In Europe it is the human rights mechanisms of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, enforcing the binding standards of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, which are actively pursuing the UK. Many other reforms in UK law have been made to comply with these standards – including prohibition of school corporal punishment.
The Council of Europe, founded in 1949 to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law, now has 46 member states. Its Committee of Ministers first proposed law reform to end corporal punishment of children in a 1985 recommendation; this and other more recent recommendations, condemning all corporal punishment, were supported by the UK. In a Strasbourg seminar on corporal punishment in the family held in November 2002, the Deputy Secretary General of the Council challenged the governments of member states “to stop defending - or disguising as discipline - deliberate violence against children and to accept that children, like adults, have the fundamental human right not to be assaulted. In the face of such a fundamental right states cannot remain indifferent - it is their duty to interfere: hitting children is no more acceptable than hitting anyone else. There can be no divide in the respect of human rights”. In 2003, speaking at a meeting of European Children’s Ministers, the Deputy Secretary General noted that the Council of Europe had succeeded in eliminating the death penalty throughout the continent: “I hope we can soon declare Europe free of corporal punishment.”
More than a third of the member states of the Council of Europe now give children equal protection. Fourteen* have abolished all corporal punishment: Austria (1989), Bulgaria (2000), Croatia (1999), Cyprus (1994), Denmark (1997), Finland (1983), Germany (2000), Hungary (2004), Iceland (2003), Latvia (1998), Norway (1987), Romania (2004), Sweden (1979) and Ukraine (2004). In addition, in Italy in 1996 the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome declared that all corporal punishment was unlawful and Portugal's Supreme Court issued a similar judgment in 1994; neither has confirmed these decisions explicitly in legislation, however these judgments meet the requirements of the European Social Charter.
There are commitments to proceed with prohibition in the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and the Netherlands. As the result of a “collective complaint”, Greece has also announced its intention to do so soon.
Follow-up to 1998 A v UK judgment of the European Court
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, responsible for ensuring that governments “execute” European Court of Human Rights judgments, has had a succession of discussions on “A v UK”, which was issued more than six years ago in September 1998. The Court found unanimously that UK law – the “reasonable chastisement” defence – failed to give children adequate protection including effective deterrence. It found that the beating of a young English boy by his stepfather amounted to inhuman or degrading punishment. During consideration of the case in 2004, delegations from other European states expressed serious concern at the UK’s lack of action in response to the judgment. In particular, the deputies were concerned that the UK Government had given an undertaking to the Court that it would reform the law allowing “reasonable chastisement”.
“While it may be a moot point for many victims, it is nevertheless important that it is no longer legal to hit, or physically chastise or smack women. For children, sadly, it is still another matter, in several of the Council of Europe member states.”
Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, 2003
“A failure to criminalise violence against children in the family breaches children's fundamental rights to respect for their physical integrity and human dignity. Affording children equal protection from assault is an inevitable consequence of our human rights obligations. We should embrace the higher standards now - not put them off to a later day. Our aim should be to make Europe a corporal punishment free zone and the UK should take the lead.”
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, 2005
* As of July 26, 2005, seventeen member states have abolished all corporal punishment. See Countries where children are protected by law from all corporal punishment
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