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Exploring the use and application of European and International Mechanisms for the Protection of Vulnerable and Separated Children Brussels, October 2016

Separated Children in Judicial Proceedings – Expert Seminar in Brussels

Exploring the use & application of European and International mechanisms for the protection of vulnerable and separated children’s rights


Brussels, 27-28 October

Committee of the Regions,

Rue Belliard 101

B-1040 Brussels  




On the 27 and 28 of October 2016, the Committee of the Regions, in Brussels, hosted the third event organised by the AIRE Centre, in collaboration with Child Circle (Belgium), the Centre for Women War Victims, ROSA (Croatia) and the University College of Cork (Ireland) in the context of the Separated Children in Judicial Proceedings Project.


The Separated Children in Judicial Proceedings Project, which is part-funded by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme of the EU, aims to develop a discussion on emerging legal issues in the field of child protection, promoting the exchange of good practices among legal experts and practitioners and raising awareness as to the importance of child-centred justice and ensuring a child-protective approach in all procedures involving separated children.




The Brussels event, spread over two days, used a combination of panel discussions and interactive workshops to offer training and spread the knowledge about the specific issues emerging from the use of international and European judicial avenues for the protection of children’s rights.

Legal professionals, specialists organisations and leading regional and international experts operating on various aspects of child-friendly justice and international litigation, both in Belgium and neighbouring countries, gathered to share their insights and experiences as to practical questions and concerns to be addressed when advancing the best interest of the child in these for a.


The event discussed various aspects related to the involvement of separated children in European and international fora, with special emphasis on cases involving children who face situations of heightened vulnerability resulting from their separation from one of both parents, either due to their involvement in judicial proceedings or as a result of having been trafficked or being unaccompanied asylums seekers.


The issues discussed included:


  1. Identifying and addressing the legal, procedural and practical issues to be addressed in litigation concerning separated children and children at risk of separation

  2. Detecting the specific needs and vulnerabilities of separated children, ensuring that their views are heard and taken in due consideration

  3. Reflecting on the procedural role of the child in these fora, with particular reference to the implications of his/her status as a party or a separately represented subject and his/her specific assistance needs in this context

  4. Understanding when to take a case onwards to European or International mechanisms: how do these cases arise and how to choose the appropriate forum strategically

  5. Comparing and contrasting European and International mechanisms, with special focus to the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee of Social Rights and complaints procedures under the Optional Protocol 3 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child

  6. Ensuring a multi-disciplinary approach to ensuring proper outcomes can be achieved.


Day 1 – Panel Discussion and Workshops on International and European litigation avenues


The first day of the event was opened by Luc Van den Brande, from the Committee of the Regions, and Bruno Vanobbergen, Flemish Children’s Commissioner, who welcomed the participants and introduced the themes and guiding principles of the conference, discussing the European and Belgian approach to the issues under discussion.


Mr Van den Brande spoke about the growing relevance given to child protection within EU law, mentioning the targeted safeguards and obligations introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of fundamental rights and placing special emphasis on the best interest of the child and on the need to ensure that the child’s views and participation are enabled effectively.

While acknowledging a positive trend in this respect, Mr Van den Brande flagged how the results of a 2015 European Commission policy brief still reveal a selective and inconsistent approach to the implementation of child-protective obligations and called for greater support to regional and local authorities, in the light of their primary role in ensuring child rights on the ground.   


The remainder of the morning session was designed as a combination of panel discussion and workshops, which allowed the active engagement of the participants, putting the knowledge gained by the audience in a practical context.


Rebecca O Donnel, from Child Circle, opened the first session with an overview of the common risks and vulnerabilities that separated children tend to face, pointing out how their common implications at the procedural level in the context of litigation. Her intervention also introduced the relevant international and European mechanisms, the discussion on which was then expanded by the subsequent panellists.


Senior lawyer and founder of the AIRE Centre, Nuala Mole; the Director of the Belgian section of the NGO Defence for Children International, Benoît Van Keirsbilck, and the human rights officer at the OHCHR Regional office for Europe (ROE), Dima Yared, built on the main focus of the event, making targeted contribution about the properties and operation of thee of the main international avenues of recourse: the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee of Social Rights and the right to petition under Optional Protocol No 3 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child. The discussion addressed in particular:  


  • The origin composition and judicial scope of each mechanisms

  • Advice and insights on the strategic choice of the forum, based on what types of cases the mechanisms commonly addresses, the existence of a right to bring individual and/or collective complaints and the possibility for children to act as applicants

  • The nature of the decision given and its potential effects on the case

A Q&A followed, allowing the audience to share observations doubts on the issues under discussion.


During the two afternoon workshops, the speakers of the morning panel were joined by Ursula Kilkelly, from the University of Cork and Leo Ratledge, from Child Rights International Network (CRIN), who contributed to coordinate and advise the groups. The two workshops organised focussed, respectively, on the practical aspects and procedures for bringing a case before International and European Mechanisms (highlighting issues relating to admissibility, exhaustion of domestic remedies, capacity, access to legal assistance) and on the methods to raise the best interest of the child in these.contexts



The audience was broken into 2 groups, each of which was assigned a different case-scenario, which challenged the participants to put into practice the training and information received during the day, by applying it to different lifelike situations. The scenarios presented raised the different legal and practical issues engaged by the use of individual and collective complaint procedures.  Findings and observations emerging from the exercise where discussed with the panellists supervising the group.


The remarkable keynote speech given by Judge Ledi Bianku, of the European Court of Human Rights, presenting the protection of children’s rights under the ECHR and the procedural aspects and practicalities to consider when taking children cases to Strasbourg, closed Day 1 of the event.


Day 2 – Discussion and Workshops on issues of interest and upcoming legal developments concerning the actors involved in securing a child-centred approach to litigation


On Day 2, the event took focussed on various issues of interest to the actors engaged in securing a child-centred outcome in litigation. Representatives from the Brussels-based organisation Child Circle, which is a partner to the Separated Children Project, gave an introductory presentation on the issue, outlining the potential input and added value brought by the different actors involved in this sector and the most recurring problem areas.


Hilde Demarre, from Child Focus - Missing Children Europe, spoke about the role of played by cross border mediators, while Rachel Brett, COPE, brought valuable insights on the practical challenged involved in the litigation of children cases.


The session was again followed by an interactive workshop on child-centred justice and multidisciplinary approaches to litigation, with special focus on:


  • Methods to bring the best interest of the child at the core of judicial proceedings before international and European mechanisms,

  • Case-management and effective procedural strategies: building international and European cases, collecting information on the child’s situation, child protection issues, etc.

  • The potential added value brought by child protection actors in this context


Once the workshops were concluded, the audience gathered back in the plenary to attend session examining case studies from the jurisprudence of international and European mechanisms and policy developments in this field, which was led by Michael Wilderspin, EU Commission, Katja Fournier, Mineurs en Exil, Olivia Lind Haldorsson, Child Circle.  

The debate was followed by an expert panel which addressed the practicalities of doing legal work in the field of children justice; Eric Van Der Mussele, head of Flemish youth lawyers association, Karolina Babicka, International Commission of Jurists, and Jeff Walsh, ECRE, took the floor to share insights from their hands-on experiences and exchange their knowledge about the ways to support legal professionals working in this field.


A compelling concluding discussion between Margaret Tuite, European Commission, Benoit van Kiersbilick, DCI, Nuala Mole, the AIRE Centre and Leo Ratledge, CRIN, who debated their perspectives as to the upcoming developments in the field of child-friendly justice, successfully closed the event.

Find more about the AIRE Centre Separated Children in Judicial Proceedings Project here