COMMITTEE ON RIGHTS OF CHILD CONSIDERS REPORT OF BHUTAN



Committee on the Rights
of the Child

22 September 2008




The Committee on the Rights of the Child today reviewed the second periodic report of Bhutan on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Lyonpo Thakur S. Powdyel, Minister of Education and Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and Children of Bhutan, introducing the report, said that, since 2001, Bhutan had adopted significant measures in the field of child rights, particularly in legislation relating to children. Among others, a Child Care and Protection Bill was developed to institute a comprehensive child justice system and to address remaining gaps. As approximately 23 per cent of the population lived in poverty, a large portion of them children, the Government of Bhutan was refocusing interventions to ensure that children in the most vulnerable groups, particularly poorer segments, were reached with services and facilities. The Government continued to allocate almost a quarter of its annual budget to health and education and Bhutan was on target to achieve the Millennium Development Goals before 2015.

In preliminary concluding remarks, Maria Herczog, the Committee Expert serving as co-Rapporteur for the report of Bhutan, said the Committee understood that new legislation was easier to create than to implement. However, implementation was vital. The Committee also fully understood the difficulties faced by Bhutan being a small, poor country, but highlighted that that meant the need of children in the country were that much greater and that their success would be paramount for Bhutan’s future. As a democratic monarchy, Bhutan was in a position to incorporate the Convention on the Rights of the Childs principles fully.

Questions raised by Committee Experts included among other things, the naturalization process for refugees and children born from non-Bhutanese parents; adoption procedures and policies; the definition of the child in a legislative framework; a central birth registration coordination mechanism; formalizing the legal age for sexual consent; family support and training programmes for children with disabilities or special needs; the alignment of legislation in line with the provisions of the Convention; the high rate of infant mortality; and a children’s focus in poverty reduction strategies.

The Committee will release its formal, written concluding observations and recommendations on the periodic report of Bhutan to the Convention on the Rights of the Child towards the end of its three-week session, which will conclude on Friday, 3 October.

Bhutan’s delegation, which presented the report, included representatives from the Ministries of Education, Labour, and Foreign Affairs; the Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the United Nations Office at Geneva; the Office of the Attorney General; the National Commission for Women and Children; and the Youth Development Fund.

As one of the 193 States parties to the Convention, Bhutan is obliged to present periodic reports to the Committee on its efforts to comply with the provisions of the treaty.

When the Committee reconvenes on Wednesday, 23 September at 10 a.m., it will begin consideration of the combined third and fourth consolidated periodic reports of the United Kingdom (CRC/C/GBR/4).


Report of Bhutan

Several notable amendments have been made in policy and legislation in Bhutan to bridge gaps in existing acts and harmonize them with the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, notes the second periodic report of Bhutan (CRC/C/BTN/2). These include a uniform definition of the child as prescribed in the Convention; the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004, which includes sections that address juvenile needs; and the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code of Bhutan 2001, which also provides for minors. The National Commission for Women and Children, established in 2004 as the national mechanism for coordinating and monitoring activities related to women and child rights, and reporting to treaty bodies, is expected to play an active role in the prevention of rights violations against children and women. Activities initiated so far by the Commission include the preparation of an assessment of the protection factors for vulnerable children in Bhutan that have been shared with all stakeholders; discussions with stakeholders on improved cooperation and coordination in promoting, protecting and reporting on the rights of children and women in Bhutan; organizing a National Consultation on Violence against Children, the findings of which have been incorporated into the United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children; and organizing a National Consultation on Promoting Women and Child Friendly Police and judicial Procedures in collaboration with the judiciary, the Royal Bhutan Police, and the Office of the Attorney General.

The Poverty Analysis Report 2004 provides the country’s first poverty baseline based on the cost of providing 2,124 calories per person per day along with basic non-food items. While the 2004 report estimated that 31.7 per cent of the population of Bhutan was poor, the 2007 study reported that the percentage of population below the poverty line had declined to 23 per cent. The Royal Government is refocusing interventions to ensure that children in the most vulnerable groups, particularly those from the poorer segments of society, are also reached with important services and facilities. For example, the Education Ministry is expanding the reach of community schools in remote areas. Pilot schemes are being tested in schools in Thimphu to provide facilities for disabled children and scholarships are now being offered for disadvantaged children.

