Committee on the Rights of the Child considers the report of Iceland

Committee on the Rights of the Child
23 September 2011

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has considered the third and fourth combined reports of Iceland on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Presenting the report, Halla Gunnarsdottir, Head of the delegation and political advisor to the Minister of the Interior, noted that the delay in sending the report was due to a rotation of staff and assignments and a change in the structure of Icelandic Ministries. Iceland faced a financial crisis resulting from the collapse of the banking system in 2008. This resulted in fiscal restraints and various challenges in Icelandic society, such as extensive budget cuts and increased unemployment. The present Government, established in early 2009, was formed with the specific task of protecting the Icelandic welfare system. With respect to children, the Government had sought to ensure the basic rights of all children, and reduce the effects of the financial crisis on the lives of children to the fullest extent possible. In this effort, fiscal efforts had been made to strengthen both the health and educational systems, and specific measures had been taken such as free dental care for children from low-income households.

Ms. Gunnarsdottir said comparative studies had shown that the financial crisis had not had a directly negative impact on how children in Iceland felt. In their own words, children in Iceland were generally pleased and happy. However, children who were vulnerable before the crisis were considered to be at a higher risk now. Single parent families were a particularly vulnerable group, as in 2007, 23 per cent of single parent families had been below the low-income target, but that number had now risen to an alarming 30 per cent. Fighting poverty remained one of the most important tasks for the Government to take on.

Experts raised questions concerning, among other matters, the declarations of Iceland on two articles of the Convention, the financial cuts since the economic crisis, youth parliaments, the situation of disabled children, abortions rate among minors, corporal punishment, the ombudsmen, refugee and migrant children, the custody of children, juvenile justice and child protection services.

In concluding remarks, Kirsten Sandberg, the Committee member acting as Co- Rapporteur for the report of Iceland, highlighted that some good explanations were given and the Committee was thankful. The delegation had well explained how the financial crisis was dealt with. Hopefully Iceland would manage to keep the focus on children’s rights. The children in the most vulnerable situations should be also kept in mind; even if Iceland seemed aware of them. When it came to cooperation, it seemed that there was no body for implementing the children’s policy. The ombudsman was mentioned but he should not be the one implementing that. The national action plan was running out; what was the next step? Also there needed to be and evaluation of that action plan, as well as a better system for complaints.

Jean Zermatten, Committee Chairperson, said that the dialogue with States parties was always constructive, sometimes just a little and sometimes very constructive. Today it had been very constructive. Iceland was a small laboratory of good practices.

The delegation of Iceland included representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, the Government Agency for Child Protection, the Ministry of Welfare, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations in Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place on Monday, 26 September 2011, when the Committee will examine the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Panama (CRC/C/PAN/3-4).

Report of Iceland

The combined third and fourth periodic reports of Iceland (CRC/C/ISL/3-4) noted that regarding Iceland’s declaration concerning article 9 of the Convention, that declaration had become irrelevant due to recent legislative amendments. According to the new Child Protection Act, No. 80/2002, the power to rule in cases where parents were deprived of custody was transferred from child protection committees to the courts of law. Provision was also made for participation of the courts in the following circumstances: (i) Parents may refer to a judge the decision of a child protection committee to apply measures regarding placement of a child for up to two months; (ii) The child protection committees shall refer to a district court judge all cases where measures regarding the placement of a child were to last longer than two months; (iii) Parents may take legal action for review of permanent arrangements made for a child and review of prior decisions.

The Child Protection Act contained special rules of procedure for court proceedings. The procedural rules of the Act provided that a child who had reached the age of 15 was a litigant in a child protection case. This was an important innovation, which was intended to strengthen the legal status of children in protection cases.

Regarding Iceland’s declaration concerning article 37, the separation of juvenile prisoners from adult prisoners was not obligatory under Icelandic law. However, the law on prisons and imprisonment provided that decisions concerning in which penal institution prisoners were to be located should take account of, inter alia, the age of the prisoner (article 14 of the Execution of Sentences Act, No. 49/2005). An agreement existed between the State Prison and Probation Administration and the Governmental Agency for Child Protection on the imprisonment of persons under 18 years of age. The aim was that juvenile prisoners would serve out their sentences in treatment homes, which were operated in accordance with the provisions of Acts concerning the protection of children and young people and where special treatment was provided. A ruling assured that the same procedure applied when young people were kept in detention.

