During a trilateral meeting European Commission Vice-President Šuica, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Mijatović and Eurochild President Coleiro-Preca, expressed their deep concern about the impacts of the anti-child rights movements on children and civil society. Evidence was provided by Eurochild’s President, staff and children from Eurochild members, the National Network for Children in Bulgaria and the Hungarian Child Rights Coalition.
European Commission Vice-President Šuica and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Mijatović expressed their solidarity and strong support for children’s rights and for Eurochild members and children experiencing threats and attacks when advocating for children’s rights.
Attacks on human rights and human rights defenders – including those upholding and defending children’s rights – are not new. Eurochild, its members and other children’s rights organisations have been voicing concerns about anti-child rights movements in several countries across Europe. Such movements have threatened many NGOs and silenced them due to fear of sanctions. Children’s rights activists have been attacked in public and on social media. In response, mechanisms at EU level, such as ProtectDefenders.eu, which is led by a consortium of human rights organisations and funded by the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, provide protection for human rights defenders at risk for their activities worldwide. However, there are no mechanisms with a specific focus on children’s rights to monitor and counteract anti-child rights movements in Europe, and their harmful rhetoric and actions, despite the growing impact on child human rights defenders.
Vice President Šuica recalled that civil society is vital for a healthy democracy and a society where people can effectively enjoy their rights. She emphasised that we need a strong and independent civil society to foster an open and pluralist space for debate and citizens’ participation to the democratic life of the EU, and to support victims of fundamental rights violations, especially children. In its work to promote and protect the rights of the child and other fundamental rights, the Commission provides financial support to civil society organisations and addresses challenges that civil society faces through its work to safeguard the rule of law and democracy in Europe. Vice President Šuica is open to exploring existing EU mechanisms and their potential to help monitor anti-child rights movements and their impacts on children.
“Children are full rights holders. The growing trend of depicting children’s rights as contrary to family values and parents’ rights is alarming. Such anti-child rights initiatives become especially dangerous when politicians take advantage of them and transform them into laws and policies that weaken children’s rights under the pretext of preserving tradition and moral standards”, said Human Rights Commissioner Mijatović.
Eurochild’s President Marie-Louise Coleiro-Preca is calling for European current mechanisms to be expanded to monitor and counteract anti-child rights discourse. Such an action will require dedicated capacity, expertise and financial resources. However, this can contribute to collaboration between European institutions and UN human rights bodies to counteract misinformation and attacks from anti-child rights movements and promote the sharing of information and expertise. Networks such as Eurochild and its member organisations can provide expertise to support such a mechanism.
Eurochild also expressed its position on the subject and provided evidence of the problem:
Anti-rights groups are non-state groups that position themselves as part of civil society but attack fundamental and universal human rights. They typically campaign against the rights of excluded groups – women, children and young people, LGBTQI people, religious minorities, ethnic and racial minorities, migrants and refugees. Consequently, civil society that defends the rights of those groups comes under attack as well. Anti-rights groups are impacting directly on people’s lives and civic space.
The need for a mechanism to monitor and counteract this trend is clear. There is a role for the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE) to work together to address this growing challenge, building on their respective mandates on human rights, including children’s rights. The EU and CoE could explore the possibility of including the monitoring of anti-child rights movements and activities within existing mechanisms at EU and European level.
Eurochild, its members and other children’s rights organisations have voiced concerns about anti- child rights movements in several countries across Europe. However, these movements have gained significant support, using social media to amplify their messages and spreading misinformation and ‘fake news’.
Attacks from anti-child rights movements take different forms:
• Children human rights defenders are targeted for their human rights activities and for speaking out
• Children have reported being subject to adverse experiences such as heckling, interruption, being joked about, belittled or insulted when speaking about children’s rights
• Children’s rights are denounced as being against the family and ‘traditional family values’ and seen as undermining parents’ rights
• Well-known public figures are part of anti-child rights movements
• The supposed wellbeing of children is used as a cover to oppose rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTQI people and block efforts to protect and advance sexual and reproductive rights
• Organisations working on children’s rights – including children’s rights bodies and experts such as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – are attacked and undermined
• Laws, strategies and initiatives to further children’s rights are opposed, blocked or repealed
Evidence of anti-child rights activity and why cooperation is needed to counter this:
Protection of Traditional Family Rights
- Under the banner of protecting family rights, child rights opponents have also targeted the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In 2014, the FamilyPolicy.ru group issued a 97-page report to delegitimise the Committee, calling into question its core functions, and calling on states to denounce the Convention.
