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Get to know Ton Liefaard and find out about children's rights

In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. Throughout the whole world countries – including the Netherlands – are struggling to apply the convention. More knowledge is needed about the meaning of children’s rights.

Read more about Ton Liefaard, Professor of Children’s Rights, about research and teaching on this topic at Leiden University, and about their impact on society.

Discover the world at Leiden University.

Research: is the world keeping its promises on children’s rights?

You may think that children are afforded proper legal rights, but that’s only true to an extent. Governments and judges often do not know how to apply international agreements on children’s rights. In the Netherlands, too, children are the victims of this uncertainty, for example because they are not regarded as full individuals or are all too easily locked up. Professor of Children’s Rights Ton Liefaard is the holder of the only UNICEF chair in the Netherlands, funded by UNICEF The Netherlands. He conducts research at national and international level on the legislative significance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. He also investigates the impact of the convention on children’s daily lives. Their findings put Liefaard and his colleagues in a position to give advice that will ensure that children actually receive what they are entitled to.

Photo: ANP

In 1989, member states of the United Nations signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has since been adopted by 194 countries; only the United States, Somalia and Southern Sudan have not endorsed the convention. The convention was the first official recognition that children have human rights; it established that children have to be protected against violence and different forms of exploitation, and that they are entitled to education, good healthcare and free time and play.

‘1989 seems like a long time ago, but this convention is relatively young,’ according to Ton Liefaard. ‘It’s now up to governments throughout the world to implement the convention in their own legislation and policies. It’s adults who have to be open to children’s rights. At the core of the convention is the principle that children have to be listened to and included in decision-making. But what you see is that adults are often only prepared to go so far in listening to children and giving them a say in decisions. Nor are they prepared to determine how much value they attach to the opinions of children in the decision-making process. This attitude seriously undermines the Convention on Children’s Rights.’ Unfortunately, violations of children’s rights seem to be an everyday occurrence, and we’re not just talking about such infringements as child labour, sexual abuse or involving children in armed conflicts, according to Liefaard. ‘Even wealthy countries like the Netherlands do not take children’s rights seriously enough. There are concerns about children who need special youth services, children who were not born here, but who have lived here for a long time and go to school here, or children who come into contact with criminal law.’

Liefaard and his colleagues from the Department of Child Law (Faculty of Law) study the effect of the UN Convention on Human Rights on legislation, policies and jurisprudence in countries, including the Netherlands, and its impact on the lives of children. They examine in particular the penetration of children’s rights into jurisprudence, the rights of children in child protection and childcare, the rights of children who are placed in institutions outside their family, children’s rights and juvenile justice, children’s rights and violence against children, for example at home or in secure institutions, and the right of children to be heard. ‘As a centre of expertise on children’s rights, Leiden opts for a legal perspective, and from this angle to connect with other disciplines. When considering the input of young people, we look, for example, in the first instance at the framework outlined by the UN Convention and what it means for the way that children are treated at national level. The legal framework is important because it stresses that care and respect for all children is not optional; it is an obligation. The international legal framework provided important guidance, by stating, for example, that parents bear the primary responsibility for how they raise their children. This implies that, in the first instance, the government has to be reticent in intervening in children’s upbringing. The interests of the child always have to be the prime consideration, however, and these may justify state intervention.’

On the basis of their research, Liefaard and his colleagues also provide advice on legislation, policies and jurisprudence to such bodies as the Dutch government and the Children’s Ombudsman and such international organisations as the Council of Europe.

Children’s rights from the home to youth detention centres

The right to be heard

At the heart of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the principle that children should have a say in decisions that affect them. Ton Liefaard examines how this principle is handled in legislation and in practice.

More about The right to be heard

Conditions for temporary detention

Ton Liefaard and his colleagues study how children end up going from youth protection institutions to secure institutions, including prisons, police cells and detention centres. He wants to find answers to such questions as: how are the conditions for detention specified in legislation and which decision-making procedure do the courts follow?

More about Conditions for temporary detention

Children’s rights in prison

Liefaard has been occupied since the start of his academic career with the legal position of children in prisons and other secure institutions. It was the subject of his PhD research. ‘Even though prison should always be a last resort, sometimes it is necessary to detain a child. But even in secure institutions children still have rights. There’s an unbelievable amount of work still to be done internationally in this area.’

More about Children’s rights in prison

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been adopted by an increasing number of countries. How far do courts go in applying the convention and the new laws? Ton Liefaard discovered that there is still a lot of reluctance on the part of the courts to apply these laws.

More about The Convention on the Rights of the Child
‘Children are still being subjected to violence throughout the world’

Teaching: ‘Clear legal thinking can improve the position of children’

Ton Liefaard is involved in the teaching on children’s rights in the bachelor’s and master’s programmes at Leiden University. Alumni take up posts as scientists, lawyers, clerks, judges or policy makers within governments, international organisations such as the UN or non-government organisations. ‘What I think is important for future children’s rights professions is the ability to think in sound legal terms about the position of children. It is also important to be aware of the limitations of the international legal framework. National legislation and the administration of the law are strong weapons for improving the position of children.’

Summer School Watch video

The Department of Child Law at Leiden University has for the past three years been the only university department in the Netherlands to offer an independent master’s in Children’s Rights that includes a separate English-language subject, ‘Children’s Rights’. The master’s gives you a degree in Child Law. Liefaard also teaches children’s rights in two other master’s programmes and in the bachelor’s programme. He organises the Summer School of International Rights, for professionals and advanced students, and is programme director of an advanced master’s in international children’s rights. ‘25 years ago there were no programmes that gave international children’s rights a set place in the curriculum. The range of programmes in Leiden offers tomorrow’s professionals the opportunity to familiarise themselves with children’s rights and study the subject in greater depth. This will also bear fruit in the future,’ Liefaard comments. ‘The Department of Child Law was established last year, instigated by a professor of Child Law, Professor Mariëlle Bruning, and several researchers. Now there are 15 researchers and lecturers in the area of Dutch Child Law and international children’s rights.’ The Department of Child Law also offers different post-academic courses for lawyers, judges and other professionals. Children’s rights are the key thread running through these courses.