Presentation of the Report of Iceland

VETURLIDI THOR STEFANSSON, First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the Icelandic delegation were looking forward to a fruitful and constructive exchange of views with the Committee. They hoped that they could complement Iceland’s report and increase the Committee’s understanding of Iceland’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The focus of the report was on the Committee’s recommendations given after the consideration of Iceland’s last periodic reports.

HALLA GUNNARSDOTTIR, Head of the Delegation and political advisor to the Minister of the Interior, noted that the delay in sending the report was due to a rotation of staff and assignments and a change in the structure of Icelandic Ministries.

As could be seen in Iceland’s third and fourth reports, the suggestions and recommendations of the Committee in connection with the second report had had a direct impact on measures taken to improve the situation of children in Iceland. In the Committee’s declarations, the Icelandic Government was encouraged to withdraw its declaration to the Convention. The Icelandic legal framework was examined to determine in what respect Icelandic legislation would need to be modified in order to fully comply with the Convention. It was established that the present provisions in the Execution of Sentences Act did not legally guarantee the separation of juveniles from adults as was provided in Article 37(c) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Minister of the Interior established a working group of experts to examine this and suggested solutions for Iceland to withdraw their statement regarding Article 37(c) to the Convention. The suggested solutions from the working group were under consideration by the Ministry of the Interior of Welfare. The solution had to be appropriate for the children in question, who on average numbered less than one child a year. Therefore, a complete separation from other prisoners could at the same time lead to isolation for the child in question. Iceland aimed to withdraw its declaration to the Convention, and that remained an important task for the Government of Iceland.

Iceland had faced a financial crisis resulting from the collapse of the banking system in 2008. This had resulted in fiscal restraints and various challenges in Icelandic society, such as extensive budget cuts and increased unemployment. The present Government, established in early 2009, was formed with the specific task of protecting the Icelandic welfare system. With respect to children, the Government had sought to ensure the basic rights of all children, and reduce the effect of the financial crisis on the lives of children to the fullest extent possible. In this effort, fiscal efforts had been made to strengthen both the health and educational systems, and specific measures had been taken such as free dental care for children from low-income households.

The Government had established a Government entity, the Welfare Watch, to systematically monitor the social and financial consequences of the economic situation on families and individuals, and to propose measures to meet the needs of households.

Comparative studies had shown that the financial crisis had not had a direct negative impact on how children in Iceland felt. In their own words, children in Iceland were generally pleased and happy. However, children who were vulnerable before the crisis were considered to be at a higher risk now. Single parent families were a particularly vulnerable group, as in 2007, 23 per cent of single parent families had been below the low-income target, but that number had now risen to an alarming 30 per cent. Fighting poverty remained one of the most important tasks for the Government to take on.

Questions by Experts

HADEEL AL-ASMAR, the Committee Member acting as Rapporteur for the report of Iceland, noted that Iceland was a real defender of human rights in general. Moreover, Iceland had demonstrated significant cooperation with United Nations agencies, which showed Iceland’s commitment to children’s rights, not only domestically, but beyond Iceland as well. There was a positive national protection plan from 2008 to 2010, and Iceland had ombudsmen in charge of children’s rights. But why did the ombudsmen only receive complaints from groups of children and not from individual children?

Budgets for education and health had been cut back, which affected families, especially single parents. Iceland significantly helped migrants and refugees, which was a positive point.

The Committee was pleased that Iceland was abolishing any kind of violence against children, including corporal punishment. However, why did the Supreme Court allow the spanking of children on their bare bottoms?

Was the Consultative Committee on children’s rights permanent? Children with disabilities were not well-integrated enough.

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Member acting as the Co-Rapporteur for the report of Iceland, wanted to hear more details about the new rulings on separating children and adults in prisons. The draft amendments to the constitution were appreciated. She expressed the hope that the changes would be passed in Parliament. Was there any chance that the amendments would not be accepted by Parliament? Iceland had a good legislative framework, yet was the Convention entirely implemented? If not, that was probably a financial issue. Services and support for children seemed to have been increased, yet the ombudsman’s report stated that there were cutbacks in healthcare and education, and the situation seemed particularly difficult for single parents. Was enough being done to train specialists who worked with children? The Committee commended Iceland for having laws that allowed complaints by children to be heard.