- Initiatives on the protection of ‘traditional family values’ are brought to the UN Human Rights Council, undermining the rights of LGBTIQ people, including children.
- Opposition to the ratification of the Istanbul convention from several countries, presenting the Convention as contrary to ‘traditional family values’ and threatening children’s wellbeing.
- In December 2020, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a law that strips non-married couples of the right to adoption, and two constitutional amendments that further restrict the rights of LGBTQ children and parents . In 2021 Hungary’s Parliament adopted amendments to various laws that contravene the rights of the child and stigmatise LGBTQI+ persons, using child protection as an excuse to curtail the rights of children.
- In January 2021, a Latvian right-wing political grouping submitted a draft law regarding an amendment to the Constitution, which intends to define the concept of family as a union of a male and a female person.
- In Poland, MPs voted in favour of proposed new legislation whereby extra-curricular activities by NGOs in schools would need to be approved by a government-appointed supervisor. The ruling conservative party claims the law is needed to protect children. The Commissioner for Children’s Rights has echoed the government in criticising what they call “LGBT ideology” and has spoken out against sex educators in schools claiming they target “unstable” children
- The Republic of Serbia has proposed that the Family Law will ensure a total ban of corporal punishment of children. However, several well-known public figures, openly support corporal punishment towards children, as a way of proper upbringing of a child and a valid mechanism for changing a child’s behavior. Their main argument is that these actions from the government represent direct interference and involvement in family issues that should be considered private. Long-term negative social consequences will be inevitable when the proposal to ban corporal punishment against children is adopted. One of these individuals is a well-known psychotherapist Zoran Milivojevic, who often organises workshops and panel discussions for parents and others interested in this subject. He has more than 200 000 followers on Facebook. The other is philosopher Misa Djurkovic (currently working in the Institute for European Studies), often a guest in TV shows on public channels.
Hate Speech against specific groups of children
- In Spain, some extreme right-wing groups and more specifically the Vox Parliamentary Group, which is the third-largest political force, have used the situation of unaccompanied migrant children as a controversial issue, by linking these children with delinquency in their political campaigns, placing advertising spreading messages of racism in public spaces such as the Madrid subway. They have proposed the expulsion of these children from Spanish territory. This would be a violation of the UNCRC. Vox has also proposed that Spain withdraw from the UNCRC to remove the need to respect the rights of unaccompanied migrant children.
- Migrant children living under the protection system in institutions, are in a particularly vulnerable situation in Spain. Demonstrations against these children have been organised and took place in front of these centres. Similarly, in Serbia, members of the organisation “No Surrender of Kosovo and Metohija” with black hoods on their heads, intercepted smaller groups of migrants in Belgrade. These public patrols shared leaflets to the migrant population, exchanging information that they have restricted movements close to migrant centers. From 22:00 until 6:00, migrants are not allowed to be on the street. Migrants were openly threatened with punishment if they did not comply with these rules. Since there are many children and minors in the migrant population, many of them unaccompanied, these threats also included them. Many situations involved physical violence and many of those situations were recorded by camera to set an example for the others. The government’s answer to this is not clear and inconclusive. .
- In Spain, LGBTQI+ children have been targeted by hate crimes and by measures that allow parents to permit which human rights workshops their children can attend, since these could indoctrinate their children, while only issues related to sex education and citizenship education are being discussed.
- The QUanon conspiracy theory, originating in the US and famous for spreading fake news on child trafficking, is gaining ground in Europe . Children are often instrumentalised and used in disinformation discourses e.g. claiming that vaccines “turn children gay or trans”.