Presentation of Report

LYONPO THAKUR S. POWDYEL, Minister of Education and Chairperson of the National Commission for Women and Children of Bhutan, introducing the report, said that children held the promise of the future and, therefore, it was only right that they should be given every opportunity to develop their physical, mental and spiritual potential to the fullest extent in an environment free of want and free of fear. That remained the guiding principle of the Government in addressing the needs and concerns of children of Bhutan. The Government was committed to creating and expanding opportunities for all the people of Bhutan based on the ideal of equality and justice within the broad framework of the countries development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. However, while the Government took pride in achievements reached thus far, it recognized that much remained to be done, and were prepared to commit efforts and resources in addressing existing challenges.

Since 2001, Bhutan had adopted significant measures in the field of child rights, particularly in legislation relating to children. Bhutan’s first Constitution was adopted on 18 July 2008. While children’s rights were pervasive throughout the Constitution, 3 of the 35 articles related specifically to children. In addition, the adoption of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code in 2001 and the Penal Code in 2004, along with other relevant legislation enabled the harmonization of domestic laws with most provisions of the Convention, therefore ensuring child-friendly procedures and taking into account the “best interest of the child” Mr. Powdyel said. A Child Care and Protection Bill was also developed to institute a comprehensive child justice system and to address remaining gaps in existing legislation. Simultaneously, the Legislative Taskforce had been formed to review and develop woman- and child-friendly legislation, with bills on adoption and domestic violence in the pipeline.

Mr. Powdyel highlighted the establishment of the National Commission for Women and Children, which had been granted full autonomy to promote and protect the rights of women and children. The advocacy activities of the Commission over the past four years had led to increased attention to, and clearer focus on, the rights of children and women.

Moreover, various activities of non-governmental organizations in Bhutan had complimented the efforts by the Government to implement the Convention, Mr. Powdyel pointed out. The Government was optimistic that the adoption of the Civil Society Organization Act had encouraged the growth of Civil Society and help advance greater awareness and the full implementation of the Convention in the country. In addition, a series of broad-based and inclusive training workshops, consultations, and advocacy campaigns, many targeting children themselves, conducted in collaboration with various partner agencies, had proved particularly effective in promoting greater awareness of the Convention. Such initiatives had involved the judiciary, law enforcement officials, the education system, monastic institutions, the media, and individual parents. Some specific outcomes of such efforts included school sensitization campaigns such as “Know the Law to Protect Your Rights”, and launching of the complaints and response mechanism of the Royal Bhutan Police in the capital, scheduled for national expansion by 2013.

Approximately 23 per cent of the population lived in poverty, and a large portion of that percentage was children, Mr. Powdyel noted. The Government of Bhutan was refocusing interventions to ensure that children in the most vulnerable groups, particularly poorer segments, were reached with services and facilities. The Government continued to allocate almost a quarter of its annual budget to health and education. In education, the focus had been on expansion and upgrading of existing educational facilities and targeting an increasing number of children, especially vulnerable groups living in remote areas and children with special needs. In health, a Multi-Sectoral Task Force had been established in all 20 districts of Bhutan to raise awareness of the risks of emerging issues like HIV/AIDS and substance abuse, with particular focus on adolescents and children.

Bhutan was on target to achieve the Millennium Development Goals before 2015, Mr. Powdyel underscored. The decline of infant mortality rates had gone from 123 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 40 per 1,000 live births in 2005. And several initiatives had been planned to improve child rights in future. The Tenth Five Year Development Plan of Bhutan, which had come into effect in July 2008, had for the first time integrated child protection issues.

While Bhutan was fully committed to the Convention, as a small, landlocked and least developed country, Mr. Powdyel noted that Bhutan’s situation posed a range of difficulties in its implementation. Those challenges constrained the Government from undertaking many activities that could have considerably improved the situation of children. In addition, the harsh mountainous terrain and highly dispersed settlements continued to escalate the development costs and posed considerable challenges in the delivery of social services. There was also a shortage of teachers and professionals with experience and technical expertise to deal with children with special needs.