In policy matters, the youth councils in municipalities were interesting. Did the Parliament consider adopting the recommendations that had been formulated recently by those youth councils? Were they actually listened to? Did Iceland consider creating a youth parliament system at the national level? Refugee and migrant children were not listened to enough. With regard to nationality, children of mixed marriage should have better access to citizenship. What was the situation in divorce cases?

Concerning the ombudsman office in Iceland, it was a unique body to provide the Committee with adequate information. What was the plan to continue supporting the body?

Had the child rights dimension been studied in the light of the economic situation? It was important to keep a budget for it.

When a parent demanded the custody of a child, often the parents’ interest was taken into consideration over the best interests of the child.

How did the Child Protection Act work exactly? In case of disrespect and bad treatment of a child, how did the child protection mechanism work?

The Committee had recommended amending some laws. The Committee was happy to see that the age of consent for sexual relations had been raised to 15 years. But if there was a complaint lodged concerning sexual abuse, sometimes there was no violation recognized if the victim was under 18 years old – why was that so? It was a concern because over the past few years the number of abortions for girls younger than 18 years was around 500.

How did the legislation on corporal punishment work in different settings? The Committee wanted more information on how the Child Protection Act was monitored.

The national action plan was concluded in 2008. Was there a new plan in the pipeline?

Response by the Delegation

The Minister of the Interior was looking at the question of police intervention in matters of child custody and the delegation wanted to hear the Committee’s opinion on that. The age was raised to 15 years for sexual consent, but in general there needed to be a strict line between sex and violence, and that would be the primary focus when it came to sexual education for adolescents. Criminalization of sexual behaviour under 18 was not a goal. There had been a questionnaire given to adolescents on this matter and the general answer was that 15 was a good age for consent.

Within the budget of development aid, there was a focus on health, welfare and education, such as in Afghanistan. The Government had used the opportunity to help non-governmental organizations.

There had been an agreement with prison authorities so that children could serve their sentence in treatment facilities. It required restructuring of facilities. The Icelandic Parliament had passed a resolution on that issue.

With regard to the child protection services, the practice was generally family support. There was a system of mandatory reporting, especially for the persons who worked with children. The nature of the intervention depended on the type of issue, whether it was drug abuse or something else. When it did not work, there needed to be placement of the child outside of their home. Counselling could be offered 24/7, thanks to a person who would live with the family in order to prevent the child being removed from their home.

Questions by the Experts

What legislative framework was there for Iceland to conform to the Paris Principles?

Concerning the detention centres, did they have an educational aspect? Was there a shortage of treatment facilities?

Was the intensive care also provided to families where the issue was violence? Did children know about the complaint mechanisms and did they actually use them? Where could a child go if he or she wanted to complain? Maybe there were too many possibilities for complaint. There should be a “one-stop-shop” for children and if the mandate of the ombudsman had to be changed then that should be an option.

With regard to the cutbacks, the delegation said that children were not affected directly, but the Expert doubted that.

Concerning children with disabilities, there was a good policy to include children in mainstream schools, but parents were also allowed to choose to place the child in a specialized institution. However that did not really take into consideration the wishes of the child.

Response by the Delegation

Parenting skills programmes had been created to increase parental support in the spirit of the Council of Europe recommendations.

Concerning the complaint mechanism, ombudsmen were first and foremost advocates for the rights of the child. They had to listen to children but they were not supposed to deal with individual complaints.

There were specific documents on children living in residential care institutions. The children were introduced to the documents and were informed of their rights and the complaint systems. They could complain at the independent monitoring body based at the Ministry of Welfare, and at the Child Protection Committee that placed the child in institutions. The case could also go to court if necessary.

Once the child protection services deemed it necessary to intervene, they would send the file to the child protection authorities. They would assess if the needs for the child were met or not. If the child needed to be placed, there would be a contract between the facility and the parents.

There were interviews and questionnaires with children to know what their issues were and to inform them about complaint mechanisms. Services and monitoring were separated in the Ministry of Welfare. There was a process underway to streamline the system.

Child welfare should be a main point, and before the crisis began more was being done than actually requested by the law. Then there had been cut downs in administration, the classes became bigger (no more than 28 students per class); but some action was taken to mitigate those negative consequences. Efforts were made for children with disabilities. The education budget would be further reduced over the next years, but less than in other areas. Cut-backs were always trickling down to children unfortunately.

