforts taken to transfer children to family-based care and asked how new children coming into formal care would be taken care of, in particular children with disabilities and Roma children.
What support was available to grassroots organizations, how was monitoring of residential facilities being done, and what was being done to encourage the adoption of children with severe disabilities?
What plans were in place to ensure access to services to children with disabilities throughout the country? What percentage of children with disabilities were in residential care, how many were in inclusive education, how many of them were Roma, and what happened if a parent decided against the enrolment of a child with disability in an inclusive school?
What support and assistance were provided to families to facilitate their care of children with disabilities? How would Serbia ensure a shift from the strictly medical model of disability to a more comprehensive social model of disability?
The Hello Baby help-line had been introduced to provide specialist support to parents – was it available throughout the country and also in Romani language? What was the vaccination coverage in the Roma communities and what was being done to curtail the fast-growing anti-vaccination lobby?
A large percentage of children did not benefit from specialized child allowance because the procedures were very cumbersome and the amount was rather low. Schools in urban areas were overcrowded – what was being done to address this issue? How many early-education centres were available throughout the country?
GEHAD MADI, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, recognized the positive response of Serbia to the influx of migrant and refugee children and noted that much remained to be done in providing the necessary protection to the children and alleviating their suffering, particularly for unaccompanied and separated children. The formal framework for the early identification of such children and their referral to child protection services was not in place, while the law on asylum was silent on a minimum age of persons to legally claim asylum and it did not have age assessment procedures. The children were appointed three guardians in different stages of the process, which made the children more vulnerable to smugglers and human traffickers who seem to be very active in Serbia in this context. There were reports that refugees and migrants, including children, had been pushed back across the border to Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
How was data on refugees and migrants collected, analysed and shared with the child protection authorities?
Because of the persistent issues in birth registration, children of parents without identity documents or stateless parents risked becoming stateless – what was being done to protect such children – mainly Roma – from statelessness?
Mr. Madi turned to juvenile justice and asked about efforts to ensure access to education of children in juvenile detention facilities, to address violence by guards against juveniles in detention, procedures to ensure that all juveniles were heard in court proceedings, and the fate of the law on free legal aid to children in conflict with the law, which had been in procedure since 2005. What was the status of the draft law on under-age perpetrators of crimes?
Did incarcerated mothers have the right to have their children in prison with them, if so, under what age, and were prisons made fit to house children?
What was the situation with street children, how were they supported and how was their situation analysed and understood?
On sexual exploitation and trafficking, the Country Rapporteur welcomed the efforts to fight those crimes, including the adoption of laws and policies, and noted the lack of an adequate system for the early identification of victims, particularly among refugees and migrants, as well as the lack of adequate accommodation arrangements for victims. Children victims of those crimes were in great need to be treated by highly trained social workers and psychiatrists, rather than by the police.
Responses by the Delegation
In response to questions raised about the birth registration of Roma children, the delegation noted the 2009 law on civil registry books that stipulated the right of all children to be registered, the lifting of administrative fees, and the amendments to the law on extrajudicial proceedings allowing for the registration of persons who could not prove the date and time of birth. A programme “Welcome Baby” had been set up to ensure the registration of newly born children in maternity hospitals and the issuance of identity documents; the programme was envisaged to run in 56 hospitals, and was active in 50 at the moment.
On the deinstitutionalization process, the delegation reiterated that over the past five years, the number of children in residential care facilities had decreased, and this trend continued. Among the 809 children in residential care in 2016, some 100 were children with developmental disorders. The adoption of children with disabilities was on the increase, including domestically.
Support to children with disabilities and their families took several forms, including the service of a personal assistant, day care for children with developmental disorders, and home assistance, while more than 500 families enjoyed a special life-long right to financial support for long-term care of a child with a developmental disorder. Dedicated earmarked transfers were in place to support local communities in caring for children with disabilities, including children with intellectual disabilities.
Answering questions concerning the situation of unaccompanied migrant children, the delegation said that a special mandatory instruction for the social protection of unaccompanied minors had been issued in 2015, in which it had been made clear that all migrant children enjoyed all rights on an equal footing with Serbian children. All children up to the age of 18 could claim asylum through their legal guardian. There were reports of violence, abuse and neglect of children in migrant reception centres, and those were being addressed.
Teams for the protection of children living on the street had been set up in 108 local communities; the teams worked with professionals from various sectors, including the social sector and the police. Since 2014, some 60 per cent of children had been through the programme and had been removed from the streets, and either returned to their families, or placed with foster families or in residential care.