Despite those difficulties and limitations, Bhutan remained steadfast in its efforts to overcome constraints and challenges in order to promote a greater realization of child rights, Mr. Powdyel stressed. Showing the same determination, Bhutan had become a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy when, in March 2008, based on the draft Constitution, 79.4 per cent of eligible voters had participated in the first-ever historic democratic elections for Parliament.

With regard to the issue of people in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees administered refugee camps in Nepal, Mr. Powdyel said Bhutan, in its efforts to find a durable and just solution, had been engaged since 1993 in bilateral talks with the Government of Nepal. There were four categories of people living in the refugee camps, not all of whom were Bhutanese. In the Government’s efforts to engage constructively with Nepal to advance a solution to the humanitarian plight of the people in the camps, important progress had been achieved. The channels of communication had remained open, with regular contact at the ministerial level.

Here Mr. Powdyel drew attention to the serious security challenges faced by Bhutan arising from the formation of extremist groups in the refugee camps in Nepal. Those groups had demonstrated their intention to disrupt the peace, security, and stability of Bhutan through violence. Since January 2008, they had carried out 14 bomb blasts inside Bhutan and had been recruiting and training members, and disseminating Maoist propaganda in the country. Bhutan did not have the means to deal with the terrorist threats posed by militants. Here, it should be noted that the Government had made headway in expanding opportunities for all segments of Bhutanese society on the basis of equity and justice.

Oral Questions raised by the Special Rapporteur and Experts

LUIGI CITARELLA, the Committee Expert serving as co-Rapporteur for the report of Bhutan, welcomed the self-critical report of Bhutan. According to the report of the Secretary-General, Bhutan had faced difficulties in signing international instruments and in the ratification of Optional Protocols. According to the report and written replies, the Convention on the Rights of the Child had no legal standing in the legislative system of Bhutan. What then was the value, importance, and effect of the Convention in the system of law and rules affecting children in Bhutan? With respect to the newly adopted Constitution, he noted that, inasmuch as it took Bhutan from a complete Monarchy to a parliamentary and democratic structure, it was extremely important in achieving the aims of promoting and protecting child rights in the country.

Regarding the provision in the Constitution concerning the right to life, and the abolition of the death penalty, it was a matter of concern that the enjoyment of all human rights was limited to the strict condition of Bhutanese nationality, Mr. Citarella said, and that nationality depended on both parents being Bhutanese.

The Committee appreciated the positive efforts made by Bhutan to align its legislation and administrative practices with the provisions and principles of the Convention, Mr. Citarella noted. Further improvements envisaged for the near future included a draft Child Care and Protection Act and he wondered whether a timetable for its adoption had already been established.

Among the most important concerns for the Committee were widespread discrimination in the country and a de facto discrimination between boys and girls, especially in the field of education. Mr. Citarella asked whether the Government intended to take more radical action in order to eliminate or at least reduce that phenomenon. Special attention was to be devoted to existing discrimination with regard to most vulnerable groups of children, especially disabled children.

Some difficulties encountered by Bhutan to improve the condition of children was due to objective consideration said Mr. Citarella. First of all, especially in the field of disseminating and training on the Convention, that seemed to be attributed to language problems. “Dzongkha”, according to the Constitution, was the national language of the country; however, in different districts and regions different dialects and languages prevailed, making it difficult to adopt uniform texts and practical action across the country. The existence of ethnic minorities was also a matter of concern, since it was a factor leading to different forms of discrimination, in violation of article 4 of the Convention.

Although some progress had been realized in aligning the legislation with the provisions and the principles of the Convention it appeared that the basic principles of the best interest of the child and right to participate had not been taken into account, Mr. Citarella underscored, and no specific reference to them could be found in the legislation, including the new Constitution.

MARIA HERCZOG, the Committee Expert serving as co-Rapporteur for the report of Bhutan, said that positive aspects, among others, included the high public expenditure for the education sector, and the lowered infant mortality rate. The aim to achieve the Millennium Development Goals was important. Concerning children with special needs, the Committee requested more detailed information. There was a lack of complaint mechanisms, such as a child helpline, and she asked what measures had been taken to provide such mechanism for child victims. She also asked if the Government of Bhutan was planning any action against corporal punishment.

