GENEVA (29 January 2018) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today considered via video conference the combined third and fourth periodic report of the Marshall Islands under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Introducing the report, Benjamin Graham, Chief Secretary and Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Marshall Islands, reminded of the negative effects of the United States nuclear testing programme and of climate change on the human rights of the Marshallese, especially children, who were highly vulnerable to vector- or water-borne diseases, malnutrition and psychological and physical trauma arising from natural disasters. The Marshall Islands remained committed to the objectives of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and improving the situation of children, including through new legislative measures. Since its second periodic report, the Government had adopted the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act of 2011, the Child Rights Protection Act of 2015, the Human Rights Committee Act of 2015, the Rights of Persons with Disability Act of 2015, the Birth, Death and Marriage Registration Act of 2016, and the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2017. Recently, the Cabinet had approved a bill to enact the Labour (Minimum Conditions) Act, which contained provisions on the minimum age when a child could be employed and the types of jobs a child could undertake. The Government was working to improve the quality of education, and to improve children’s health and nutrition.
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts commended the sincerity expressed by the State party in the periodic report with respect to remaining challenges. They inquired about the harmonization of domestic legislation with the main human rights instruments, awareness raising about the newly adopted laws, and the lack of a national action plan to implement the Convention provisions, and of a legal act to deal with discrimination based on disability. Other issues raised included the incorporation of the best interest of the child in the Constitution and legal proceedings, budgetary allocations to education and healthcare, juvenile justice, corporal punishment, the minimum age of criminal responsibility, quality and accessibility of healthcare, consequences of nuclear testing on children’s health, the high rate of teenage pregnancies, abortion, birth registration, provision of adolescent health, breastfeeding, prevention of suicide and substance abuse, access to education, inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education, child prostitution, pornography and sex trafficking, the minimum age of marriage, customary (underage) marriage, customary adoption, and the impact of businesses on children’s rights.
In concluding remarks, José Angel Rodriguez Reyes, Committee Expert and head of the task force on the Marshall Islands, thanked the delegation for taking part in the dialogue and underscored the honesty of answers. He noted that the remaining challenges were corporal punishment, and improvements to the healthcare system, underlining that the delegation had demonstrated willingness to make improvements.
Mr. Graham noted that the delegation had a much clearer idea of the key issues with respect to the implementation of the Convention. The Government continued to face many challenges, but it was dedicated to make steady progress going forward.
Renate Winter, Committee Chairperson, assured the delegation that the Committee would try its best to come up with useful concluding observations, which the Government could share with its partners.
The delegation of the Marshall Islands included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Cultural and Internal Affairs, the Human Rights Committee, and the Attorney General’s Office.
The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 1 February, at 3 p.m. to hold its tenth informal meeting with States.
The Committee is reviewing the combined third and fourth periodic report of the Marshall Islands (CRC/C/MHL/3-4).
Presentation of the Report
BENJAMIN GRAHAM, Chief Secretary and Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Marshall Islands, reminded that the Marshall Islands had a population of some 60,000 with another 30,000 residing in the United States, with whom the Government had close political and economic relations through the Compact of Free Association. Annual grant assistance from the United States to the Marshall Islands under the Compact was channelled primarily to education, health and infrastructure. Those grants were set to expire in 2023, thereafter to be replaced by proceeds from a Compact Trust Fund. In addition to the Compact, the economy of the country relied on the United States Army garrison at Kwajalein Atoll, commercial fishing and other marine resources activities, and to a smaller extent processing and export of copra and other coconut-based products. During the United Nations trusteeship period, the United States had conducted a nuclear testing programme which had detonated 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons in the islands. In 2012, a United Nations Special Rapporteur report to the Human Rights Council had reconfirmed that the nuclear testing programme had resulted in both immediate and continuing effects on the human rights of the Marshallese, including fatalities, acute and long-term health complications, and indefinite displacement of many people. Climate change severely affected fundamental rights and threatened the very existence of some low-lying island countries, such as the Marshall Islands, challenging the core principles of equal sovereignty of States. The issue of climate change was particularly relevant in the context of the protection of children, who were highly vulnerable to climate change-related phenomena, such as vector- or water-borne diseases, malnutrition and psychological and physical trauma arising from natural disasters.
The Marshall Islands remained committed to the objectives of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and improving the situation of children, including through new legislative measures. Since its second periodic report, the Government had adopted the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act of 2011, the Child Rights Protection Act of 2015, the Human Rights Committee Act of 2015, the Rights of Persons with Disability Act of 2015, the Birth, Death and Marriage Registration Act of 2016, and the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2017. One of the objectives of the Child Rights Protection Act was “to protect children from discrimination, exploitation and other physical, emotional or moral harm or hazards,” and it did not allow parents or guardians to refuse mandatory, preventive or curative medical examination or treatment for their children based on their religious or moral beliefs. Child victims or children at risk of neglect, abuse, maltreatment and exploitation were entitled under that act to find safe accommodation, whether temporary or long-term. Recently, the Cabinet had approved a bill to enact the Labour (Minimum Conditions) Act, which contained provisions on the minimum age when a child could be employed and the types of jobs a child could undertake. The right to education was a fundamental right of every child. Free and compulsory primary and secondary education in public schools was provided from the age of five. Under the Marshall Islands Public School System, both corporal punishment and bullying were prohibited. Learning and development outcomes in education remained below expectations, and the Government was working with its partners to raise the quality of education.