The State could directly affect the upper-secondary school (before it was dealt with by the municipalities) and the Government tried to minimize the impact of the financial crisis on children. But all children could attend school and had the possibility to choose their school. There had been issues in municipalities and there had been negotiations with the municipalities that had the most problems.

Icelandic schools should be inclusive and should accept everyone. There was also the possibility to choose special schools, although less and less parents chose to do so. Migrant children were of course included in schools but there was a concern because they had a higher drop-out rate. There was a new three-year plan to help those children, as well as better legally-based information for immigrants. Concerning immigrants and the media, there was a new law that prohibited hate propaganda based on nationality and ethnic origin. There was a special fund on immigrant issues that had, for example, programmes for children. When the head of an institution received an application from a child with disabilities, he or she also had to evaluate if it really was in the best interest of the child to be in that institution.

With regard to the youth councils, according to the act of 2007, it was up to the municipalities to implement this law. There should be more monitoring in the Ministries to fulfil this Act. How should this be done in the Committee’s opinion? The Government would like to send more bills to the youth councils to get more feedback.

Questions by the Experts

Breastfeeding rates were very low. What was being done in this regard? Was there a program to encourage breastfeeding? There was laxity regarding the advertising of breast milk-replacement formulas that were not always good for health and could facilitate obesity.

Was there a special legislation criminalizing immigrant parents who took their child to their home country and performed harmful traditional practices on them?

It was hard to move a child to another system once the child had established relations with other children.

On education, there was a certain drop-out rate from school. Why was that and what was being envisaged to solve the problem?

Was there a body of magistrates that dealt with both adult and juvenile offenders, and did they apply the same rules?

With regard to sexual exploitation and abuse, what preventive measures were being coordinated at the moment? There should be more preventive measures.

Was there a system to check whether children who arrived in Iceland had been used in conflicts?

How did the children in Iceland enjoy the right to play?

The law was ambiguous about the criteria for denying asylum. Only two asylum applications had been approved in the past 20 years.

There was a need for explicit prohibition of the armed forces recruiting children under the age of 18.

Iceland had taken a proactive approach to monitoring the financial situation. Yet, three to four years on, was there an opportunity for Iceland to review the entire protection system? With respect to poverty, there were very few children in Iceland who lived in poverty as such. Since the financial crisis, the risk of children falling below the relative poverty line was increasing. Would Iceland consider undertaking a multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral approach that, for example, would also consider geographical variables?

How was Iceland preparing children for leaving care? Was there any data on children integration success rate, for children who were in centres before?

In case of domestic violence, what kind of support was there for children who witnessed it?
Was there any system for infants and children to accompany their parents in prison?

There was a review of the children’s act and a review of the Constitution. Could the delegation give more details about that?

Why were there only a few centres with free psychological care?

Questions by Experts

Were there any schools for children with disabilities to attend that were specialized according to their disability? In cases of separated parents of children with disabilities, what measures were taken to make sure the child was well taken care of?

What contraceptive measures were available for girls and what type of sexual education was provided for adolescents? The Committee wanted to remind the delegation that it was not against abortion, but that the numbers were still concerning.

The Committee believed that the age of 15 was still young for the age of sexual consent; this could lead to child prostitution and child pornography. What happened if there had been sexual violence by an Icelandic citizen on a person between 15 and 18 years old abroad?

On economic exploitation, there was a big difference between compulsory schooling ending (normally 16 years) and the minimum age for work, which was set at 15 years. The States party was asked to resolve this matter. What measures did the State plan to take to respect International Labour Organization Convention 138?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said the only way to change the Constitution was to make a bill go through the two Parliaments, which could take a long time. Unfortunately, Governmental institutions would soon have to cut up to three per cent of their budget. The national action plan had not yet been evaluated. A report was sent to the Parliament last year that went through all the issues addressed by the action plan, and it had started evaluating the policy points.

Iceland did not have any armed forces.

An Icelandic woman automatically gave her nationality to her children.

Children of asylum seekers went to school and more than two persons had been given status in the last years; the number was closer to 20. There were very few cases of children coming to Iceland on their own.

There was a new law on prostitution. It was illegal to pay for sexual services but the prostitute was never prosecuted.

There was a very open dialogue in Icelandic society about sexual violence. Iceland was in the process of ratifying the Convention of the Council of Europe of 2007 on sexual abuse against children.