Committee Experts then raised a number of questions and concerns regarding Bhutan’s implementation of the Convention, including the status of the Convention in Bhutanese law, and what happened in cases where it conflicted with domestic law or the Constitution; a lack of a central authority for birth registrations, and what was being done to ensure registration of births in rural areas; what measures existed to ensure education for children in rural areas; coordination mechanisms for children’s rights at local level; how the Convention would be integrated into the school curriculum; and what measures were in place to ensure that no child was at risk of being stateless. An Expert asked, with respect to the new concept of “Gross National Happiness”, as included in the Constitution, if the Government intended to develop an index and so that it could monitor and measure progress in that regard.

An Expert said it was puzzling that the new Constitution did not include any mention of ethnic origin or disabilities as grounds for discrimination. With respect to nationality, she also noted with concern that, under existing legislation, once an individual left the country they were stripped of their nationality.

Further questions were asked on the role of non-governmental organisations in the promotion of the Convention; measures to grant Bhutanese children of Nepalese origin citizenship; how Bhutan planned to overcome a shortage in healthcare professionals; how Bhutan planned to address malnutrition among children, in view of the global food crisis; a need for limitations on domestic work and child labour in agriculture; the fact that primary education was not compulsory; whether there were indicators that the quality of education in schools was improving; and what had been the findings of the child poverty studies conducted in Bhutan?

Regarding child services, it was of concern that the Constitutional responsibility to provide services and protections for children seemed to have been transferred to civil society and non-governmental organisations. It was also asked if children were kept separately from adults in all prison facilities; what programmes existed for supporting the family, and what training was provided for parents in helping to care for their children; whether girls could refuse to marry if they were below the age of 18 years; and how many children lived in monasteries and what protections were provided for them. With respect to adoption, did the Government intend to ratify the Hague Convention

Response by Delegation

In response to questions raised on the issue of Gross National Happiness, the delegation said it was an important goal for the national development philosophy. Some of the most profound needs in life were not material, and included, the emotional and psychological aspects, which needed to be nurtured. Gross National Happiness was founded on four indicators: social and economic development, cultural preservation, environment, and Government. The Centre for Bhutan Studies had developed studies based on those four indicators. In October 2008, the Centre was scheduled to make a presentation of their report on the integration of those indicators into all levels of development planning within the country.

On the implementation of the Covenant, the delegation said that the Convention on the Rights of the Child did not stand as an individual legal instrument in Bhutan although all attempts had been made to harmonize national legislation with the Convention. The principles of the Convention had been referred to whenever the National Commission for Women and Children, the Royal Bhutan Police and the judiciary dealt with cases involving minors.

Regarding the applicability of the Convention in domestic laws, the delegation said that all agreements which had been ratified and signed by the Government of Bhutan would be enforced, subject to their ratification by Parliament.

With respect to the definition of the child in the legislation, there was no definition in the law. However, in the Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes, a number of provisions provided protections, although not specifically defined, for all person under the age of 18, which were considered minors. The Convention was enforced in two ways: either with a national law being invoked which was parallel to the provisions of the Convention or, in the absence of any legislation, the court could apply the provisions of the Convention directly. The National Commission for Women and Children had brought eight cases to court, four of which had been done in the “best interest of the child” and in the implementation of the Convention. Furthermore, the Commission could invoke the provisions of the Convention independently.

With respect to people who had voluntarily left Bhutan, the delegation said that they were allowed upon their return to the country to reapply for naturalization. Regarding obtaining citizenship, three processes could potentially be taken by individuals for obtaining citizenship either by being a natural born citizen (born in Bhutan); the process of registration for individuals who had been domiciled in Bhutan before 1958; and, lastly, regardless of the nationality of either parent, a person may could make an application. The children of Bhutanese citizens were not automatically given citizenship, but were eligible, where the minimum age for naturalization was only after the age of 15. Before the age of 15 the child was given the same rights granted to all citizens.

