BEIRUT — Lebanon’s leaders must translate “commitment” to child protection into action despite the country’s economic and political woes, the UN special representative for violence against children said during a visit to Beirut Friday.
The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, arrived in Beirut Thursday to follow up on Lebanon’s progress — or lack thereof — on child protection over the past year. The visit came two days before World Children’s Day on Sunday.
In a report last year UNICEF warned of growing threats to refugee and citizen children’s safety in Lebanon including increased child labor, rising child marriages, domestic violence and mental health issues. The UN children’s agency also noted an increase in reports of child abuse and exploitation since the onset of Lebanon’s economic crisis.
M’jid said during a press conference Friday that during her first visit to Lebanon, last December, the Lebanese government committed itself to an ambitious plan of action to protect children, but it was not carried out because of “political disagreements” in the country.
“The protection of children cannot afford delays,” she added.
“We cannot wait for policymakers to agree and to start adopting all these legislations that are pending or [for] the implementation of policies,” M’jid said in the press conference. Instead, she highlighted what she considered alternative paths forward such as local-level interventions alongside municipalities, NGOs, and community leaders.
In an interview with L’Orient Today, M’jid pointed to a number of needed legal reforms that she said are still “pending” government implementation.
“Many things need to be done regarding the legal age of criminal responsibility,” or the age at which someone can be held responsible for a crime. In Lebanon, that age is seven years old, according to The Legal Atlas for Street Children.
She added that reforms needed to be made “regarding the age of marriage. Regarding the fact that you have children deprived of liberty and caught in detention. You have many children in institutions. You have the problem, also, of children on streets that are seen in many cases as delinquent and not as needing protection,” among a host of other issues, she said.
Earlier on Friday M'jid met with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the caretaker ministers of justice, education, social affairs, and interior.
Following the meeting, caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said that the ministry is working on creating a new “juvenile reform center” for young people detained in the criminal-legal system.
He added that in the future no “juveniles” will be incarcerated in Roumieh prison. Mawlawi’s comments did not mention how many juveniles, if any, are currently held in the prison, notorious for its poor living conditions. In 2015, there were reportedly 128 young people in Roumieh.
“I think some of them are committed, to be very frank,” M’jid told L’Orient Today of her meeting with the ministers. “But the problem is commitment is one thing, but translating the commitment [into] action is another.”
Asked about the government’s seriousness on child protection, she added: “I can respond to your question when I see the implementation. Because worldwide I saw many policymakers making many commitments but when it arrived to translate them into concrete, it was not the case."
"I know that they are dealing with many issues, but this is not an excuse to forget children.”