On the subject of domestic violence, the discussions had focused way too much on the gender approach. Moreover, there had not been enough of a focus on the children; no one talked to them. A child specialist had been appointed to accompany the police and to talk to the child. The second role was to ensure that the child would receive the necessary trauma focus therapy.

With regard to sexual abuse, Iceland had done a great deal about it with the establishment of the Children’s House. It was a multidisciplinary centre where the child received all the services it needed, all under one roof. The model was being replicated in Northern Europe. It allowed acquisition of specific data on child sexual abuse. That data was very important for awareness-raising and prevention. There was also a special program for minor sex offenders, which was very important for preventing further offences.

A new curriculum that addressed sexual health had been launched, in which abortion was also addressed. The possibility of midwives and nurses prescribing contraceptives was being considered.

The Government was trying to reach adolescents through a website. The adolescents could ask questions online.

Corporal punishment was prohibited in Iceland. The Child Rights Act had been changed accordingly. Female genital mutilation was explicitly prohibited.

Children were waiting for services at specialized institutions numbered 79. That number was lower than it had been in 2007, despite Iceland’s economic crisis. The waiting time could be between one day and one year. But the waiting list at the Centre for Behaviour and Development Disorders was longer than in 2007, and was now between six to seven months.

It was true that the use of drugs to regulate behavioural disorders such as hyperactivity was too high, and more psychological resources were to be made accessible soon.

The law stipulated that a person with a disability should be appointed a spokesperson for the realization of their human rights. That was part of the decentralization of the care system.
For the first time Iceland had seen a reduction in the numbers of obesity.

The decision of the Supreme Court on corporal punishment was linked to the fact that it was deemed that children did not suffer consequences from spanking. Yet afterwards the bill on corporal punishment was passed and now it was criminalized.

A lot of effort had been put into the delivery of social services for children. There were also regular training programs for people who were not in the child protection services, such as the police. With regard to violence, a book for professionals working with children, titled Evil Man, was distributed.

Young people still had a problem with alcohol but it was far lower than before.
There was indeed bullying in the schools, but there was a national project to deal with that. Bullying had been referred to as part of the definition of violence by law. Students who bullied were suspended. Every school had to create a positive environment.

There was a project with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, similar to the one in Norway, for children dropping out of school. Further cooperation was soon going to take place in order to try to remedy this. There were indeed traineeships for those children who dropped out.

Playing was part of national legislation, especially at primary school. Even the name of the school had the word “play” in it. That was the school level the parents were the happiest with.

Regarding disability, there were so many possibilities, and there was a lot of assistance given at the municipal level. There were national centres for the blind and the deaf, and there was training for mainstream teachers to teach them how to best help children attending mainstream schools as well.

There were specific procedures in place concerning judicial measures. The age for criminal responsibility was 15 years. If the police apprehended a person that was between 15 and 18 years old, they were not allowed to question the child without the presence of someone from the child protection services. Yet there was a scope for improvement for juvenile justice, because some judges did not want to accept the testimony of some children.

Concluding Remarks

HADEEL AL-ASMAR, Committee Member acting as Rapporteur for the report of Iceland, mentioned that the Committee wanted to send their best wishes to the Icelandic children and hoped that the next meeting would yield even more results.

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Member acting as Co-Rapporteur for the report of Iceland, said that some good explanations had been given and the Committee was thankful. The delegation had explained clearly how the financial crisis was being dealt with. Hopefully Iceland would manage to keep the focus on children’s rights. The children in the most vulnerable situations should be also kept in mind; even if Iceland seemed aware of them. When it came to cooperation, it seemed that there was no body for implementing the children’s policy. The ombudsman was mentioned but he should not be the one implementing that. The national action plan was running out; what was the next step? Also there needed to be an evaluation of that action plan, as well as a better system for complaints. On the subject of participation, there might be a demand for more democracy in schools, such as discussions about bullying.

HALLA GUNNARSDOTTIR, Head of Delegation and political advisor to the Minister of the Interior, said that Iceland had made substantial progress through the establishment of the new governmental section dealing only with human rights; it was a big step for the small country of Iceland. Iceland knew from their Finnish neighbour that the effects of a financial crisis could have repercussions for years, so the Government and the Welfare Watch would keep an important focus on children’s rights to avoid that.

JEAN ZERMATTEN, Committee Chairperson, commented that the dialogue with States parties was always constructive, sometimes just a little, and sometimes very constructive. Today it had been very constructive. Iceland was a small laboratory of good practices.

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