In terms of health, significant progress had been made in reducing under-five and infant mortality rates. However, problems remained in terms of stunting. According to the UNICEF 2017 survey, 35 per cent of young children were stunted in the Marshall Islands. The Government was therefore working with the World Bank and UNICEF to develop a multi-year, multi-million-dollar early childhood development programme that would directly address children’s health and nutrition issues. The Government’s Agenda 2020 called for a comprehensive review of laws, including those related to children’s rights and development. One of the priorities would be to strengthen and make consistent the language on corporal punishment, and to further strengthen organizations responsible for the oversight of children’s issues, including the Human Rights Committee, the Human Rights Secretariat, and the Child Rights Office. The Government also aimed to strengthen the Police Department and the network of social workers, and to improve the awareness of child rights through the nomination of a child rights champion, Mr. Graham concluded.
Questions by the Committee Experts
JOSÉ ANGEL RODRIGUEZ REYES, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Marshall Islands, commended the sincerity expressed by the State party in the periodic report with respect to remaining challenges. When would the domestic legislation be in line with the main human rights instruments? What measures had the State party taken to ensure the implementation of the newly adopted laws and awareness raising about them?
Mr. Rodriguez Reyes noted the lack of a national action plan to implement the Convention provisions, and of a legal act that dealt with discrimination based on disability. What actions were being taken to prevent discriminatory practices against children? Was there a specific provision in the Constitution that clearly established the best interest of the child as a right, and that ensured that the best interest of the child was taken on board by all civil servants on all levels?
More than 20 per cent of parents in the Marshall Islands applied corporal punishment. What measures were being taken to promote positive disciplinary measures? What measures were being taken to promote breastfeeding? What was the proportion of hospitals with child friendly certification?
The rate of teenage pregnancies was one of the highest in the Pacific region. Girls in rural areas were more likely to become pregnant that those in urban areas. What plans were being adopted to reverse that trend?
Smoking and alcohol consumption were problematic. What measures were in place to address those problems, as well as to prevent suicide?
Getting to school was an issue in rural areas, and schools in urban areas were often overcrowded. What measures were being taken to reverse that trend?
CEPHAS LUMINA, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Marshall Islands, asked about the mechanisms in place to ensure the efficient use of the budgetary resources allocated to education and healthcare that supported the realization of human rights, including children’s rights.
What measures, apart from the Marshall Islands Trust Fund, were in place to ensure the funding of social investment beyond 2023 when the Compact expired? What was the impact of austerity measures on budgetary allocations to education and health?
Turning to children with disabilities, Mr. Lumina reminded that there were many words used to describe persons with disabilities, including children, that carried negative connotations. What was being done to address that problem and to change mind sets? What were the Government’s plans to ensure sustainability of the Special Education Programme beyond the funding provided by the United States Government?
What measures were being taken to address the disparities in the quality and accessibility of healthcare between regions? Healthcare was not fully subsidized by the State. What measures were in place to ensure equal access to healthcare for children from poor backgrounds? Had the Government carried out any studies on the high rates of teenage pregnancies? When did the Government plan to introduce comprehensive sex education as part of the school curriculum?
What measures had been taken or were planned to be taken to reduce the risk of HIV infection of adolescents? Were there any plans to protect HIV positive people and to provide a legal framework for ethical human research? What was being done to address the long-term adverse consequences of nuclear testing on children’s health? Were there any measures to prevent exposure of the population, especially children, to gamma radiation through additional pathways, such as food ingestion?
Turning to education, Mr. Lumina asked about the efforts to secure resources through international assistance and cooperation for the revision of textbooks to remove gender stereotyping. What was the Government doing to ensure that all schools had equal access to resources to enable them to follow the Government curriculum? What was being done to accelerate the rate at which teachers were earning degrees and qualifying for professional certification?
What measures were in place to address child prostitution, pornography and sex trafficking? There was a high number of girls, especially from East Asia, who were subjected to domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation, including sex tourism. How many people had been investigated, prosecuted and convicted of trafficking in children or their exploitation? What was being done to remove cultural obstacles to dealing with child abuse? What measures were in place to combat trafficking of children within the Marshall Islands?
An Expert inquired whether children were able to directly submit complaints to the National Human Rights Committee. Did the Human Rights Committee engage with civil society? What concrete measures were in place for children who did not attend school? Were there any laws to regulate child labour, in particular in the fishing industry?
In terms of the dissemination of the Convention, was the integration of the Convention in school curriculum planned and when?
Turning to businesses and the rights of the child, Experts inquired whether the State party planned to review that issue.
On the right of the child to be heard, were children heard in proceedings on divorce, custody, adoption and juvenile justice? Did children have opportunities to participate in decision-making and law-making, especially on climate change?
