2012-12-07

Child ombudsman to combat violence against children

A new child and women's rights ombudsman is expected to improve human rights and the accountability of state institutions, but critics say that the new position is not independent of the government.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 07/12/12

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As part of an ombudsman package passed by parliament last summer, Turkey is moving to tackle violence against children by boosting administrative capacity and accountability.

  • Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Sahin said 30,000 children faced abuse in the past 10 years. [Ministry of Family and Social Policy]

    Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Sahin said 30,000 children faced abuse in the past 10 years. [Ministry of Family and Social Policy]

Among the new steps is the appointment of a child and women's rights ombudsman by a mixed parliamentary commission. The child ombudsman is one of five ombudsmen and a chief ombudsman.

The child and women's rights ombudsman will, among other things, examine complaints against public institutions, ensure public administration is accountable on children's issues and make recommendations to improve children's rights.

"We have to wait and see how it will perform before judging it. But I believe that this new body will bring new focus and renewed awareness to traditional governance systems in Turkey," Turkan Dagoglu, head of the parliamentary children's rights monitoring committee, told SES Türkiye.

The new monitoring body comes after reports of a rising number of child abuse cases in the country. In response to a parliamentary question in November, Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Sahin said 30,000 children had faced abuse in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, state childcare institutions have been rocked by a series of child abuse scandals.

Séverine Jacomy-Vité, chief of the Child Protection Section at UNICEF Turkey, said an ombudsman is an important step to prevent children's rights violations.

"A child 'ombudsman' or 'defender' can act on children's behalf, as a social group and as individuals, by bringing their cases to the attention of the state, whenever needed," Jacomy-Vité told SES Türkiye.

"When it comes to issues of violence against children, such an independent body is even more essential, because in many cases the perpetrator of violence -- or the entity allowing violence to happen -- is actually supposed to be their main protector, be it in the home, in institutions, in the community, at work or in school," she added.

The ombudsman will accept complaints that are brought to the institution after the child has exhausted all other administrative avenues. For some observers, the application procedure could be problematic and overly bureaucratic as cases work their way through lower levels of administration without providing children direct recourse to the ombudsman.

"Children still encounter significant problems in using the judicial system to protect their rights or to seek remedies for violations of their rights; and children's access to organisations that may protect their rights are generally limited," Adem Arkadas-Thibert, a child rights policy and advocacy officer at the International Children's Center at Bilkent University in Ankara, told SES Türkiye.

The new system will also need to be explained clearly to the general public with detailed information about how to make complaints.

"Informative meetings at schools, television and radio advertisements are also welcomed to increase the visibility of this new system. Families and children should be encouraged to make complaints to the ombudsmen in order to make violent offenders much more accountable," Dagoglu said.

However, there is concern that the new ombudsmen will lack independence from the government. The mixed parliamentary commission elected Mehmet Nihat Omeroglu as the chief ombudsman. Omeroglu is known for his close ties to the government and a ruling at the Supreme Court of Appeals against the assassinated Armenian journalist Hrant Dink on charges of "insulting Turkishness" according to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

The same commission also selected the five ombudsmen who will be under the control of Omerlioglu. Four of the ombudsman have ties to the AKP, including Mehmet Elkatmis, a former Refah, Fazilet, and AKP deputy; Abdullah Cengiz Makas, an AKP candidate from Amasya; Zekeriya Aslan, former AKP deputy from Afyonkarahisar; and the likely choice for the Child and Women Ombudsman position, Serpil Cakin, held positions in the AKP's Women's Branch and AKP central administration.

In a press statement, main opposition CHP deputy Umut Oran, whose party boycotted the selection process, said the new ombudsman would not be Turkey's ombudsman, but an "Akbudsman."

"An institution that should be impartial and independent is starting its work from the very beginning in a controversial and broken way," Oran said. "Ombudsman means 'intermediary person' in Swedish, but it's very clear what 'Akbudsman' will act as an intermediary for."

To be effective, Burge Akbulut of the Humanist Bureau, a child and human rights consultancy group, said that the ombudsman should be fully independent of the executive and politics.

"As long as we try to cover up our faults instead of revealing them, such an institution cannot function and the violence will continue to be repeated," Akbulut said.

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