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President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Before we start on our main subject of discussion today – protecting children’s rights, I want to first inform you that I have just signed into law amendments to a number of our laws aimed to protect children in our country. These amendments concern, in particular, the law on basic guarantees of the rights of the child, to which a number of new provisions have been added.
Mr Astakhov, I hope this will be useful to you in your work in terms of the greater access it gives you, as Presidential Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, and the regional ombudsmen, to valuable information, including information from the civil register and information on property rights. The amendments also broaden your powers to visit prisons, detention centres, and some other special facilities in situations where the ombudsman’s rights in this area were not so clearly defined. This is the first law I wanted to tell you about.
I also signed a law amending article 22 of the law on basic guarantees of the rights of the child regarding the submission of official state reports on the situation of families and children in the Russian Federation. This will strengthen the legal foundation for the Children’s Rights Ombudsman’s work and improves our system for protecting children’s rights and interests in general.
I called you together to this meeting because this is something that comes under the responsibility of the Presidential Ombudsman, the regional ombudsmen, and at the same time, also comes under the responsibility of the Prosecutor General’s Office and its subordinate offices, which carry out general supervision of compliance with the law in this area.
I would like to hear from you in brief about the state of affairs and the most relevant issues in the moment in light of the law I have just signed.
Mr Astakhov, go ahead.
Presidential COMMISSIONER FOR CHILDREN’S RIGHTS PAVEL ASTAKHOV: Mr President,
These new amendments, made at your initiative, are very important. Regarding the official state report, state policy in protecting children’s rights cannot be carried out separately to protection of families with children of course. We know, after all, that the family is the best environment for a child’s life, and we must continue to work consistently towards the goal of guaranteeing children’s biggest right of all – the right to a family.
Unfortunately, we have many children who, for various reasons, have lost their families. I think the task of the future government and parliament, and the aim of our work, is to achieve a Russia without orphans. This is something we can do. The situation at the moment is that we have one orphan for every 1,000 people in the country. We need to find families for these orphans, reduce the number of children’s homes, and convert them into social assistance centres for families. No state report can give a complete picture of the situation if it looks only at children but not at families, and so it is important to make this addition.
As for our powers, I can say that since you took the principled decision to create this post, which was a new and in some ways not very well understood office in our country, we have developed the system to the point where we now have children’s rights ombudsmen in all regions of the country.
(Mr Astakhov went on to brief the President on implementation of presidential instructions concerning maternity capital, allocation of land plots to families with children, and follow-up of young people who went through the children’s home system once they move out into the community. The ombudsman also briefed Mr Medvedev on the development of an electronic system collecting demographic data from each region and statistics on juvenile crime and crimes committed against children).
Dmitry Medvedev: What can I say overall about the work of the presidential ombudsman and the regional ombudsmen? Overall, we can say that the system works. When I made this decision I had some doubts, fearing that we might perhaps end up with too many ombudsmen dealing with all these rights – human rights, children’s rights. But your active efforts and the work of your colleagues in the regions have created an effective institution that people respond to, take notice of, and perhaps most important of all is that you are right in the thick of the issue, because it is to you that people turn to, they write to you and know that you will respond.
After all, what is the biggest problem in communication between the authorities and the various sections of the public? People appeal to the authorities only to get told to take their cases elsewhere, or have them disappear into the bureaucratic grind for years on end. But their appeals to you, especially on the biggest and most glaring problems, get a swift reaction. This does not mean that we can solve everything overnight. There are some problems that we cannot solve so fast, unfortunately. You mentioned the issue of orphans. It is obvious that presidential executive orders or the ombudsman’s work alone cannot solve this problem. But at least the problems that exist are now getting a swift response. This is rather new for our administrative system and civil service, and it is a very positive thing, of course, that this is starting to happen.
”Concerning our position regarding people who violate the life and health of our children, I think that we cannot make any distinction here between cases abroad and cases at home. These are all crimes, serious crimes.“
Mr Chaika, turning now to the issues the prosecutors deal with, I gave you a number of instructions regarding monitoring of compliance with the laws on the family and family welfare, and the laws protecting our children’s interests too, of course. Monitoring work has taken place. What is the situation?
Prosecutor General Yury Chaika: Your first instruction of this kind was in 2008 and concerned children adopted by foreign citizens. We carry out annual monitoring of the situation in this area.
Problems do exist. Seeing the number of violations that have occurred, we prepared a report for the Government and, together with the Government, drafted bilateral agreements that would legally cement greater responsibility for foreign citizens adopting Russian children. This has influenced the statistics. In 2010, for example, the number of Russian children adopted by Americans fell by a third because our child welfare and guardianship agencies did not approve adoption agreements with them.
