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Children in conflict focus of family law congress

Children faced with conflict suffer the same challenges worldwide, it is the solutions that differ, says Justice Stuart Fowler of the Family Court of Australia.

A driving force behind the World Congress on Family Law and Children's Rights, being held in Halifax this week, Fowler hopes the meeting will promote a renewed enthusiasm for the protection of children. This will be the fifth installment of the congress that began in Sydney, Australia in 1993.

"The thing this congress has taught me is that problems with children around the world are the same, but solutions are dissimilar," Fowlers says. "Everybody has the chance to learn from each other.

"This congress . . . has never been one to suggest that it should be a self-education caucus. It also seeks to achieve outcomes for the future. It has in the past achieved outcomes."

This year's congress coincides with the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights on the Child. One of the resolutions from the original congress held in Sydney was the worldwide ratification of the convention. To date, 193 countries have ratified the main convention with only the United States and Somalia deferring. The U.S. has ratified two optional protocols on child prostitution and child pornography.

Other initiatives promoted through the world congress have included the criminalization of sex tourism. More than creating a law to punish those who would go abroad and conduct acts that would be illegal in their own country, the congress achieved a "societal change," says Fowler.

Prior to 1993, there wasn't an awareness of the sex tourism issue. By raising awareness, the congress has helped to encourage better protection for the children involved.

The theme of this year's conference being held in Halifax from Aug. 23 to 26 is Children Caught in Conflict. It focuses on areas of child protection, responding to differences, children of war, and children's rights and family conflicts. Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Jim Williams says the conference's theme shows both the micro and macro level of conflict faced by children.

"Micro in the sense of perhaps looking at the traditional family law, looking at the model of children caught in conflict with family," he says. "Macro in terms of looking at children in conflict on a much broader perspective in terms of issues of war, poverty, disease . . . which obviously has a significant impact on the breadth of the interdisciplinary experience.

"So it is a conference that is fairly unique in the breadth of the experience it offers professionals who attend it."

Specific topics discussed at the congress include traditional family law issues including adoption, children's voices in family law cases, changing nature of families, and comparative family law reform. Other topics include child trafficking and exploitation and children recruited to war. The conference will feature a special presentation from a former-child soldier.

Presentations given by family law professionals will become resolutions that will be considered for adoption at the end of the conference.

Chief Justice Diana Bryant, of the Family Court of Australia, says the resolutions are what make the congress unique, not only will there be shared research and ideas, "but it combines that with trying to actually come out of the conference with some resolutions, which will actually improve a lot of vulnerable children, both in our own country and around the world."

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