On cooperation and coordination between the Government and civil society and non-governmental organizations in Bhutan, the delegation said that, due to limited resources and capacity restraints, very few civil society organizations were present in the country. However, they played an important role. The Civil Societies Organizations Act was scheduled to be adopted, articulating various stipulations for the whole life cycle, management and legal structures for such organizations.

According to the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, labour administration was a very new concept in Bhutan where previously employment often had been conducted on an informal or personal basis with few contractual obligations, the delegation said. The Government was focusing on improving labour administration to improve the quality of life of workers and had been making progress. In terms of child labour, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources was drawing up rules and regulations to guide the employment of children between the ages of 13 to 17 years of age. That was covered under the Draft Rules and Regulations of the Labour and Employment Act, 2007. The draft, which was still undergoing discussion with stakeholders, outlined regulations for acceptable forms of child labour and prohibited forms of child labour. It outlined detailed working conditions and entitlements for children including the need to pay minors a minimum wage rate set by the Ministry. It set out penalties for persons who employed children in any occupation or job outside of a list of acceptable jobs indicated. Penalties include prison terms for a minimum of four years to a maximum of nine years.

Further Questions Raised by Experts

In further questions and comments by Committee Experts, concern was raised, among others, over a high infant mortality rate in Bhutan; a lack of an ethnic breakdown in data on population; and whether the National Commission for Women and Children was in fact as independent as it had been presented to be, given that most of its members were from the Government.

Response by the Delegation

Responding to these questions and others, with regard to the population and family reunification, the delegation said that the most recent national census conducted in May 2005 had revealed that the population of Bhutan was 634,982. On family reunification and the plight of children in refugee camps, Bhutan remained concerned about the humanitarian plight of all the people in camps, and had not received any requests for family reunification. Furthermore, currently no children below the age of 18 were separated from their families in Bhutan.

About the status of the National Commission for Women and Children, the delegation said the Commission had been established in 2004 to implement the provisions of the Convention, to coordinate reports to treaty bodies, to monitor and investigate all cases involving the violation of rights of women and children, and to fulfil State obligations. There was a 100 per cent conviction rate for every case the Commission had brought so far. The Commission hoped to fully strengthen its legal and administrative division. The Commission had been functionally disassociated from the Ministry Health only six months after its creation. Since then, the Commission had been completely autonomous and independent. In terms of coordinating and monitoring, that was an issue of continuous debate within the Commission, and it hoped to become a monitoring body. The Commission also had independent relationships with the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of Government. Being part of the civil service however did present some challenges when trying to channel additional resources.

With regard to concerns raised by Experts on birth registration mechanisms, the delegation said that there was a system of registering births and deaths. One gap, however, was that there was no system to issue birth certificates. Hospitals issued birth certificates for children born in hospitals; however, there were very low numbers of births in hospitals due to the geographical terrain of the country. The Government recently decided to fully implement the birth registration across the nation.

In terms of complaint mechanisms currently available for victims in Bhutan was the recent hotline 113 established in coordination with the National Commission for Women and Children and the Royal Bhutan Police, said the delegation, with two additional numbers to be installed in the near future. It was hoped that with the cooperation of Child Helpline International, Bhutan would provide more accountability in addressing violence against children.

The Women and Child Unit in the Royal Bhutan Police had been established specifically to deal with women and children said the delegation. Bhutan always had a close family support structure. In the absence of family care centres, the Commission brought together members of society to meet and discuss issues. The Child Care and Protection Bill put into place the social welfare services, reintegration services, shelters and other such safety nets. Bhutan had a number of legal Acts in this area, but did not have the necessary resources to implement those Acts. In that connection, it was noted that the Juvenile Justice Act had been repealed with the Penal Code 2004, and had been subsequently reopened as the Child Care and Protection Bill.

With respect to questions raised on monasteries, the delegation said that for a very long time monasteries provided the only education in Bhutan. Not until the late 1950’s had modern education come to be widely available. Monasteries provided a large avenue for access to education. Many critics said that the schooling provided by monasteries was strict and did not teach a modern framework of individual rights. The National Commission for Women and Children was working with the monasteries; one of the projects implemented was the 9-person expert committee to monitor the schooling system in monasteries. In addition, a series of training programmes for principals was also implemented. Monastery schools and other schools all had to comply with the same regulations. As for a query on whether Monastic education discriminated against girls, it was noted that boys were educated in the monasteries, whereas the girls went to schools run by nuns. Coeducation did not exist in Bhutan.

