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Cambodian National Launch of the UN Global Study: A Major Step in Cambodia’s Journey to Ending Deprivation of Liberty

On April 22, the online National Launch of the UN Global Study in Cambodia took place. Organized by the joint efforts of nine NGOs, including the Child Rights Coalition of Cambodia and Terre des Hommes (both members of the NGO Panel on Children Deprived of Liberty) and the Global Campus of Human Rights, the more than 200 participants around the world had the opportunity to hear about the main findings of the UN Global Study from Prof. Manfred Nowak, who underscored the relevance of the Study and the need to promptly implement its recommendations. Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, emphasized the need to reduce the number of imprisoned children, given deprivation of liberty is one of the most harmful violations of children’s fundamental rights.

Of particular importance was the ample inclusion of the voices of children deprived of liberty, through Child and Youth-Led Networks, which presented a Joint Statement to the Cambodian government requesting meaningful changes in the field of child liberty deprivation. Moreover, several civil society organizations participated, including This Life Cambodia, Friends-International, Save the Children and UNICEF, which shared their experiences working in this field and presented the testimonies of children deprived of liberty. The event also included interventions from the current Secretary of State to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation H.E. Thou Sun, who responded to the joint statements of youth organizations and NGOs by making a renewing the commitment of the Cambodian government to implement the recommendations presented and continue fighting to uphold children’s rights.

“We should release children in order to give them their childhood back”.

“Childhood is a formative time in everyone’s life. Putting children behind bars and depriving them of their right to personal liberty impacts both their lives and society in general”, says Prof. Nowak. Similarly, Foroogh Foyouzat (UNICEF Representative in Cambodia) focused on the indelible effect liberty deprivation has on children by stating “Children around the globe suffer their rights violations when they are deprived of liberty: rights to development, participation, protection and survival”. In the same line, the Joint Statement on Children Deprived of Liberty by the Child and Youth-Led Networks pointed out the devastating impact deprivation of liberty has on children, including “long-term damage to the social, cognitive, and behavioral development of the child and mental health complications”. These testimonies only serve to highlight the vast extent of the problem currently suffered by at least 5,4 million children who are currently deprived of liberty in inherently harmful institutions. 

Long-Term Impact

As the UN Global Study mentions, “Deprivation of liberty is an inherently distressing, potentially traumatic experience”. During the event, this feeling was echoed by the remarks of Dr. Maalla M’jid, who highlighted that child deprivation of liberty “impacts their well-being and continues into adulthood; its negative consequences result in higher costs for society and states in the long term”. Indeed, one of the main problems which children formerly subjected to liberty deprivation have to face is the social rejection that ensues after their release. As Foroogh Foyouzat explained, “the adverse effects on the child do not take place just during their deprivation of liberty, but the lasting impact on their lives beyond that period, and the subsequent stigmatization which is hard to deal with”. 

This Life Cambodia provided the testimony of Sok, who narrates his past experience of being in prison as a child, and described “The long-term impact of being in prison was that I lost my opportunity to study. I had no skills, no job and no future. I lost my self-esteem and experienced depression.”. Se Chhin, from This Life Cambodia, also echoed similar feelings, stating “Prison can destroy a child’s future, cause them shame amongst friends and community and they will lose their change of receiving a proper education.” The Joint Statement on Children Deprived of Liberty by the Child and Youth-Led Networks also voiced the generalized concern amongst its members on the lasting impact of deprivation of liberty, “The stigma in schools and communities can lead to isolation and fear of interacting with others, which intensifies the child’s inability to easily and effectively reintegrate into society. Children convey that they face emotional instability, and that the lost opportunities for education and employment have a personal consequence and a negative impact on both their own and their family’s financial situations.”

Children living in prisons with their primary caregivers.

In Cambodia, the factors influencing whether a convicted mother decides to bring their children intro prison include, according to Se Chhin, “access to legal advice, social norms (and subsequent discrimination they and their children might experience), access to a trusted support network, and the belief that a child may have more opportunities if they do not stay in prison (e.g., education)”. As Prof. Nowak recalled “when mothers are imprisoned, there is often no other person that can take care of the child, these children end up growing up in prisons with their primary caregivers. Judges should take this into account and think whether there are other alternatives to prevent this. If there is no alternative, then we need well-established child-parent units in prisons.”. On this matter, This Life Cambodia recommended to “provide timely and accurate childcare information to mothers sentenced to prison, implement further specialized training for law enforcement staff to understand the specific needs of children accompanying their mothers to prison, establish a comprehensive case management at the sentencing stage, and increase NGO support to children imprisoned with their primary caregivers and their families.

National Launch of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty in Cambodia

Watch the full event with all the interventions, the various experiences of NGOs, the statements made by Dr. Maalla M’jid and H.E. Thou Sun, and the intervention of Independent Expert for the UN Global Study Prof. Manfred Nowak.

Situation in Cambodia

According to Leang Lo from Save the Children, some of the factors leading to placing children in institutions remain poverty or lack of money, family illness or death, child abandonment and migration. However, it is a reality in Cambodia that “The majority of child convictions are for non-violent offences, mostly drug use, drug trafficking and theft. In 64% of cases, children said their drug use had led them to commit crimes.”, said Se Chhin, from This Life Cambodia. In line with Prof. Nowak’s remarks on the need to “decriminalise behaviour of children and shorten the length of detention by applying non-custodial solutions, family-type environments”, Chhin recalls that such measures are largely supported by the Cambodian community, as their studies showed that “58% of community members thought that prison was bad for children and only 13% thought that children who commit non-violent crimes should be sent to prison. The majority thought that education or vocational training would be the best alternative to prison for children. They need education and rehabilitation, not deprivation of liberty.”. 

