Other Questions. - UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

7 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if and when the Government will ratify the United Nations optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3733/02]

Ireland has signed the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The ratification of the optional protocol to the convention is the subject of active consider ation by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Defence. This consideration includes a review of domestic legislation which may require amendment to enable ratification to proceed.

The Government attaches great importance to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which is central to the protection and promotion of children's rights on a global level. The issue of child soldiers is of particular concern. Ireland has strongly supported international efforts to stop the use of child soldiers. In particular, we have actively supported the office of the special representative of the UN Secretary General for children and armed conflict.

Ireland has joined an informal group known as the Friends of the Special Representative, which includes 11 other EU member states and the European Commission as well as Canada, Japan, Malaysia, India and Kenya. The aim of the group is to support the work of the special representative and promote measures for the protection of children in armed conflict.

Does the Minister agree that this matter has become more urgent in so far as modern technological developments have deliberately made weapons lighter in order that they can be carried by children and that one of the consequences has been an increase in the number of children involved in armed conflict? Surely Ireland's credibility as part of the group of Friends of the Special Representative is damaged by the fact that we have not ratified the optional protocol. What possible reason is there for this? The Minister may wish to inform the House that it is because we would have to raise the age at which people are recruited to the Defence Forces. Is it not a major source of embarrassment that we would participate in a group which advocates the protection of children while at the same time failing to ratify the instrument?

No, it is not a source of embarrassment. It is an issue we need to deal with and resolve expeditiously. I met with the Special Representative in the United Nations when I attended the delayed General Assembly and, far from being embarrassed or our status being diminished, he is very appreciative of the genuine support we gave him, not just in terms of our political support but in the financial support we provided and continue to provide for his office. I want to make that point very clear.

He can hardly be thrilled that we have not ratified it.

He knows that we are very supportive and that the issue of the ratification of international instruments is in the system and does not detract from our commitment. The optional protocol entered into force three months after the deposit of the tenth instrument of ratification on 12 February last. I am sorry we are not in the first ten, but there are at least another 179 in the same position as us.

On the more relevant question domestically regarding the Defence Forces, Defence Force regulations which give effect to the provisions of the Defence Act 1954, have been identified as requiring amendment should there be any change in policy with regard to, for example, recruitment. As I said in my initial reply, however, consideration of the obligations involved in ratification of the optional protocol has not yet reached a conclusion and no recommendation has yet been put to the Government on amending legislation or any other issue. Up to 23% of some grades in the Army are under 18, and that is an issue we must take into account.

On the question of ratification, will the Minister accept that we have a bad record from the point of view of ratifying international agreements? Is there a need for a new approach in that regard? In terms of the International Criminal Court, we signed our own convention about four years ago, we had the referendum last June and I cannot even get a list of the legislative administrative measures that need to be put in place to allow us to ratify the convention. Fifty of the 60 countries have already ratified so we will not be in the first batch. Does the Minister accept that it is not good for our name internationally that we sign these various agreements with good intent but then do not ratify them in reasonable time?

It is an issue of Government priorities. The Members opposite have been in Government and they are aware of how we ensure we keep up to speed on the legal aspects of some of these matters, but once they are signed – the Taoiseach signed this particular protocol at the millennium summit – it is confirmation of our support for the substance of the issue. The question of clarification is important, and I do not diminish it, but we need to examine that in terms of the system itself. In the interest of advancing our international relations we sign many of these conventions, totally supportive of the principle, but the transposition of those into our domestic law, if necessary, or how they impact on existing laws is a matter we must recognise. There is no point in proceeding blindly with a ratification process and then finding out we are in contravention of existing domestic legislation which needs to be tidied up as well. This is an issue that practising politicians who give political instruction on a whole range of issues have with the system in a whole range of areas. We would like to see it being more effective but there is not a specific delay in regard to this protocol. It is not a case of everyone else having ratified it. I take the point, however.

I am concerned about the International Criminal Court.