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A human rights issue

Corporal punishment of children breaches their fundamental human rights to respect for human dignity and physical integrity. Its legality in almost every state worldwide - in contrast to other forms of inter-personal violence - challenges the universal right to equal protection under the law.

The aims of the Global Initiative already have the support of UNICEF, members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and key international human rights organisations and individuals. Click here for details of supporters of the Global Initiative.

In previous centuries, special defences existed in legislation in many states to justify corporal punishment of wives, servants, slaves and apprentices. Violence to women remains far too prevalent, but in most states it is no longer defended in legislation. It is paradoxical and an affront to humanity that the smallest and most vulnerable of people should have less protection from assault than adults. Click here for PDF (550KB) of the Global Initiative Handbook: Hitting people is wrong and children are people too.

During the first decade of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) its Treaty Body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, has consistently stated that persisting legal and social acceptance of corporal punishment is incompatible with the Convention. The CRC requires states to protect children from "all forms of physical and mental violence" while in the care of parents and others (article 19). The Committee has recommended that states in all continents should implement legal reforms to prohibit all corporal punishment and public education campaigns to promote positive, non-violent forms of discipline, including within the family, schools and other institutions and penal systems. In particular, the Committee has condemned legal concepts which attempt to define "acceptable" violence to children - "reasonable chastisement", "lawful correction" and so on. Click here for full analysis of the Committee's statements and recommendations to states about corporal punishment

Just as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has been preoccupied with domestic violence to women, so the Committee on the Rights of the Child is now leading the challenge to violence to children. When representatives of these two Committees met in 1998 in Geneva to discuss action against family violence, they agreed that "zero tolerance" is the only possible target. As with violence to women, the problem was recognised to be rooted in traditional attitudes and culture, sometimes underpinned by religion. But a practice which violates basic human rights cannot be said to be owned by any culture, nor dictated by any religion.

Other human rights Treaty Bodies - the Human Rights Committee, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (in a recent General Comment) and the Committee Against Torture - have also condemned corporal punishment of children in various contexts, but not as yet comprehensively. The United Nations rules and guidelines on juvenile justice all support prohibition of corporal punishment. In 1999, a resolution of the Commission on Human Rights called on states "to take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent all forms of violence against children...". It requested all relevant human rights mechanisms, in particular special rapporteurs and working groups, within their mandates, "to pay attention to the special situations of violence against children". Click here for analysis of other human rights instruments and Treaty Bodies' statements about corporal punishment.

There have been various landmark judgments, quoting human rights principles and condemning corporal punishment of children, from constitutional and other high-level courts at national level - for example in India, Israel, Italy, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe - and from the European Court of Human Rights. There is a current constitutional challenge to corporal punishment in Canada. Click here for analysis of key judgments.

The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children aims to ensure that the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and other human rights bodies are accepted and that governments move speedily to implement legal reform and public education programmes.

Children should not have to wait any longer to enjoy the basic right to respect for their human dignity. Without co-ordinated action to disseminate information on legal reform and public education campaigns and to mobilise a range of partners, progress will be slow. Corporal punishment is in most countries a deeply embedded traditional practice and political and other leaders do not find abolition popular. It is a deeply personal issue: most people were hit as children; most parents have hit their children. We do not like to think badly of our parents or our parenting. This makes it difficult at first for many people to accept the human rights imperative for challenging and ending all corporal punishment. Click here for answers to the various arguments used to defend corporal punishment.

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Progress towards ending corporal punishment

Despite the growing consensus that corporal punishment breaches children's fundamental human rights, most of the world's children are still subjected to legalised assaults by their parents and by other carers and teachers. Click here for summaries of research studies on prevalence of corporal punishment.

In states in every continent there have been moves to end corporal punishment in schools and penal systems and the issue is on the political agenda in many other states. Click here for state-by-state table of the legality of corporal punishment in the home, schools and penal systems.

Forty-six states have abolished all corporal punishment of children and more have reforms under discussion. Click here for details of states which have abolished all corporal punishment.

Instituting the necessary legal changes is not expensive: what is required in almost every state is the explicit and well-publicised removal of any defence which currently justifies physical assault of children, in order to ensure that children have equal protection under the law. Promotion of positive discipline can be built into other health promotion, education and early childhood development programmes. Click here for ideas and information about promoting positive, non-violent discipline.

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The other arguments against corporal punishment of children

The imperative for removing adults' assumed rights to hit children is that of fundamental human rights. Research into the harmful physical and psychological effects of corporal punishment, into the relative significance of links with other forms of violence, in childhood and later life, add further compelling arguments for condemning and ending the practice, suggesting that it is an essential strategy for reducing all forms of violence, in childhood and later life.

There is some danger that in becoming too pre-occupied with this absorbing research, people forget the human rights imperative for action now: we do not look into the effects of physical discipline on women, or on animals. It is enough that it breaches fundamental rights. Finding some positive short- or long-term effects of corporal punishment would not reduce the human rights imperative for banning it. Click here for summaries of research into the effects of corporal punishment.

Children, for too long the silent victims of corporal punishment, are beginning to express their own views about it. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires States to enable children to express their views freely on all matters affecting them, and to give their views due consideration. Hearing children's voices should help to speed the end of corporal punishment. Click here for summaries of research into children's views.

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