The UK is Falling Behind on Corporal Punishment - RightsInfo

The UK is Falling Behind on Corporal Punishment

A relatively unknown treaty called the ‘European Social Charter’ is being used across Europe to outlaw the use of corporal punishment against children. The UK was one of the first countries to sign the Charter, but is now one of the few where smacking is still legal.

First things first – what is the European Social Charter?

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The European Social Charter is an international treaty that was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1961; 11 years after the Human Rights Convention. It guarantees a range of social and economic rights, complimenting those protected by the Human Rights Convention.

In particular, it provides specific protection for vulnerable people like the elderly, the disabled, children and migrants.

Like all treaties, the Social Charter is only binding upon countries which have signed and ratified it. Currently, 43 of the 47 Council of Europe member states (including the UK) have done so.

How is it different to the Human Rights Convention?

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Broadly speaking, the Social Charter focuses on social and economic rights, whereas the Human Rights Convention deals mainly with civil and political rights.

There is, however, significant overlap, and the two are designed to complement each other. For example, the right to life – which is generally protected by Article 2 of the Human Rights Convention – is ‘fleshed out’ by the Social Charter, which establishes specific measures that must be implemented to protect the lives of workers.

They are also enforced differently. The Human Rights Convention is enforced by individuals and States who bring complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, whereas the Social Charter is supervised by the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR). This is done in two ways:

  1. Collective complaints – These are made to the ECSR by designated non-governmental organisations (NGOs) regarding a State’s non-compliance with the Social Charter. Individuals cannot bring a complaint.
  2. National reporting – Signatory States are required to provide the ECSR with an annual report detailing the measures they have taken to implement the Social Charter. The ECSR may then make recommendations as to how the State can improve its compliance.

Sounds good, but what’s it got to do with smacking?

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The Social Charter sets out a number of social and economic policies that signatory States must pursue; emphasising special protection for different categories of vulnerable people.

Children and young people are one such category, enjoying a right to “special protection against the physical and moral hazards to which they are exposed”. Article 17 of the Charter expands on this, requiring – among other things – that States take “all appropriate and necessary measures” to protect children and young people from negligence, violence and exploitation.

This provision has been used to successfully challenge laws which give parents a legal defence for smacking their children (known as ‘reasonable chastisement’). Indeed, the Council of Europe’s position on this issue is that the Social Charter requires all signatory States to prohibit corporal punishment in both law and practice.

The position is the same under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is also a signatory.

Where does the UK stand?

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So far, 32 of the 47 Council of Europe member states (including Ireland) have met this standard by totally outlawing the use of corporal punishment against children. The UK is not presently among them, but calls are growing for this to change – particularly in Wales and Scotland.

The social and cultural debate over this issue has been fierce, and will no doubt continue. But as far as the Social Charter is concerned, the position is clear: so long as British parents can smack their children without legal consequence, the UK will be in breach of its treaty commitments.

Read more about this issue by following the links below:

Featured image: Paul Stevenson / Flickr.

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About the Author

Saxon Norgard

Associate Editor
Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights. View all posts by Saxon Norgard.
The UK is Falling Behind on Corporal Punishment
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