More programmes on children’s rights

Law : There are different forms of the law, but everyone at some time comes into contact with one type of law or another. Our daily lives are controlled by laws. Law controls our daily lives. The law comes into play when you are buying a loaf of bread of topping up the balance on your mobile phone. Studying law is not just about major legal cases, it also covers everyday matters.

Education and Child Studies : If you opt for Education and Child Studies you will be involved with upbringing and learning. What should you do, for example, if a child constantly demonstrates aggressive behaviour? How can you help a child with learning difficulties? The Education and Child Studies programme investigates the causes of particular behaviour. Education specialists support both children and their parents.

Advanced LLM Internaional Children's Rights : International Children’s Rights is a programme whose time has come. In November 2014 the main treaty in this area – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – reached its 25th anniversary. Also, there is an ever deepening consciousness at the international and domestic levels regarding the role that implementing children’s rights can have in both the private and the public spheres of life.

  • Mariëlle Bruning
  • Lenneke Alink
  • Yannick van den Brink
  • Alex Geert Castermans
  • Tineke Cleiren
  • Jaap Doek
  • Michiel van Emmerik
  • Simona Florescu
  • Simone van der Hof
  • Rick Lawson
  • Titia Loenen
  • Isabeth Mijnarends
  • Jan Michiel Otto
  • Joni Reef
  • Peter Rodrigues
  • Bill Schabas
  • Nico Schrijver
  • Pauline Schuyt
  • Julia Sloth-Nielsen
  • Machteld Vonk
  • Martine Wierenga

Mariëlle Bruning Professor of Children and the Law

Director of the Child Law department. Conducts research on juvenile protection and support in the Netherlands.

Lenneke Alink Professor of Forensic Family Studies

Researches such topics as whether a chaotic family situation precipitates child abuse.

Yannick van den Brink Lecturer

Researchers the purpose, legal embedding and application of temporary detention of juveniles.

Alex Geert Castermans Professor of Civil Law

Researches the social responsibility of multinationals.

Tineke Cleiren Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure

Field of research includes establishing the truth in criminal law. Leader of the research profile area ‘Interaction Between Legal Systems’.

Jaap Doek Emeritus Professor of Juvenile and Family Law

Former Chairman of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Emeritus Professor of Family and Juvenile Law.

Michiel van Emmerik Senior University Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law.

Researches the interaction between international and European Law and Dutch Constitutional and Administrative Law.

Simona Florescu PhD candidate

Former legal adviser at the European Court of Human rights. Lecturer in children’s rights.

Simone van der Hof Professor of Law and Digital Technologies

Key research theme is the influence of technology on the legal position of the individual and the legislation that protects this position.

Rick Lawson Professor of European Law

Specialist in the area of human rights and European Law.

Titia Loenen Professor of Human Rights and Diversity

Her research is in the field of human rights, equality issues and national and international non-discrimination.

Isabeth Mijnarends Professor of a Special Chair in Juvenile Criminal Law

Lectures in and conducts interdisciplinary research on juvenile criminal law.

Jan Michiel Otto Professor of Law and Governance, Director of the Van Vollenhoven Institute

Specialist in law and governance in developing countries, including Indonesia, China, Egypt and South Africa.

Joni Reef Assistant Professor of Criminology

Researches effects of detaining offenders on wellbeing of children. Studies violence in juvenile detention centres, together with Liefaard.

Peter Rodrigues Professor of Immigration Law

Conducts research on discrimination, family migration, statelessness and the position of children in asylum law.

Bill Schabas Professor of International Criminal Law and Human Rights

Carried out extensive work for the UN. In 2010, on behalf of the Secretary-General, he wrote the report on the status of the death sentence.

Nico Schrijver Professor of Public International Law

Studies international law as a means of promoting world peace and security.

Pauline Schuyt Professor of Penal Law and Sentencing

Researches sentencing in criminal cases and grounds for sentencing applied by the courts. Lectures in the field of penology and prison law.

Julia Sloth-Nielsen Professor of Children's rights in the developing world

Works closely with Ton Liefaard, including in the Children’s Rights Summer School.

Machteld Vonk University lecturer and researcher on Child and Family Law

Studies different aspects of the relationship between children and parents in laws relating to adoption, origin, authority and access.

Martine Wierenga Programme Manager Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies

Together with Ton Liefaard organises the Children’s Rights Summer School.

Impact: influence on children

Improving the legal position of children will take more than love and attention, according to Ton Liefaard. ‘Adults have to realise that children’s rights are no longer optional. A lot of work still needs to be done to make children’s rights really meaningful, and good research and teaching are also needed.’ Liefaard’s aim with his research, teaching and advice is to see that this awareness penetrates all different levels: international, national and local. This is also something he has recently started to do as a member of the State Committee on the Re-evaluation of Parenthood. He is also deputy juvenile judge at the District Court of Amsterdam, where he deals with juvenile criminal cases.

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Ton Liefaard works closely with the Children’s Rights House in Leiden.

The world of...

Discover the world in Leiden. Leiden’s researchers collaborate with colleagues throughout the world, often from other adjacent disciplines. Ton Liefaard also works with eminent colleagues from different countries. The world map below shows a number of Ton Liefaard’s global contacts (zoom in on the map to see the markers more clearly).