UN Committee Against Torture

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The Commissioner’s office reports to the UN Committee against Torture around whether Scotland’s keeping certain promises it’s made to children and young people.

This webpage explains what that involves, the recommendations we’ve made to them, and why we need to report to a Committee against Torture in the first place.

What is the UN Committee against Torture?

A UN Committee is a group of people who are experts on a specific topic, like human rights. They work independently and don’t represent the UN Member State that they live in.

The UN Committee against Torture exists to check up on if countries are keeping their human rights promises under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

It’s a Convention that Scotland’s signed up to as part of the UK, which ratified it in 1988. When this happened, we made promises to everyone in our country, including children and young people.

The Committee's 2019 Concluding Observations have now been published.

Read the Concluding Observations here.

Is a Committee on Torture relevant to children in Scotland?

Yes.

The Convention requires countries to prevent acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and children in Scotland experience acts like this all the time.

For example, violence can be used against children and young people. They can be held forcefully in order to stop them from moving. They can be shut somewhere alone and not allowed to leave. Our investigation into restraint and seclusion in Scottish schools provides examples of where and why this is happening to children.

When children and young people experience violence, physical punishment or other hurtful and humiliating treatment, the Convention against Torture is being violated.

What's our involvement with the Committee?

Katrina and EJ at the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva as the youngest ever delegates to the Committee.

Every four years the Committee examines every UN Member State who’s signed up to UNCAT, to see if the human rights promises in the Convention are being kept.

The UK was examined in this way in May 2019, and we submitted information to the Committee to tell them where UNCAT promises to children and young people aren’t being kept. We wrote a joint submission to the Committee along with the Children’s Commissioners for Wales and Northern Ireland. The Commissioner’s office in England reports by way of a separate mechanism.

Involving young human rights defenders

In May 2019 we made history at the UN. Following the recommendation of young human rights defenders to ‘ensure children human rights defenders meaningfully and actively participate in all international decision-making processes’, we supported two young human rights defenders, EJ and Katrina, to present evidence to the UN Committee Against Torture.

EJ and Katrina were the youngest delegates to ever address this Committee. They gave a 10-minute presentation on serious human rights violations affecting children and young people across Scotland.

However, they were clear that it should be standard practice for children and young people to be involved in decision-making processes like this.

EJ said:

“Children and young people have the right to be included and our views taken seriously at the highest levels when it comes to issues that affect our lives.”

And Katrina added:

“Having young people at the heart of the UN is absolutely crucial. We’re so excited to have this opportunity to address the Committee but we don’t want to be an exception to the norm; children and young people should be included here and in other places of influence.”

Read our joint submission to the UN Committee against Torture.

Our recommendations

The submission made 9 recommendations, of which the following 7 are relevant to Scotland:

Raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14

The Committee against Torture has asked if all nations of the UK are considering increasing our minimum ages of criminal responsibility. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear , 14 is the international standard for a minimum age.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted this in evidence to the Scottish Parliament, and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has also directly raised concerns with the Scottish Government.

Yet right now the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is the lowest in Europe at 8, and the current Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill proposes to raise it to 12— still below the minimum standard.

Create new guidance on restraint and seclusion and require the Scottish Government to report on this

Restraint – where a child is held so they can’t move – and seclusion– where they’re shut in a room and not allowed to leave – still happen in Scotland’s schools.

Our office’s investigation into restraint and seclusion made several recommendations to the Scottish Government around how this should change, and these have been reported to UNCAT.

The Scottish Government should:

  • publish a rights-based national policy and guidance on restraint and seclusion of children in all settings. When this policy and guidance is developed, children and young people should be involved at every stage.
  • analyse and publish data on restraint and seclusion of children in all settings as part of its official statistics.

Make sure all children have equal protection from assault

The Committee against Torture is clear that children must have the same protections against all forms of assault as adults do. They’ve asked about what Scotland’s done to make sure physical punishment isn’t allowed for anyone, anywhere, including for children at home and in alternative care.

The Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill is currently going through the Scottish Parliament, but we must make sure it passes and becomes law.

Make UNCAT and the UNCRC the law in Scotland

The UN Convention against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child both need to be written into Scots law to properly protect children and young people from torture. The First Minister’s commitment to incorporation of the UNCRC before 2021 is promising , as this will strengthen the protections under 18s have against UNCAT violations.

Both conventions need to be incorporated for our promises under UNCAT to be kept.

Ban mosquito devices

Our office is clear that mosquito devices – which give off a high-pitched noise only younger people can hear – should never be used to keep children and young people from public spaces.

The sound these devices make can cause real distress to those who are able to hear them and mean they can’t access places where they have every right to be. The Scottish Government should use all its available powers to restrict the use of mosquito devices— but this is something that it hasn’t yet done.

Make sure under 18s aren’t detained in prisons, other forms of detention for adults, or young offender institutions

People under 18 have particular needs within the justice system, and these aren’t being fully met in Scotland. When they need to be detained – for the safety of others, or as part of a sentence as a result of breaking the law – there should be places especially for under 18s where that happens, and enough of them for everyone in that age group who is detained.

Provide data and rights-based guidance on strip-searching

Strip-searching is a violation of a child’s human rights, but we don’t know how often it takes place in institutions where they are detained. The Scottish Government needs to:

  • provide data around this,
  • create rights-based guidance around strip-searching,
  • review how strip-searching is used and the information given to parents and children around both the legal basis for doing so and the child’s human rights,
  • use the information from this review to help create national guidance around strip-searching that’s consistent with international and domestic law.

The data and guidance the Scottish Government create needs to be widely available.