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Thursday 4th of June 2020

Press Room

IJJO Interviews- Ms. Alice McGrath. Lawyer and international adviser. Australia

Monday 5th of May 2014 | National, Australia

In this interview, Alice McGrath describes the main challenges in the implementation of juvenile justice reforms in the Asian-Pacific area. Indeed, as the author of the first report of the Asian Pacific Council for Juvenile Justice, she explains the essential objectives of the meeting (and of its subsequent publication): it should serves as a platform which enables the countries of the region to share their experiences in order to then address challenges through improved regional collaboration. Moreover, Alice McGrath describes the real situation of the children who are deprived of liberty or in conflict with the law in the Asian-Pacific countries. She also points out that an important mission to be accomplished in order to protect the rights of children in conflict with the law in the region is to focus principally on prevention initiatives. However, it should be kept in mind that different barriers still prevent the successful implementation of a specialized juvenile justice system in the countries of the region. On that matter, according to Ms. McGrath the main challenge seems to make these issues known on a domestic and regional level, which is not an easy task to do considering all the differences between the countries of the Asian-Pacific region.

Ms McGrath is a lawyer and international adviser from Australia. Alice began her professional life as a lawyer for children and adults and specialised working with indigenous young people in remote settings with the Northern Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. Ms McGrath over the last 12 years has worked as an international advisor in human rights and juvenile justice reform in Oceania, Central Asia, The Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa.  In recent years Alice has been involved with the Australian Government in developing civil/military post conflict reintegration planning models, with a special focus on including non-state actors in post conflict stabilisation and development planning. Alice is currently assisting to lead a European Union funded justice project in Palestine and is completing her Masters in International Law and Human Rights in Armed Conflict at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, Switzerland. 

As international expert in human rights and in juvenile justice reforms in three different parts of the world such as Central Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East and North Africa, in your point of view, what are the main common challenges in the implementation of juvenile justice reforms?

It is hard to give a blanket summary to this response as there are so many factors that are unique to countries across the world that play a great part in implementing reforms, and so much good work being done to bring about change in many countries. But in terms of challenges, one common thread I have seen in my work is the way in which children in conflict with the law are perceived within some communities, and the real challenge lays in helping to shift the negative attitudes that some governments and individuals carry. In my own life and work I always ask ‘What if it were my child in this jail cell or in this courtroom? What would I do to help create change?’ Children and youth are of the most vulnerable groups within our community but rarely are their needs addressed adequately on national and regional reforms agendas, and we often see that funding required is not allocated and reform programs can suffer as a result.

Some communities I have worked in (including in my own country Australia) have been led to perceive that ‘juvenile justice’ as a concept is a ‘foreign construct’ inspired by regimes outside the cultural and historical frameworks that their community supports. However, once we dig a little and we see that key juvenile justice reform concepts such as ‘restorative justice’ are based on principles of apology, forgiveness and healing which are largely universal in nature – these reform measures have been better accepted. In fact there is a current trend (particularly in countries in conflict or emerging from conflict) for development programmers to focus more and more on locally delivered justice models where the concept of ‘restorative justice’ is implicit in existing community led processes. In these settings, assistance is given to help strengthen regimes within community based governance structures – particularly in areas where state led mechanisms are not available nor desirable. For children (particularly those accused of minor offences) this can mean that justice is more accessible and sometime delivered more quickly.

The APCJJ is so important for many reasons – above all, so that all the good work to tackle these challenges in countries in this region can be shared and states and individuals can play a supporting role to assist their neighbours realise reforms. 

You are the author of the first report of the Asian Pacific Council for Juvenile Justice (APCJJ) “A voice for the future of Juvenile Justice in Asia-Pacific. An introduction to the Asia Pacific Council for Juvenile Justice and leading juvenile justice reforms in the region” What are the main objectives of this publication?

The report aims to explore firstly the makeup and function of the APCJJ as well as the key outcomes of the first meeting which brought together representatives from 19 different countries across the Asia Pacific. This meeting provided a forum for experiences to be shared amongst member states and to prepare course of action to address challenges through improved regional collaboration. The report reflects upon the meaningful exchanges that took place at this first meeting in Bangkok and highlights recommendations for improvement to juvenile justice programming across the region.

The APCJJ was created by the International Juvenile Justice Observatory in order to support countries of the region to implement international standards and to develop reforms as well as to collect quantitative and qualitative information on the situation of children and young people in conflict with the law. According to you, what is the real situation of those children who are deprived of liberty or in conflict with the law in the Asia-Pacific countries?

