At the Annual Conference of the Children’s Rights Ombudspersons Network in South and Eastern Europe, held in Dubrovnik on 19 and 20 May 2009, about eighty participants gathered from twenty European countries, and high school pupils from Dubrovnik were also involved in its work. The Office of the Ombudsperson for Children of the Republic of Croatia hosted the Conference and the subject “Children and Disputed Divorces – Access for Children to National, International and European Justice” proved to be an incentive for future discussions. This international conference was organised with the support of the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children – ENOC, and the organisations Save the Children Norway, SEE and the EUNOMIA project of the Greek ombudsperson
The guests included representatives of the ENOC member countries: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, France, Malta, Austria, Poland, Russia, Georgia, Cyprus and representatives of all members of CRONSEE – the Children’s Rights Ombudspersons’ Network in South and Eastern Europe, that is to say, representatives of ombudspersons from Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, AP Vojvodina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska and Slovenia. Since the Ombudsperson, Mila Jelavić, is this year’s co-ordinator of that network, Croatia was the host country of the international conference.
At the beginning, after the introductory address by the Ombudsperson Mila Jelavić, the participants were addressed by Miho Katičić, on behalf of the mayoress of Dubrovnik Dubravka Šuica, Member of Parliament and president of the Committee for the Family, Youth and Sport, Milanka Opačić, the state secretary at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Dorica Nikolić, and the chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Yanghee Lee. Everyone confirmed the exceptional importance and current relevance of the topic, which points to the fact that children are frequently the victims of parental conflicts and that the inability and unwillingness of parents to resolve their relationship frequently results in the children being deprived of many of their needs, especially in an emotional sense. Therefore it is the duty of the state, primarily centres for social welfare, the courts and other public services and professionals, to provide protection in the best interests of the child, to help him or her overcome the painful period of his or her parents’ divorce and adjust to the new situation.
Dr. Bruna Profaca from the Polyclinic for Child Protection of the City of Zagreb spoke in detail about the effects of divorce on children in a situation of heightened conflict between the parents. By presenting different models of behaviour of parents and their effects on the child, alongside the need for professional support, she emphasised the importance of developing the parents’ skills and instructing parents in recognising the child’s feelings and talking with their child, without passing on their own negative emotions due to anger at their former partner.
Presenting the project of the French Office of the Ombudsperson for Children, “Children and Disputed Divorces”, the deputy French ombudsperson for children, Hugues Feltesse, reported on the practice of using mediation between the parents in the process of divorce in some European countries, referring to the many uncertainties about it. The uncertainties relate to whether the child should be included in the process of mediation and the especially sensitive question of at which age the courts in individual European countries have the obligation to hear the child’s opinion on his or her future life after the parents’ divorce and how to ensure that this is the child’s authentic opinion, unburdened by pressure from the parents, and how the courts can adjust their procedures so the child is able to express his or her opinion freely etc.
Dr. Branka Rešetar, from the Law Faculty in Osijek, in her address entitled “Procedural Rights of the Child in Divorce Proceedings and their Realisation in Court Practice”, presented examples of the application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Croatian legislation and practice. She emphasised how, in making a decision which parent the child will live with, it is mentioned in very small percentage of court rulings that the child’s opinion was sought. Following this, and especially in the discussion afterwards, the importance was stressed of information but also educating judges about all the specific ways the rights of the child may be realised in court proceedings, or how the child’s position in them as a holder of rights may be realised and affirmed.
The presentation by the independent expert and advisor for ENOC, Peter Newell, entitled, “Respect for Children’s Rights during Separation and Divorce of the Parents: Key Challenges” brought even more into the forefront the lack of harmony between legislation and practice, that is between desires and reality. Most states, and most adults, still have a problem understanding children as holders of rights. In that light, Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prescribes that states in all actions concerning children must protect their best interests, however important this is, at the same time becomes a source of danger, because most often only adults interpret what the child’s best interests are, which always leaves room for manipulation and other abuse.
In the afternoon, a workshop was held as part of the project of promotion of ombudsman institutions, EUNOMIA, run by the Greek ombudsperson under the auspices of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. There was discussion about the tasks of the ombudsperson and about what they can and should do to acquaint children and the public with the possibilities of access by children to the mechanisms of the justice system and help them realise their rights before court, especially in their parents’ divorce proceedings.