Juvenile Justice Reform (2017)

In 2017, Cambodia adopted the Juvenile Justice Law, which Foroogh Foyouzat described as “a significant step forward in reducing the unnecessary placement of children in institutions and overall trying to improve the justice system for children”. The Juvenile Justice Law is a comprehensive piece of legislation which is characterized by the provision of various diversion measures. It is considered as the foundation to reduce the number of minors in conflict with the law by considering detention (both before and/or after conviction) only as a last resort option for children. 

The problem, however, lies in the lack of full implementation of the law, “particularly with the provisions that do away from custodial measures and apply diversion whenever possible in the criminal procedure”, as Foyouzat mentioned. Indeed, H.E. Thou Sun admitted “relevant ministries in Cambodia have been struggling to address and deal with the issue of children deprived of liberty, especially regarding children in conflict with the law”. The reality in the country is that there is “an increasing number of children imprisoned, almost threefold since the law was created, mainly due to the use of alcohol and drugs by minors in Cambodia. (…) During the same years, the government of Cambodia started an anti-narcotic campaign, which has increased the number of people in prison.”, H.E. Thou Sun continued.

COVID-19 

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Maalla M’jid mentioned the decision by numerous countries to “release children who are deprived of Liberty during the pandemic for public health reasons.”. She argued that “if states were willing to release children deprived Liberty under these circumstances, why were they deprived of Liberty to begin with”. Similarly, Foroogh Foyouzat advocated for non-custodial options, release on bail or pardons, as alternatives to protect children deprived of liberty in a context of surging COVID-19 cases in Cambodia. “Inside prisons and instititutions”, she said, “particularly when they are crowded as they often are, social distancing becomes very difficult (…). Being in such crowded places children at a high risk.”. Such poor health conditions that children deprived of liberty are exposed to on a daily basis was confirmed by This Life Cambodia’s testament of Sok, who recalled that “there were about 20 prisoners in the cell”.

Promising Practices and Recommendations

Acknowledging there is still need of additional work, the various panelists applauded Cambodia’s efforts to uphold child rights. Foroogh Foyouzat highlighted that “notable progress is being made by the Cambodian government”, and Child and Youth-Led Networks praised the elements that helped children deprived of liberty endure their difficult times, including “vocational traning programs, regular interactions with positive role models outside of the facilities, and routine contact with family and community members”. During the event, H.E. Thou Sou renewed the commitment of the Cambodian government to reduce the number of children deprived of liberty by accepting the joint statement and recommendations made by Child and Youth-Led Networks, and a draft proposal presented by several NGOs and led by UNICEF and the Global Campus of Human Rights. In particular, he announced the Cambodian National Council for Children has been tasked to liaise with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior to study the future implementation of both statements.

Dr. Maalla M’jid commended Cambodia for becoming a path-finding country within the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, and for including children participation in decision-making processes (pre-session consultations, sharing of personal stories and their participation in the National Launch event). However, she also acknowledged the important work that still needs to be done, mainly in the field of “drastically reducing the number of children deprived of liberty, ensuring that detention is only used as a matter of last resort, and promoting alternatives to deprivation of liberty”.

Prof. Nowak explained the urgent need to implement “a very comprehensive policy of deinstitutionalization, as non-custodial solutions are always available and much better for children”. The need to establish effective child justice system was also echoed by Sok, who stated “The government should use other methods besides sending children to prison. Then they would still have a chance to go to school and feel the warmth and support of their families. In prison, children have no chance to get education and their mental health can be strongly affected.”

Se Chinn also promoted the use of non-custodial sentencing options whenever possible, given it has “direct positive results in the short and long term by reducing the number of imprisoned children and improving the climate within institutions, which serves in the best interests of children”. In the same line, Prof. Nowak, proposed to increase the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years (120 States still establish minimum age below 14 years, the minimum established by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child), shortening the length of child detention, and to implement especialized training of judges, police officers and prosecutors to get children “out of the child out of criminal justice system and into the child welfare system”.

The Joint Statement on Children Deprived of Liberty also advocated for the use of “diversion and alternative measures to detention for children in conflict with the law”, the promotion of child participation, and the improvement of living conditions and opportunities available for children deprived of liberty, with an emphasis on fostering family reunification and children with their families.

A step towards the end of invisibility

Despite the commendable steps taken by Cambodia in its journey towards ending child deprivation of liberty, there is still much work that needs to be done. In that way, the key recommendations of the Global Study present a very clear pathway in order to make further progress in protecting and promoting children’s rights. However, a meaningful implementation of the Global Study recommendations requires a collective effort from civil society, governments, UN agencies and other relevant stakeholders, as well as the ample participation and commitment of children and young people themselves. For that reason, events like the Cambodian National Launch of the UN Global Study are incredibly vital to “end the invisibility of child deprivation of liberty and help children overcome their stigmatization and social exclusion”, concluded Dr. Maalla M’jid.

For more information please follow the NGO Panel on Children Deprived of Liberty

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