- In Hungary, the CitizenGo organisation is very active: It is a global community of active citizens who work together, using online petitions and action alerts as a resource, to defend and promote life, family, and liberty’. Its headquarters are in Madrid. It encourages citizens to sign petitions against LGBT rights and so-called ‘harmful sexual education’ at schools.
- In Serbia, a newly formed association called “The knights of the order of the dragon” is claiming as its main goal the protection of children, but in practice disputes children’s right to participation and denies the concept of children’s rights in general: “we gave them too many rights, and what about responsibilities”. One of its establishers is a well-known professor, paediatric pulmonologist, PhD Branimir Nestoric. They do not share facts but unverified information. There is a threat that they can mislead the public, in particular in terms of the necessity of the Child Rights Law, currently in the making.
- Those opposing gender-based rights manufacture threats to children’s welfare and safety and manipulate public opinion to create ‘moral panic’ to suppress human rights and women’s, LGBTIQ and sexual and reproductive rights. For example, such gender-restrictive groups in Bulgaria have successfully blocked the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, as well as several Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE) initiatives, and the implementation of the National Strategy for the Child and the Social Services Act.
Strategic Lawsuits in connection with disinformation campaigns
In Bulgaria, six lawsuits have been filed on behalf of Mr George Bogdanov and/or the National Network for Children (NNC) since 2019 in connection with part of the ongoing disinformation campaigns on behalf of right-wing leaders in the country. For several years, a systematic disinformation campaign has been underway in Bulgaria, aimed at denigrating civil society organisations in the NGO sector that profess Euro-Atlantic values and advocate for the rights of various vulnerable groups. Since NNC is the largest group of NGOs working with and for children and families, they and their director have become the main target for disinformation attacks on behalf of right-wing leaders. The Annex to this document gives a brief synopsis of the six pending cases.
The role of collaborative platforms in the EU and Europe
Attacks on human rights and human rights defenders – including those upholding and defending children’s rights – are not new. In response, mechanisms at the national, regional and international levels have been created to support and protect those who defend human rights. For example, at EU level, ProtectDefenders.eu provides a mechanism to protect human rights defenders at risk for their activities worldwide. This mechanism is led by a consortium of human rights organisations and funded by the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. However, such mechanisms do not have a specific child rights focus, despite the growing role of children human rights defenders. There is no specific mechanism to monitor and counteract anti child rights movements in Europe and their harmful rhetoric and actions.
Such a mechanism could serve several functions, depending on capacity and resources. It could:
- Monitor and document anti-child rights discourse and actions at the European level
- Sound the alert on activities that threaten children’s rights work and those working in defence of children’s rights, including children human rights defenders
- Provide a platform (a safe space) for children’s rights organisations and defenders to share experiences and evidence of anti-child rights activities they face and possible ways to counteract them
- Support organisations and individuals at risk from anti-child rights movements. This could include signposting to other organisations that support individuals at risk and publicly denouncing anti child rights rhetoric or actions
- Support collaboration between European institutions and UN human rights bodies to counteract misinformation and attacks from anti child rights movements
- Promote collaboration and sharing of information and expertise between those working on children’s rights, including children human rights defenders, and other human rights actors (eg organisations working on women’s rights, disability rights, refugees and migrants’ rights, LGBTIQ rights)
How could such collaborative platforms work in practice?
Having a platform in the EU and Europe collaborating to monitor and counteract anti-child rights discourse and actions could require dedicated capacity and expertise, or two Secretariats, both housed within existing mechanisms, acting as an institutional repository for information and documentation of anti-child rights activities and the impacts on individuals, organisations and communities. They could be supported by a network of expert individuals and organisations, and funded from EU and European institutional funding with contributions by Member States.
Such platforms could draw on the experience of existing similar mechanisms, while adopting specific standards required to meet children’s needs and ensure their safeguarding, wellbeing and participation. The platform’s work could include:
• Regular institutional dialogue and collaboration with relevant EU, European and international bodies and institutions
• Publication of reports documenting anti-child rights activities and their impacts and speaking out in defence of children’s rights
• Regular exchange with children’s organisations and children’s human rights defenders
• Promotion of best practice in countering the misinformation, manipulation and undermining of children’s rights