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Domestic CP - October 2003

Corpun file 12416

National Post, Toronto, 10 October 2003


Spank away

The United Nations' demand this week that Canada outlaw spanking came from an odd messenger: Moushira Khattab, the Egyptian representative to the UN's children's rights directorate in Geneva.

First, Ms. Khattab admits to having disciplined her own now-grown children when they were younger. (She insists she knows better now that they are adults. Readers dealing with unruly toddlers may see the timing of this Damascene conversion as a tad too convenient.) Second, we are not sure what Canada has to learn from Egypt regarding the treatment of children. Until 2000, the caning of prisoners was still an officially sanctioned disciplinary practice in that country's prisons. And Egypt routinely appears on watch lists of human-rights groups due to the abuse children suffer in textile mills and other factories.

But Ottawa must share much of the blame for the UN's outrageous dictum. For more than a decade, our federal government has sent mixed messages on spanking. On the one hand, it claims not to want to interfere with parents' right to apply mild physical discipline. But Ottawa also handsomely funds Canadian NGOs that fly around the globe lobbying the UN to tell us not to spank. It takes the same approach at home: By last count, Ottawa had paid nearly $100,000 in legal bills so activists could bring a Charter challenge against the Criminal Code provision that permits use of "reasonable force" in disciplining youngsters.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child -- the authority the UN cites in insisting Canada ban corporal punishment -- does not explicitly forbid spanking. Rather, it requires that signatory countries "take all appropriate ... measures to protect the child from all forms of physical and mental violence, injury, abuse, neglect ... maltreatment or exploitation." When the convention was ratified in 1989, and when Canada approved it in 1991, no one imagined spanking would be included among the forms of "physical and mental violence" the authors sought to prohibit. The drafters had in mind beatings, torture, forced labour and pressing children into military service. Only after the convention had been ratified did its activist adjudicators in Geneva interpret the words of the convention to include spanking.

Ottawa isn't bound by the UN's demand. Like our own Charter of Rights and Freedom, with its notwithstanding clause, the Convention on the Rights of the Child permits signatory governments to declare exemptions for themselves from the convention's rules. Ottawa has earlier carved out an exemption for the "aboriginal peoples in Canada," since some of their "customary forms of [child] care" might appear to UN observers to violate the convention.

Mild corporal punishment is an effective, humane -- and in some cases, necessary -- disciplinary option; and parents should not be threatened with legal sanctions for applying it. Our government should therefore declare an exemption to the UN's ruling forthwith. If MPs cave in to Geneva instead, voters might consider taking them to the woodshed in the next election.

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