Philip D. Jaffé - Prof. University of Geneva, Member UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

Philip D. Jaffé - Prof. University of Geneva, Member UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

Philip D. Jaffé – Profesor de la Universidad de Ginebra, miembro del Comité de los Derechos del Niño de la ONU

In 2018, he was elected by States parties in New York as member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

For many years, his academic and professional activities have focused on children's rights, the protection of the child, in particular concerning sexual abuse, participation of the child in the civil and criminal legal system, and detention issues. He served on the expert panel that wrote the Council of Europe Child-Friendly Justice Guidelines (2011). He participated in the founding of the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights and served as member of its board of directors and as co-manager of the cluster on children and youth politics. Still a practicing licensed psychotherapist and an episodic court-appointed expert witness, he has also conducted clinical and training consultancies for a wide range of humanitarian organisations, both governmental and non-governmental.

Beyond the traditional teach, research, “publish or perish” missions required by a leading university, his vision of academic life is increasingly to branch out in the community at large as a science practitioner and educator. 

In recent years, children's participation in judicial proceedings which involve them has increased greatly in many justice systems. Regarding this participation, which measures would you highlight as the most essential that should be adopted by all justice systems as soon as possible?

Actually, I am not so sure that there has been a spectacular increase in children’s participation in justice systems. Let me qualify this by specifying that I am referring to meaningful participation. One the one hand, clearly many justice systems can provide figures on higher children’s involvement, more data points where children appear in greater numbers along the course of different types of procedures. Also, it can be said that participation has become much more than a buzzword and the principle is showcased in supranational child rights strategies, as well as in national structural advances in law and policies. But, on the other hand, what about meaningful participation? Have children been significantly empowered to access justice systems? And have these systems become convincingly child-friendly (-focused, -centred, -sensitive)? 

So, what are the missing ingredients for children to participate meaningfully? Although there are many, I choose to highlight two. The first has to do with a coordinated push to train all judicial actors to understand children’s (human) rights in theory and in practice. A tall order that requires rethinking educational and training programmes for all professionals and rewiring the system to become more interdisciplinary, integrating for example advanced developmental psychology and ethics into the curricula. 

The second central ingredient that would make participation meaningful is to allow children to seek legal remedies, not only declaratory but also damages. In a stratospheric context, under OPIC (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure) children residing in States parties -only 47 so far have ratified OPIC- may file complaints for violations of their rights directly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Among possible remedies, the accused State party may be requested to provide financial compensation. More down to earth, another idea would be for professionals, including judges, operating in the justice system to be held liable if, during a procedure, a child is harmed in any way. More children may participate in the justice system, but in my opinion with little respect for their dignity and at the risk of being worse off emotionally than if they had not participated. This should never occur!

In which aspects in particular do you expect, or hope, that the most advanced justice systems will continue to increase children’s participation in the coming years?

I could rattle off a long, soporific list, so let me stick to a couple of examples. Clearly, there is a strong need, but also a process already under way, to make information about children’s rights available to the rights holders themselves. Many learned colleagues have written about this: information about one’s rights is key to exercising them. For justice systems, it is cheap to put out brochures that explain key justice information in child-friendly language to children caught up in procedures. Not the most meaningful approach, but for the justice system it does tick a box and serves, much like it does for adults, the fiction of ignorantia legis neminem excusat (ignorance of law excuses no one)!

There is also innovation that harnesses the digital world. New stimulating apps can generate information for children in contact and in conflict with the law in playful ways. Speaking of which, there are also some nice examples of social workers using creative board games to connect with young age groups to foster participation in separation/divorce cases. I am rather confident that the most advanced justice systems will evolve rapidly towards more meaningful participation. Even my own country, Switzerland, hardly a bold experimental shaker when it comes to evolving, is promoting participation through a programme of small grants to fund promising projects. I expect these actions to percolate into more meaningful participation.

You are a professor at the Centre for Children's Rights Studies (CCRS) of the University of Geneva, which involves the active participation of children in its work. How does this participation usually take place? 

We have a lot of ongoing research that involves children in many different ways. One project, much more creative that I can make it appear, has incorporated children as co-research designers. For this project, led by my colleague Prof. Zoe Moody, we applied for a substantial grant to carry out an in-depth investigation of a “third place”, i.e., the way from home to school and back. Our plan included designing the methodology by incorporating a group of child co-researchers who provided ideas on what the team was to look for and how. We may not be the only research group to put this type of participation into practice, but it is certain that our project was the first with this type of research methodology to receive a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation. And in another current project, led by my colleague Prof. Michelle Cottier, we are carrying out a detailed sociological and quasi-ethnographic observation of how children participate in so-called protection courts.

As a psychologist, could you indicate a concrete practice that you think is an excellent example of integration of psychological intervention in the justice system for young people in conflict with the law?

Not to wax poetic, but once the dust settles and we look back on the long march towards meaningful child participation in justice systems, I believe that psychology will receive well-deserved credit for the introduction of child-friendly interviewing techniques and protocols that take into account the evolving capacities of children. Language, cognition, emotions, behaviour evolve in ways that developmental psychology and neuropsychology have studied and transformed into practice for justice professionals. Interviewing children alleging abuse, children as witnesses, children as parties within separation and divorce procedures, children in conflict with the law, requires specialised knowledge and training. And to some extent, these techniques have been adopted by law enforcement professionals and jurists of all stripes within advanced justice systems. In addition, psychology has acted as a separating third party, injecting interdisciplinarity and moving away from the legalistic dyad of justice professional and justice system user. 

The Committee on the Rights of the Child released a statement in which it warns of the grave physical, emotional and psychological effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and calls on States to protect the rights of children. Regarding the mental health of children in conflict with the law, in which ways can justice systems strengthen their services to further protect it during the pandemic?

The priority should be to fight hard against returning to the status quo ante even if the intent is to strengthen services. We should take advantage of new opportunities. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a widespread movement to get as many children out of detention as fast as possible and to avoid as many children as possible entering into detention. By necessity, this situation pushed everyone to look at alternatives to detention. I believe this focus has a humungous gain, indeed a game changer. It made the juvenile justice system realize that there is a need for quality case management, new technologies, wraparound services, constructive multidisciplinary work, improved community outreach, etc. 

We have now moved from an emergency phase of the pandemic to the possibility of lasting reform. And here are my prescriptions for the future: more attention placed on crossover youth and their families, i.e., the children who need protection but do not get it and end up in the justice system; more attention on children who do not thrive in alternative settings; better trained social work case managers; better community outreach; better use of digital technologies, including virtual support groups for parents and youth; and of course, continued intense engagement from the child rights community, NGOs, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the private sector.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child is currently writing up a General Comment on the rights of children in relation to the digital environment. In which ways can we effectively make children aware of their rights in this environment and how to exercise them?

The ink of the Committee’s draft version of the General Comment is dry, and we are currently collecting reactions and suggestions from interested parties in order to produce a final version that will be close to perfection. So I am going to punt on the question. But I will say that participation of children will be a core principle that is promoted at least as much as the push to encourage States parties to become more involved in terms of protection. And beyond this, I have no doubt that the General Comment will be an additional element that creates momentum in ways that we still may not fathom… and that children themselves will invent!