As for the situation inside the country, 8,000 agreements on adoption of children by citizens of the Russian Federation were dissolved at our initiative over the last two years.
Dmitry Medvedev: Eight thousand – that’s a lot.
Yury Chaika: Yes, it is a lot. In the case of 100 children it was because they were the victims of violence in their families. We think it is entirely right and proper that the law has now been amended to strengthen the powers of the children’s rights ombudsmen. We fully share this approach and are working together actively.
We discussed this problem recently and coordinated our work together, given that there is a real problem of crimes against children. Every year, around 100,000 crimes of various types, including serious and very grave offences, are committed against children. We are stepping up our oversight in this area. Just a few days ago, I signed an instruction to implement the joint instruction you gave to us and the Investigative Committee on drawing up mechanisms for protecting the rights of adopted Russian children abroad. We are now drafting our proposals.
At a first glance, we see that, as we discussed with Mr Astakhov, this situation is not very closely monitored abroad. In our view, together with the Education and Science Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Children’s Rights Ombudsman, we need to conduct annual monitoring of the situation with adopted children, including in the different countries in which our citizens are living. Over the last decade, Americans have adopted 60,000 of our children. This is a large number, and we need to monitor this situation.
Second, we propose making some changes to Russian laws. The laws in force – the Constitution and the Criminal Code – make it possible to bring criminal charges against foreigners who have committed crimes against Russian Federation citizens. In recent times, five such criminal cases have been opened, and four cases are still in the process of going through pre-investigation checks as regards Russian children abroad. Of these, three cases concern children in the United States of America.
As for the recent events concerning the Skorobogatov child, we have officially requested the court judgment from our American colleagues so as to analyse it in order to prepare a possible appeal through the US prosecutor general. We will be looking, of course, to see if there were any aspects that court overlooked, given that we opened a criminal case concerning this child back in 2010, and make our own criminal law evaluation of the situation regarding this couple’s crime against the child. There can be no compromises here. We will take a firm stand and will certainly use the powers that our criminal procedure and criminal legislation give us.
Dmitry Medvedev: Good.
”The fact that the number of foreign adoptions has dropped is therefore evidence that people going through the adoption procedures legally are being put through a more careful screening process. We have tightened our laws in this area of late. The main task of the Prosecutor General’s Office now is to enforce strict compliance with these laws.“
Concerning our position regarding people who violate the life and health of our children, I think that we cannot make any distinction here between cases abroad and cases at home. These are all crimes, serious crimes. We cannot just look at the problems that occur abroad, but must see the problems here at home too.
Sadly, we have a very large number of crimes committed against children, and this is why I have proposed various amendments to the laws protecting our children from sexual abuse and guaranteeing in general bodily integrity of the child. These amendments have been made.
The task now is to get the legal instruments working consistently and effectively. But we need to continue monitoring the situation in Russia, which the ombudsman and his colleagues are doing quite well, and abroad too. The issue of legal liability of those who commit serious crimes of this sort while on other countries’ soil is a much more complex matter. But I think you need to work with your other colleagues on developing mechanisms that would make it possible to bring these people to justice under the law of the country in question. If, for whatever reason, the country concerned does not wish to do this (I am not going to analyse any particular cases in America or anywhere else just now), then we need to be able to bring these people to answer under our laws, given that these are crimes under our laws. In this respect, we are justified in using the criminal law instruments at our disposal to respond to the situation.
But this really is a very complex issue. I want you to study the matter more thoroughly together with the investigative bodies and the Foreign Ministry. Whatever the event, each such case must receive our attention. There is nothing wrong with foreign adoptions of our children in themselves, because we realise that our country still has a problem with orphans. Of course it would be better if the children could stay here in Russia and be adopted by our own citizens, but the fact that foreign citizens do it does not tarnish them in any way, and on the contrary shows their desire to help these children. Sadly, the problem is that in many cases not enough attention is paid to their psychological, educational and other qualities and to their material situation.
Also, speaking frankly, in a number of cases these adoptions were carried out in breach of the law – for bribes, in other words. This is true, too. The fact that the number of foreign adoptions has dropped is therefore evidence that people going through the adoption procedures legally are being put through a more careful screening process. We have tightened our laws in this area of late. The main task of the Prosecutor General’s Office now is to enforce strict compliance with these laws.
Colleagues, I hope you will organise this work together with the other organisations responsible for the general situation with protection of children’s rights in our country.