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Deputy Minister Candith Mashego-Dlamini: Southern African Regional Launch of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty

9 Dec 2019

Remarks by the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Candith Mashego-Dlamini at the Southern African Regional Launch of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, Pretoria

Former Justice Albie Sachs;
The United Nations Independent Expert, Prof Manfred Nowak;
The Director for the Centre of Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, Prof Frans Viljoen;
The Commissioner responsible for the Rights of the Child at the South African Human Rights Commission, Commissioner Angie Makwetla;
The Heads of UN Agencies and staff based in South Africa; 
Members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the African Union Committee on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child;
Senior Officials from participating Member States;
Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Members of Civil Society Organisations, Non-governmental organisations, academia, the media;
Ladies and gentlemen;

I wish to welcome all participants on behalf of the Government of the Republic of South Africa to the Southern African regional launch of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. I wish to express my Government’s appreciation to the United Nations Independent Expert, Prof Manfred Nowak, for holding this regional launch of the Global Study in Pretoria; and to the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria for hosting us at their Future Africa Campus. This demonstrates the commitment of the Government of the Republic of South Africa, the University of Pretoria and the United Nations to the outcomes of this Global Study. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Just over two weeks ago on 20 November 2019 we collectively commemorated the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights instrument. In Geneva, the United Nations hosted a three-day programme highlighting various issues pertaining to the rights of the child and it was on 19 November 2019 that Prof Nowak officially launched the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.  Prof Nowak was appointed in October 2016 as the Independent Expert to lead this important mandate, and so this official launch comes after three years of many hours of hard work and dedication by Prof Nowak and his team to ensure the completion of the Global Study.

However, this year also marks the 32nd anniversary of an important conference entitled the ‘International Conference on Children, Repression and the Law in Apartheid South Africa’, which was held in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1987.  At the time, the world was shocked by the revelations of the brutality of the apartheid regime towards children in South Africa. It is well known that many thousands of children were detained in the struggle against Apartheid and that children were tortured in South African prisons.  This was later confirmed by testimonies at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Almost all survivors required psychotherapy to enable them to overcome the trauma in their young lives and, as stated by Father Trevor Huddleston at the time, we can agree that a regime which wages its war of oppression against children, is morally bankrupt. At the end of the conference, a declaration was adopted, entitled: “A Cry from South Africa: Free the Children from Apartheid”, and this was followed by the UN General Assembly adopting a resolution on 8 December 1988 condemning the “Torture and inhuman treatment of children in detention in South Africa and Namibia” (A/RES/43/134). This conference of 1987 has thus been identified as an important turning point in the development of a children’s rights movement in South Africa.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When the new and first democratically elected government came to power in 1994, there were many children in prison. Although political detention was a thing of the past by that time, there was not a proper system in place to deal with children who were charged with committing crimes. In his opening address to Parliament, President Nelson Mandela said, and I quote:

‘The government will, as a matter of urgency, attend to the tragic and complex question of children and juveniles in detention and prison. The basic principle from which we will proceed from now onwards is that we must rescue the children of the nation and ensure that the system of criminal justice must be the very last resort in the case of juvenile justice’.

This decision led to the new government setting up a Project Committee comprised of government officials and civil society to investigate juvenile justice and to draft a new law on Child Justice for the country.  This Committee began work in 1997 and in 2000 finalised its Report on Juvenile Justice together with a draft Child Justice Bill.

The law reform process that resulted in the Act consisted of varied consultations, research and debates. One of the major innovations regarding the consultative process included a consultation study with children. The purpose of this endeavour was to ensure that children’s voices were also heard in the drafting of new laws that affected them.

Secondly, after the Commission finalised its work, civil society also embarked on a series of consultations and undertook various studies as part of its preparations for the Bill being debated in parliament. 

Finally, after the Bill was introduced into parliament in 2002, it was the subject of extensive debates. These debates have enriched the child justice milieu as they have allowed all stakeholders and role-players, including parliamentarians, academics, activists, members of the executive and practitioners, to examine all the issues in great detail; listen to opposing views; and reach compromises on controversial issues.

The product is a law that creates a new procedural framework for dealing with children who come into conflict with the law. It represents a rights-based approach to children accused of committing crimes. However, it also seeks to ensure children’s accountability and respect for the fundamental freedoms of others and, through the use of diversion, alternative sentencing and restorative justice, prevents crime and promotes public safety.

As a result of these key interventions, South Africa has seen the figure turn around so that now the number of children sentenced is higher than the number of children awaiting trial. This is a positive picture and the total is indeed very small.  When South Africa presented its number of children in prison to the Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty in September 2018, the number of children in prison was 242, namely 132 children awaiting trial and 110 children sentenced. We consider this to be a good news story, showing some of the achievements since the seeds for change were planted just over 30 years ago.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Similar to the two previous Global Studies on children, namely the Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children led by the Former First Lady, Graça Machel, and the Study on Violence against Children, led by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, this Global Study cannot be relegated to the archives of academic study.  Instead, consideration needs to be given as to how each state can implement the recommendations in the Study and raise awareness, or promote a change in stigmatizing attitudes and behaviour towards children who are deprived of their liberty.    It is for this reason, that Prof Nowak is hosting regional launches of the Global Study in order to provide all of us here today with an enabling environment where best practices and information can be shared.   A successful regional launch for the Oceania region was held in Australia in October 2019 and other regional launches will take place in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, South America and South East Asia.  In Africa, besides this launch for the SADC region, launches will also be held for the East and North African regions.

Similar to the consultative approach that was used in South Africa to develop the Child Justice Act, so too this third UN Global Study was carried out in close cooperation with Governments, UN agencies, Special Representatives of the Secretary-General, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), as well as civil society organisations and academia. We are therefore certain that this collaborative approach with all relevant stakeholders, many of whom are present in this room today, is the only manner in which we can all effectively address the phenomenon of children deprived of their liberty in our region. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In conclusion, may I once again welcome you to South Africa and wish you success in your deliberations today as recommendations are shared to enhance our laws, policies and practices to safeguard the rights of children. 

I thank you