Committee Experts noted the plans of the State party to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18. Nevertheless, there was a trend of girls living in customary unions below the age of 18. How was the prevalence of customary marriage monitored? In addition, birth registration of children born to teenage mothers was low.
Did the Adoption Act contain any provisions on customary adoption, namely on the extended family taking care of children? How could that type of adoption be controlled? Were there any opportunities for biological families in the Marshall Islands to maintain contact with Marshallese children adopted in the United States? Was parental kidnapping of children criminalized?
Did the State party intend to review the minimum age of criminal responsibility? Trying 16- to 18-year old persons as adults was contrary to the Convention, Experts emphasized. Was free legal aid provided to children? How many children were currently in custody or prison? Were they separated from adults and did they have access to education?
Were there any special protection measures afforded to child victims? How was evidence and testimony provided by child victims treated?
Replies by the Delegation
BENJAMIN GRAHAM, Chief Secretary and Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of Marshall Islands, noted that implementing and monitoring the implementation of international human rights treaties was a great challenge for the Government, which was why the Human Rights Committee had been established in 2015. The Government was also aiming to strengthen its policy planning and gathering of statistics.
In terms of budgetary allocations to education and healthcare, Mr. Graham explained that improvements in the fishing sector had led to budgetary increases which could replace the United States aid to find social services. Austerity measures had not significantly affected the budgetary resources for key social sectors.
As for the effects of the United States nuclear testing, the most affected atolls were not inhabited. The Government was trying to make the United States Government and its agencies do more to assess the level of background radiation as part of its moral obligation.
There was quite an active civil society sector in the Marshall Islands, working on women’s and girls’ rights, health and nutrition, vocational training for vulnerable youth, and teenage pregnancy. The Government did not do enough to assess the impact of businesses on children’s rights, Mr. Graham noted.
The delegation stated that the best interest of the child was not enshrined in the Constitution, but it was legislated in other legal acts, such as the Child Rights Protection Act. The authorities tried to raise awareness among parents about positive parenting principles as opposed to the use of corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was prohibited by law, but it was allowed under certain circumstances.
The Government had established a task force on trafficking in persons and children to come up with standard procedures for the police and those providing victim support. The authorities were currently investigating cases of child trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
There was a provision on customary marriage of underage of children, and there was very little monitoring of that trend. Given that customary adoptions were part of the Marshallese culture, they were difficult to monitor. The Adoption Act recognized adoptions by extended family members. Adoptive parents had to maintain contact with biological parents.
Kidnapping was a first felony crime. The provision in the Criminal Code was broad enough to include parental kidnapping.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility was 10 years. The ongoing comprehensive legislative reform would address that issue and the Juvenile Justice Act of 1966. There were no separate juvenile detention facilities in the country, but juvenile offenders were separated from adults. Detention of juvenile offenders was applied as the measure of last resort.
All children with disabilities were included in mainstream education, including on outer islands. Teachers had to sign the code of conduct, which prohibited the use of corporal punishment. There was an effort to establish local school boards on outer islands to monitor the implementation of the Government curriculum. There were also teacher-parent associations to help parents understand the provisions of the Convention.
There was a policy in place to help teenage mothers continue their education. Transportation to and from school was available in urban areas, but it was problematic on outer islands. In order to address overcrowding in schools in urban areas, the authorities were building new infrastructure. The Government had set up programmes for those who wanted to continue their education after the age of 18, as well as vocational training for those who dropped out of high school.
Children were prioritized in all programmes that dealt with climate change. The Ministry of Education had integrated climate change into the national school curriculum, namely courses on water and food security, gardening and traditional knowledge. A high number of young people from the Marshall Islands had taken part in the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. The development of evacuation plans and early warning systems was difficult due to the country’s low elevation.
Breastfeeding required more attention as part of early childhood and nutrition policies. There were two major hospitals in the country, and one of them was going through major renovation and modernization. The high number of teenage pregnancies was due to the low stock of contraceptives. The country needed more support in order to provide adolescent health services. There were no legal provisions to allow for abortion in case of rape or incest.
The immunization coverage rates were lower than what the Government would like to have achieved. Providing immunization in far-flung regions was definitely a challenge because of the lack of cold chain packaging.
Some programmes were in place to prevent substance abuse by children, in cooperation with the United States Government and civil society. One of the activities was awareness building and ensuring that stores were not selling alcohol and tobacco to minors. The Government was also discussing to remove the medical consultation fee of $ five.
JOSÉ ANGEL RODRIGUEZ REYES, Committee Expert and head of the task force on the Marshall Islands, thanked the delegation for taking part in the dialogue and underscored the honesty of answers. He noted that the remaining challenges were corporal punishment, and improvements to the healthcare system, underlining that the delegation had demonstrated willingness to make improvements. Mr. Rodriguez Reyes encouraged the Government to continue treading the set path.
BENJAMIN GRAHAM, Chief Secretary and Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of Marshall Islands, noted that the delegation had a much clearer idea of the key issues with respect to the implementation of the Convention. The Government continued to face many challenges, but it was dedicated to make steady progress going forward.
RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson, assured the delegation that the Committee would try its best to come up with useful concluding observations, which the Government could share with its partners.
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