Because of a busy legislative agenda in the context of European integration, the first draft of the law on juvenile offenders had not yet been discussed. Serbia was applying European principles of juvenile justice and ensured that children in conflict with the law were in principle not institutionalized. The focus was on issuing of correctional orders rather than incarceration; training of judges, lawyers and prosecutors was also ongoing, in collaboration with non-governmental organizations.
Testing for school admittance was now being done by pedagogical assistants who spoke the Roma language, but their content could not be adjusted to Roma children specifically as it assessed the readiness of the child for the school curriculum. The focus must be on preparing Roma children for entry into school, for example through greater inclusion in pre-school education from the age of three. Reform of pre-school education was starting, it would include building new facilities and restructuring existing ones, resulting in 17,000 new places. Data showed that 20 per cent of children in special schools were Roma, who represented three to four per cent of students in mainstream schools.
About 71 per cent of children with developmental disorders were in special schools, and 14 per cent were in special classes in mainstream schools. If parents made a decision which was not in the best interest of the child, the educational system would contact the social system, which would try to persuade the parents to change their decision and act in the best interest of the child.
Follow-up Questions and Answers
In their follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked about the law combatting smoking, early detection of congenital malformations and disabilities, the practice of breastfeeding up to the age of six months, programmes on sexual and reproductive health education of teenagers, and support provided to persons and families without social insurance and without access to adequate housing or no housing at all. The delegation was also asked when the law on juvenile justice and the non-punitive sentencing guidelines would be adopted.
The delegation explained that new mothers were provided with assistants who encouraged them to breastfeed; mothers to be also had access to breastfeeding training and education courses. Pregnant migrant women also received information about the importance of breastfeeding. The sexual and reproductive health education programme had been prepared and would most likely enter the adoption procedure within months. The national health care system and the national health insurance fund operated on the principle of solidarity, which meant that all those registered in the territory of the State could receive the same services regardless of their employment status.
The law on juveniles was expected to be adopted by June this year. Free legal aid was available and provided for by the law.
In the next round of questions, Experts asked about the implementation of recommendations made by the Committee against Torture on the treatment of patients in psychiatric hospitals, and how the rights of children were monitored and protected in this context.
GEHAD MADI, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, turned to the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and asked about laws on the recruitment of children by State and non-State actors. On the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Mr. Madi asked which previous recommendations by the Committee had already been implemented, in particular the treatment of child victims of those crimes, who were not always treated as victims, their reintegration into society, and professional and specialized support.
The delegation explained that sexual and reproductive health issues were addressed in the physical education curriculum in schools. The focus of health education in schools was on prevention, and the aim was on reaching all children with such programmes.
The law on the military from 2004 and its 2010 amendments regulated the military service and the recruitment obligations as well, setting the age at 18 years of age. In case of war or emergency situations, only persons above 18 years of age could be recruited, while those under 18 years of age could not be used in armed conflict under any circumstances.
A mechanism had been established to monitor the implementation of all recommendations issued by United Nations bodies; the system clearly stated the responsible agency and progress indicators. Serbia had implemented a number of recommendations concerning the Optional Protocols, and the work was continuing on the remaining ones.
BENYAM DAWIT MEZMUR, Committee Chairperson, asked whether the Convention was driving the establishment of the common European standard on asylum; steps taken to protect from cold migrant children and adults who were sleeping rough; and to inform on the pushback of migrants to neighbouring countries.
In reply to questions about steps taken to address smoking, the delegation said that a law had been adopted prohibiting smoking in closed premises; the issue was also addressed through the public health strategy, and a specific anti-smoking strategy with clear indicators had been adopted. This was one of the issues that required strong inter-sectoral cooperation and collaboration.
In its response to the migrant crisis, Serbia was committed to full observance of all European standards, reaffirmed the delegation.
AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Serbia, thanked the delegation for their answers and recognized the progress made in some areas. The Committee was convinced that this work would continue and said that the concluding observations would be sent soon.
SUZANA PAUNOVIĆ, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, thanked the experts for the interest they showed in measures taken to improve the situation of children in Serbia. The dialogue was very useful and Serbia would devote maximum interest and attention to the Committee’s concluding remarks.
BENYAM DAWIT MEZMUR, Committee Chairperson, commended Serbia for the large and multi-sectoral delegation and the implementation of a large number of the Committee’s previous concluding observations.
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