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Print this pageCRC Elections: Benyam Dawit Mezmur (Ethiopia)




Child Rights International Network

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CRIN is contacting all candidates standing for election to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in December 2012. We are asking them about their experience in children's rights, what they think they can contribute to the Committee, what they think about key issues, their vision for the Committee and, importantly, how they see NGOs' role. Interviews have been edited where appropriate for clarity and brevity.

Benyam Dawit Mezmur is currently a Research Fellow at the Community Law Centre, University of Western Cape (UWC), and Lecturer and Assistant Professor (part time) at the UWC and University of Addis Ababa. He is also Vice-Chairperson (2nd) of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.


1. Why are you seeking election to the Committee?

I can’t imagine any better way to serve almost half the worlds population than to serve on the CRC Committee...I believe I’m one candidate who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed just only as an expert on children’s rights in Africa. Yes, I believe I have knowledge about children’s rights issues in the context of the African continent, [as a result] of all of my work within the African Committee but also even before I was elected to that African Committee I had direct work experience between civil society, academia and giving advice to governments...

One point that I want to emphasise as to why I want to serve on the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: we often say that children are the future. I’m not a very big fan of that statement because I’m of the view that children are tired of being the future, they definitely want to be part of the present in order to be part of the future, so that sense of urgency to move things forward is actually what I have inside me.

2. What experience do you have of working in children’s rights?

[In addition to the items mentioned in the first question] There are number of areas where I can contribute to the Committees work - one of them is in the areas of complaints mechanisms, which I believe I am one of the few, if not the only one, from all the candidates running for the office currently that have a direct experience working on complaint mechanisms because of our experience within the African Committee... I was also involved in the negotiations for the adoption of the third optional protocol [of the CRC]...     

I bring on board experience in a diverse [number] of issues - juvenile justice, the right to free and compulsory primary education, access to healthcare, harmful practices... I was the person who actually was in charge of preparing the report on harmful practices which the Special Representative of the Secretary General [on Violence against Children]... I also have a wealth of experience working on issues related to children in armed conflict, which is an area I lecture on. Intercountry adoption is one specific area that I have experience on but I go beyond that because I have also contributed to the [UN] guidelines on Alternative Care [and] advised a number of african countries on alternative care systems.

3. What do you think are the main barriers to children’s rights being fulfilled?

Resources have often been mentioned as the main barriers but...[in my experience] where the political will exists the economic will follows through. Some of the countries that I know of that are making headway in the conceptualisation, but also the implementation, of children’s rights... are not necessarily the richest countries... But beyond that, in some regions particularly, it’s the issue of attitude which needs to be addressed through awareness raising [and] education. We often say that education is an enabling right partly due to the fact that it helps to realise other civil and political rights [and economic, social and cultural rights]...If we make a concrete effort in making sure that the attitudes of all stakeholders, adults but also children, are right, are informed, I think we would be able to achieve quite a headway for the realisation of children’s rights.

4. Which areas of the Convention do you think need more clarification?

I think there are a number of areas that require further clarification...for example, in the area of alternative care there were a number of confusions in the past especially in the application [of the various alternative care option], I think the [UN] guidelines have helped to clarify those issues in more concrete terms. I am very happy to see there is a general comment that is being drafted jointly with the CEDAW Committee on harmful practices... I’m sure that the adoption of the general comment will mean that we will have more clarity... I’m [also] happy to see that there is a general comment on children’s rights in the business sector...which I believe will contribute in our understanding of the role and the responsibility of the business sector in the conceptualisation but also the application of child rights...

One area that I believe requires most clarification is still the right to free and compulsory primary the context of Africa [and beyond] there are a number countries that say the offer free and compulsory primary education...but [in a 2006 report] there were only three countries in Africa that actually providing a genuinely free and compulsory primary education.


5. Civil society organisations play a key role the CRC monitoring process, yet globally, States are becoming more hostile towards their participation. How do you think this could impact the work of the Committee?

States are the ultimate responsible organs, as they are the duty bearers, but civil society should continue, or rather must continue to play a very active role in supplementing the activities of states... there are a few countries that are less accommodating of the work of the civil society organisations than others. If these countries look at the history of human rights...civil society organisations have played in the conceptualisation and ultimately, application and implementation of children’s rights at a global level..[the role] that civil society organisations play in monitoring is absolutely important. I think if civil society organisations play this role as a complementary role...then accountability [can also be] an opportunity for self-reflection... Civil society monitoring in relation to the activities of governments needs to be looked at on a positive light, so that civil society will help with the monitoring process, provide the information and governments will have the opportunity to look at it in a positive manner and [self-]reflect on it in order to move the boundaries forward...

[One additional point] on the side of civil society organisations, I think there is room for improvement in terms of being more coordinated, more concretised, speaking with the same tone, with the same voice, with the same priorities so that governments are also not confused about the kind of message that is coming from civil society organisations in terms of their activities in monitoring children’s rights...

6. Part of the Committee’s role will be to examine complaints submitted under the new optional protocol to the CRC. How do you think this will change children’s rights advocacy?

If you look at the experience coming from the other treaty bodies..I think more clarity came to the fore both through general comments but also through the individual complaints... When it has been debated and there is a decision coming from the treaty body, it’s not only relevant for the individuals and the states that are involved in the case, it’s relevant for all member states and state parties to that instrument and all institutions that have a stake in human right. It goes beyond the individuals before the Committee.

[In the case of the CRC] the current general comments that we have have added a lot of value to our understanding and interpretation of the issues...but the Committee has been deprived of that opportunity to deliberate and reflect on individual cases, that have impacts beyond the individuals and states involved in that individual complaint, that would help to clarify jurisprudence with regards to the convention. I often say to countries that have been involved in giving advice in law reform...”If you were to cut and paste the whole of the convention on the rights of the child into domestic legislation and just change the title...and pass it as an act”, I often tell them “its not going to do the job”, because the provisions within the convention on the rights of the child are general provisions - they’re not detailed...The detailed analysis and application and understanding of those provisions are fleshed out more clearly through jurisprudence.

7. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is the only UN treaty body that lacks a follow-up procedure. If you were to develop the procedure, what would it look like?

I think that the my first port of call would be that it would still need to operate within the constructive dialogue framework that we have for state party reporting, because if you are to achieve any concrete progress, at the end of the day you need the good faith and the willingness of the states... If you were to do [some form of] follow up on the ground, you definitely need to be invited by states, you definitely need the collaboration of the state so that you can speak to government agencies, to the judiciary, to members of the media, to civil society and so on...One thing that often the whole notion of child participation, which still continues to be an issue that falls between the cracks, and despite the presence of general comment number twelve it is an area that we need to invest some interest and energy on our understanding and application of child participation. So a follow up process will also require some meaningful - not tokenistic, but meaningful - participation of children...

8. If you were appointed Chair and had to make one big change to how the Committee works, what would it be?

I think if I was appointed chair, I would try to emphasise the need to organise and execute around the priority issues that I believe children are facing today... Of course [this would happen] in consultation with colleagues, in consultation with civil society organisations and in consultation with other partners that have a direct stake and role within the work of the Committee... Let me give you one example... While the child soldiers issues is still a challenge, the [general] issue of children in armed conflict...[and also how] non-armed conflict generally affects children's rights, the issue of education in emergencies [and] in conflict situations, are issues that I believe should have developed quite a lot [earlier], but I believe that Committee is [now] moving in the right direction...

Another thing that I think might be worth focussing a bit more energy on are the MDGs...More than half of the MDGs are about about children’s rights, so I think that more focus on the MDGs would also be an area where I want to put my weight behind, if I was appointed as chair for the Committee...

9. If you could propose a new right in the CRC what would it be?

I think it is possible to include almost all rights within the Convention of the Rights of the Child [through interperetation, especially with reference to the Four Cardinal principles]. I think that’s where the third optional protocol also comes into the picture in trying to build on all the explicitly provided for rights included for in the Convention and making sure that states have a clear understanding of obligations in terms of other implied rights that might [arise from] the Convention. One area that I think would need more clarity in terms of placing more clear state obligations would be article seven, on the right to a name, birth registration and nationality... One thing that I would have loved to do in terms of the four cardinal principles, [is that] I would have included article five on the evolving capacity of the child as being the fifth cardinal principle...  

10. Who has most inspired you in your work and why?

If I was to organization or person who has inspired me in relation to children then I think I would go with Unicef and Mother Theresa...

When I started first working on children’s rights... I was working in the Orphan Support Programme [of the Medical Missionaries of Mary]. I think the resilience of those [children], the kind of vision they had for their lives, the fact they had that spirit - that fighting spirit - to make it every day, to have a smile on their face, to believe that tomorrow will be better and to work for it, I think they gave me [the most inspiration]. It gave me energy, in terms of saying - look, they are definitely doing their bit, they are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and they believe in themselves, but also importantly they believe in the system...I think in terms of the experience I’ve had working on children’s rights, the children themselves would be the ones that [would go for as inspiring me the most]...

11. How could the CRC and the African Committee of Experts collaborate, particularly in dealing with issues like harmful practices.

I know there is a huge potential for collaboration - The African Charter explicitly mentions the Convention, it draws inspiration from the Convention. So the drafters were fully aware of the complementary relationship that exists between the African Charter on the one hand and the UN Convention on the other...We have already embarked on, and we’re making some headway in that collaboration sphere. But there is definitely room for more collaboration - let me give you some examples.

Last year, during the general day of discussion, which was on children of imprisoned parents, the Committee clearly indicated that the Committee was not going to prepare a general comment on that specific theme. Now, the African Committee, [since] in its charter under article 30 has a provision on imprisoned parents so we said “Ok, now that we know that the UN Committee is not going to come up with a general comment on this one, maybe it would have an added value if we could come up with a general comment” - and we’re currently working on that general comment. We were approached by a number of stakeholders to prepare a general comment on harmful practices, but we know that the UN Committee is currently working on a joint general comment with Experts on harmful practices , so we said “No, we’re not going to develop a general comment on harmful practices”...  [We have also] been [discussing the possibility of] joint visits to specific countries to do a sort of follow up on their implementation of the concluding observations they have received from both the UN Committee and the African Committee...

[Another example of collaboration is that] states can submit the same report that they have submitted to the UN Committee to the African Committee by highlighting the specificities of the African children’s Charte...We want to avoid a scenario where jurisprudence is not emerging in the same direction... [after all] I don’t believe that, for instance, the African child has less rights because of the fact that that child is found geographically within Africa!

...In terms of harmful practices, there are a number of issues that are culturally sensitive, religiously sensitive, traditionally sensitive... corporal punishment..., FGM, child marriage, the use of children in the form of begging in a number of (West) African countries and so forth which are sanctioned by society because of religion, culture and tradition. These are actually very critical issues that in many instances negatively affect children’s lives on the African continent. I think thatcollaboration between, on sensitive issues, the African Committee of Experts and the UN Committee will help to mainstream the jurisprudence, will help us to speak with the same tone, with the same message to member states and other stakeholders... I don’t look on [collaboartion between the Committees] as an issue whose time has come, [but] more of an issue whose time is late in coming.

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Last updated 26/11/2013 11:15:00

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Sven Winberg wrote on 24/10/2012:
Interviewing the candidates for the UNCRC Committee with the very important questions you have asked is a splendid action as well as exposing their replies!

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