The youth population in the Asia Pacific region amounts to 700 million people and this number amounts to 45% of the world’s youth population.  This region is fascinating in that market economies are quickly developing but at the same time traditional culture, language and custom remain intact for many of the region’s inhabitants. What we do see is that many children are left behind and do not benefit from economic developments taking place, and the needs of children in conflict with the law - one of the most vulnerable groups within our society - tend to be overlooked. It is not easy to summarise what the situation of children in conflict with the law is  across the Asia Pacific region given the vast economic, political, and social differences that exist amongst states but I can say from my own work experience and also from experiences shared at the APCJJ first meeting that common features do include the fact that many children come from situations of abject poverty, where family and community supports are no longer present and where state education and health structures are perhaps weaker (especially in non-urban areas) and children’s access to these services is reduced. Representatives from member states concurred that a common theme across this region is that offending by young people is largely minor in nature and status offences such as begging for food and money as well as petty theft are common types of offences for which children are charged and detained. Other issues such as increased use of drugs and alcohol abuse have also gained prominence in countries across the region as well.The report states some of the main aims of the APCJJ. In your opinion, what is the most important and urgent mission a platform of experts such as the APCJJ could undertake to protect the right of children in conflict with the law in the region?

The very purpose of the APCJJ is to further develop the sustainable collaboration and coordination amongst all parties and stakeholders in the development of juvenile justice policies for social inclusion of young people - but what are the most pressing issues that the APCJJ needs to address? This was discussed during the first meeting and I agree with those present that while many issues require further attention (such as violence against children in detention as well as treatment of females in detention) participants agreed that prevention initiatives need greater focus in policy planning and strategic development. Experts from the APCJJ could contribute heavily to improvements in this domain by defining key practices and developing mechanisms to assist in the exchanging of innovations amongst states. This could be as simple as developing expert resource ‘contact’ points for states who are developing programming and policy to seek guidance from their regional neighbours during pivotal policy and programming development phases. Experts from APCJJ could also help states to recognise the need to anticipate future trends in youth ‘at risk’ behaviour or crime   - and ensuring that young people themselves, as critical informants of emerging behaviours, are involved in the dialogue. In most states, some really fantastic initiatives are already taking place to help prevent youth crime, and the benefit of the APCJJ is that these initiatives can be shared, tailored and adopted in other states across the region.


Even if we are aware of the fact that reforms in the field of child rights or juvenile justice are gradually introduced in the Asian region, there still remains much to be done before we can talk of a successful implementation of international standards. Considering the first APCJJ meeting’s conclusions, what are the main barriers that have to be overcome in order to successfully implement, in the region, a specialized juvenile justice system in general and restorative juvenile justice in particular?

This is a really interesting question and much of the battle to successfully implement reforms centres around the challenge to give profile to these issues on a domestic and regional level. If we look at the ‘macro’ context for a minute, there is a tendency for the larger states in the region to dominate the regional reform agenda - and smaller states such as many Pacific nations tend to get ‘bundled into the same basket’ when it comes to regional development programming generally. It is very important to remember that for juvenile justice reforms to be realized, the reform needs of states vary across the region given the vast difference in population, culture, language and practice. This we need to be careful of when assuming a regional reform approach for juveniles across the Asia Pacific, to ensure that the smaller states are given a voice on the regional agenda and indeed, to remember that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to developing specialized juvenile justice systems might not always be appropriate.

Further, if we look at the needs of children, particularly vulnerable groups such as young offenders - their needs and the needs of their family are rarely prioritized in government policy planning and budgeting processes. But,  at the same time it is widely acknowledged that the detention of children is a costly exercise – and well planned initiatives that target prevention, diversion and alternative sentencing (which derive from a restorative justice approach) cost less. However this lack of insight by many states across the region continues to be a barrier to reforms being fully realized. The APCJJ member states can collectively assist to overcome this challenge by sharing  tools to promote ways to prioritize the needs of children in conflict with the law in state budgeting and ‘justice reinvestment’ strategies, which promote low cost alternatives to detention and an increased emphasis on positive prevention practices.


Finally, the APCJJ report collects the key issues to make the principal aspirations and objectives of the APCJJ a reality. Which are the “good news” stories that have emerged from the first APCJJ meeting in Bangkok?

 From the 19 countries represented at the first meeting of the APCJJ, each country had a host of ‘good news stories’. We learned that countries such as India and Papua New Guinea have made great efforts to decentralize reform initiatives so that young people in non-urban settings could also benefit from leading reforms and receive services. We learned about the value of ‘people power’ and large scale volunteer initiatives that have been established such as in Japan  - where a strong  community willingness exists to help install activities and services for young people, which also helps to prevent criminal and ‘at risk’ behaviour. Further, large scale law reform initiatives have taken place recently across countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Philippines – and importantly, have contributed to shifting community attitudes in relation to young offenders and ‘at risk’ youth. Furthermore, countries not only benefit on a domestic level from these innovations, but by sharing their know-how with states which are still developing reforms, this experience within the region can be a very important tool to share.

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