During the last few decades, the use of corporal violence against children as a technique of discipline has become an issue of research, of social politics, of legislative reforms and controversy. International researches have repeatedly shown not only how extended and systematic is the use of violence against children, but also what are the negative effects produced by violent practices in terms of the individual, the family, the society.
When arguments like “a little slap cannot do any harm” are used to defend the right of parents to use violence to discipline their children, one can point out that it is in the same line of reasoning used to ‘excuse’ other forms of violence, which are not tolerated anymore, at least in western societies. However, no matter what the arguments are, corporal and non-physical violence of children is actually a violation of children’s fundamental human rights to respect for human dignity and physical integrity recognized by all relevant international human rights instruments and monitoring mechanisms, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Definition of corporal punishment
One way of defining corporal punishment is as any action taken to punish a child, which, if directed at an adult, would constitute an unlawful assault. However, for the violence directed to children, other words have been devised which might make adults more comfortable. To make it clear let’s take an internationally accepted definition.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the monitoring body of the UN Convention on the Rights of The Child in a general comment (2006) defined the corporal punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Most involves hitting (“smacking”, “slapping”, “spanking”) children, with the hand or with an implement – a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, etc. But it can also involve, for example, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion (for example, washing children’s mouth out with soap or forcing them to swallow hot spices). In the view of the Committee, corporal punishment is invariably degrading. In addition, there are other non-physical forms of punishment that are so cruel and degrading and thus compatible with the Convention. These include, for example, punishment which belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares or ridicules the child”.
Moreover, the Committee stated that punishment can take place “in many settings, including within the home and family, in all forms of alternative care, schools and other educational institutions and justice systems, both as a sentence of the courts and as a punishment within penal and other institutions, in situations of child labor, and in the community. The fact that corporal punishment happens primarily within a family renders it a hidden issue. Researches carried out in many countries have brought into light very high rates of assault of children of all ages, including babies .
Children have the same rights as adults to respect for their human dignity and physical integrity since these rights in every international human rights instrument are entitled to everyone without discrimination of any kind. If we consider that children are excluded form the enjoyment of certain rights we have just made a distinction against them based on their young(er) age. However, the same rules apply to the restrictions placed on the exercise of the rights of children as human beings in general. Some rights are never subject to restrictions; some others could be imposed on by limitations, e.g. which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. But the restriction shall be applied when it is permitted and only for that purpose for which they have been prescribed. As it is explained below, the prohibition on any kind of derogation of human dignity or physical integrity is universal moreover emphasized in the case of children.
International instruments developed under the auspices of the United Nations, such as UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 5) and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7) state that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and leave no possibility for any kind of derogation. Nevertheless, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 19) prescribes “the protection of the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”
In addition to the international conventions, regional human rights mechanisms pursue the international standards effectively. The European Court of Human Rights has found that corporal punishment of children breaches (Article 3). In the first relevant decision the Court condemned corporal punishment for juvenile offenders and then as a disciplinary mean in public and private schools and asserted states’ responsibility to protect children. What is more, in 1998, the Court decided that the corporal punishment of a young boy by his stepfather had breached the European Convention on Human Rights and secured the abolition within family homes as well (A v. UK 1998). The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), monitoring member states’ compliance with the European Social Charter and Revised Social Charter, has declared that the Article 17 of the Charter requires effective prohibition of all corporal punishment and of any other form of degrading punishment or treatment of children .