In terms of access to healthcare services for those in remote locations, the delegation said that the district hospitals were supported by the basic health units which were supported by outreach clinics – the first point of contact for widely dispersed groups. If services were not available in the country, the Government would address this by searching for skilled professionals outside the country.

Malnutrition remained a concern, the delegation agreed. It was due to dietary habits in the country and the Government had responded by strengthening the public health sector to address this problem with educational campaigns.

Currently, the National Commission for Women and Children was responsible for approving clearance for international adoption, said the delegation. It was hoped that the Adoption Act would facilitate Bhutan’s ratification of the Optional Protocols to the Convention. To date, seven international adoptions had been cleared by the Commission. Of those adoptions that were cleared, annual reports had to be submitted to embassies in the country in which the child resided. In addition, measures had been put into place to ensure the child received nationality of the country in which he/she resided.

Poverty reduction strategies for children were not included in the Tenth Five Year Plan, which was currently being developed by the Government, said the delegation. That remained a challenge for Bhutan.

On child labour, the delegation said no formal survey had been undertaken on that topic; however, the Ministry of Labour had conducted an annual labour force survey, which was due to be disseminated soon. The survey now included questions on child labour, and would provide disaggregated data on child labour. As of now, Bhutan was not a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO), but dialogue had been initiated and the Government was considering becoming a member. Nevertheless, the ILO had been a technical cooperation partner for a long time, since the late 1970s. Last month, a couple of ILO experts had helped Bhutan develop its labour market system. The labour standards in Bhutan were in line with international labour standards as a result of consultations with ILO experts. The minimum age to work in Bhutan was 18 years. The Government of Bhutan was currently drafting acceptable conditions and rules for children between the ages of 13 and 17 years to work.

As regarded mandatory education, whereas the Government had no law setting out mandatory education for children, Bhutan was bound to do so under many of the international commitments it had taken, including under the Convention, and had put many plans and policies to ensure that this goal was reached. It had made a national commitment to provide education to all children via its Tenth Five Year Plan 2008-2013, in which it committed to have all children who were of school going ages to be given the opportunity to attend school by 2013.

The two major issues facing education in Bhutan focused on access and resources, the delegation underscored. The current enrolment rate was 88 per cent; the remaining 12 per cent of children were living in rural areas, which had been difficult to reach. Among strategies to reach that demographic was the extended classroom system, which ensured that no child needed to walk more than one mile to reach school. In addition, there was a plan to upgrade the current levels of schools. Five new schools were created recently, where 350 children who had previously been left behind had been enrolled. A non-formal education programme was also created, which today had an enrolment rate of 53 per cent, but was hoped to increase to 80 per cent by 2013. Limited teaching resources remained a challenge.

Preliminary Concluding Observations

MARIA HERCZOG, the Committee Expert serving as co-Rapporteur for the report of Bhutan, said that today they had held an extensive and informative dialogue. The implementation and the consideration of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was clearly a priority in Bhutan, despite all the challenges faced by the country. The Committee was tasked with discussing all the elements heard during this dialogue and to clarify the Convention for the State Party to achieve its goals in this regard. Regardless of nationality and family circumstance, the Government of Bhutan was committed to ensuring the rights of children were protected. The Committee fully understands the difficult environment faced by Bhutan particularly in the period of profound political transition. The Committee would finalize its conclusions in the coming days, and clarify any remaining issues that needed further understanding.

Regarding challenges, Ms. Herczog said the Committee understood that new legislation was easier to create than to implement, however, implementation was vital. The Committee also fully understood the difficulties faced by Bhutan being a small, poor country, but also highlighted that that meant the need of children in the country were that much greater and that their success would be paramount for Bhutan’s future. As a democratic monarchy, Bhutan was in a position to incorporate the Convention on the Rights of the Childs principles fully. The country was heading to expand to all parts of society these rights, especially those of children. The Committee wished Bhutan all the best and extended warm wishes to the children of Bhutan.
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