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President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Mr Astakhov, you have been working in this post for sixteen months, and have a number of achievements that you have already reported to me about and which I heard about at State Council meetings and at other public venues.
What is important here? The important thing is that we have elicited a public response. It has been different: some people are happy with your work and others less so, but in any case, my objective in establishing this post was that you should try to badger our officials, heads of regions and municipalities, to create the necessary conditions for the protection of children. As I see it, you have succeeded with this endeavour to a great extent.
”You are responsible for protecting the most valuable resource – the life and health of a child.“
Could you please report to me briefly about what has been done recently and your plans for the future.
Presidential Commissioner For Children’S Rights Pavel Astakhov: Mr President, there are many plans. You are absolutely right that the establishment of this post by your executive order was an excellent decision because it corresponds to Russia’s international legal position (since all developed countries have this post) and responds to our internal needs. In a little over a year since the establishment of the post, it has emerged as an independent public and legal institution that has been able to bring together all the federal agencies that deal with children’s rights, of which we have 19.
Coordination of efforts in real time has achieved certain results. They are modest, I should say, but this is an important trend. I have prepared a report, which contains a performance review and statistical tables that we compiled based on our own data, based on the results of our inspections.
To date, the children’s task force, which is a unit established specifically for quick emergency response and inspections, has surveyed 50 regions. I have personally visited 712 institutions, including children’s homes, orphanages and juvenile correction facilities – everywhere there are children.
Dmitry Medvedev: I think that is crucial. You really do travel a great deal around different regions: the North Caucasus, where conditions are quite harsh, and other places where the situation is far from ideal, and you visit practically all institutions, including the showcase ones, the models of child care that are always shown to visiting officials, and those where the situation is desperate, and everything is very gloomy and sad. This is perhaps the most important aspect of your work, so you must continue with it.
Pavel Astakhov: Here I rely mostly not on the agenda I am offered in a particular region but on the complaints that had been received. We reviewed about 5,000 complaints in one year, and these are complaints that were sent to me directly. On the whole, we have been able to resolve all the issues raised in these complaints. My staff have attended court hearings since we have been asked on many occasions to testify at trials, although the Procedure Code does not stipulate the participation of the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the process. But I must note that most courts meet us halfway and allow our involvement.
Dmitry Medvedev: In what capacity?
Pavel Astakhov: As a third party usually, because the Procedure Code simply does not provide for an independent participant, although this is changing now, as far as I know, the State Duma is preparing such amendments.
Dmitry Medvedev: In order to provide for direct participation?
Pavel Astakhov: Yes, in the same way as the Human Rights Ombudsman, whose involvement is provided for. This is a procedural issue that may be resolved in a positive way.
What is important: today there are 70 commissioners in the regions, while there were only 18 at the time when I was appointed. Today there are 70.
”It is really important to have someone who by personal example and efforts provides guidance for regional governors and officials at federal agencies, and who tries to encourage them to greater activity. And it seems to me, this part of your work has been a success.“
Dmitry Medvedev: You know, another important aspect is that everyone employed in such positions as yours in the regions across the country must be determined and active people. I do not know how they work but you probably have the information. Everybody works differently, but it is important that they encourage anyone who is responsible for protecting the rights and legitimate interests of children in their regions to adopt an active stand on the issue. That is vitally important. There should be no subordination vertical in their relations. I hope you are not planning to domineer over the other commissioners. They should look for work that needs to be done, because there is plenty, and they should try to address these problems on their own.
Pavel Astakhov: The one thing I tell them all the time is that they must know every child personally, especially the orphans in the region. That is imperative and they must regularly visit all the institutions.
We have held three conventions during this period, and at all three conventions I told the commissioners that they must get involved with each institution and become versed in every case, regardless of personal and departmental interests, because today the Commissioner is the closest official representing state and legal authorities that people have. People have realised that they can turn to the Commissioner, even in cases when children are taken into care, which has received a lot of attention recently. From the first day of the Commissioner’s establishment we have advocated that great care must be taken in such cases, and we have been able to reduce the number of cases when people are deprived of parental rights by 14.4%, and statistics confirm that.
Dmitry Medvedev: And how many terminations of parental rights do you have per year?
Pavel Astakhov: Terminations of parental rights? 56,000 to 60,000; there were 74,000 cases in 2008, 63,000 in 2009, and 56,000 in 2010.
Dmitry Medvedev: That’s statistical evidence. Although, if you think about it, it is still an extreme measure. I am sure you are familiar with legislation in other countries.
Pavel Astakhov: Yes, I am.
Dmitry Medvedev: Most countries do not provide for such a measure at all. A child can be taken into care, but termination of parental rights is not widely practiced because it is always a tragedy. Sometimes parents cannot be trusted with a child, but at the same time it is always a big problem and a major trauma for children when the existing legal relationship between parents and children is severed.
Pavel Astakhov: We have some terrible cases. I saw a two-year-old girl in Khabarovsk who was returned to her mother three times, the authorities did their best to keep the family together, they tried to treat the mother with understanding, gave her back the custody of the child, until in the end she broke her daughter’s skull and now this two-year-old girl needs major surgery.
Nevertheless, I always travelled to the location myself in such cases, looked into the situation personally and I always say that we must make every effort to keep the family together, if at all possible. But when we see a child being damaged or destroyed, we must act according to law.
Dmitry Medvedev: Of course.
Pavel Astakhov: The only thing we need in this regard is to clarify the wording in the Family Code, which we are working on now because the current phrasing of an immediate threat to life and health is too laconic. We must define this mechanism in greater detail.
Dmitry Medvedev: The court must understand how to interpret a particular situation.
Pavel Astakhov: That’s right.
On the other hand, all those issues are resolved in court, because it is the highest authority that can make a legal decision.
No one has abolished the defence; everyone has the right to counsel, it is even provided by the state free of charge. Therefore, people must protect their rights. Law favours waking, as the ancients said. So allegations that we have sweeping terminations of parental rights and that commissioners encourage this – it’s not true, it’s an absolute lie. The data we have confirms that on the contrary, the restriction of parental rights is more widely applied now.
Dmitry Medvedev: I wanted to mention that. If I remember correctly, we didn’t use to have the restriction of parental rights.
Pavel Astakhov: It was hardly ever applied in practice.
Dmitry Medvedev: As far as I remember, USSR legislation did not provide for it at all.
Pavel Astakhov: No, it did not.
Dmitry Medvedev: So, this mechanism of restricting parental rights has already been introduced into Russian legislation, and perhaps it should be used more widely than terminating parental rights. The legal practice must change as well, and in fact, you are encouraging this practice when you protect a child and his or her lawful rights.
I can tell you outright that when I made the decision to set up the post of the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, I had some doubts regarding the effectiveness of this institution. We already have a Human Rights Ombudsman, the Prosecutor General’s Office and countless other human rights organisations, investigators of juvenile cases and so on.
But practice has shown that it is really important to have someone who by personal example and efforts provides guidance for regional governors and officials at federal agencies, and who tries to encourage them to greater activity. And it seems to me, this part of your work has been a success, so I hope that you will continue as tirelessly as before.
Pavel Astakhov: I will strive to. We have some achievements, though they are not always good news for some people. More than 68 criminal cases have been initiated based on our own investigations only and 50 officials have been dismissed from their posts.
Dmitry Medvedev: That is as it should be, it shows that the institution is effective.
Pavel Astakhov: We make every effort to bring each case to conclusion, regardless of the people involved or any intradepartmental interests.
Dmitry Medvedev: You are responsible for protecting the most valuable resource – the life and health of a child.