Plenary Session 2: Thomas Hammarberg – Youth justice based on child rights norms

Commissioner Hammarberg (Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights) opened his address by highlighting the fact that east is starting to look west as many countries’ systems have failed from a human rights perspective and also from a recidivism perspective. He gave some examples of countries to the east of Europe that have criminal justice systems that are far from desirable; where there is disproportionate imprisonment of ethnic minorities and difficulties within youth detention centres. Having highlighted a number of problems being experienced in the east of Europe, he then went on to focus the remainder of his presentation at Ireland and the UK

The Commissioner noted that he had just arrived from inspecting detention centres in England and a report is due out in 2008. Previous reports have criticised the UK for the large numbers of young people in detention; a situation that Hammarberg noted has yet to be addressed. He also noted in particular the use of restraints in youth detention centres and the ongoing debate as to what types of restraints are permissible. This is an issue that Mr. Hammarberg believes there is a striking focus on in the UK, perhaps more so than in other countries. He then went to note that as the UK is seen by other countries as an important role model, it is imperative that it would bring its system in line with international standards. He referred to the unanimity between academics and practitioners over how the English system ought to operate, but also that media and public opinion may make it difficult to make these changes from a political perspective.

Commissioner Hammarberg then moved on to consider the age of criminal responsibility, which he noted was too low in both the UK and Ireland (in spite of the fact that there is no actual age specified in the international standards). He went on to say that too many young people are being brought into the system and labelled as criminals when in fact they are victims of their background. There are many more detained who should be in special units to tackle their mental issues. He referred briefly to his recent examination of the Irish youth justice system although he could not go into much detail as the report is due out at the end of April. There will be a number of recommendations in the report.

Summary provided by LL.M (Criminal Justice) candidate, John Cronin.