In the past few months, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has seen the introduction of a Federal Child Rights Law and the subsequent release by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) of a new Child Protection Policy.
We have also seen a steady number of complaints, and prosecutions, being brought under the Anti Discrimination Law (introduced last year), the wide provisions of which could well extend, for example, to comments made between students and/or staff.
This article explores the key implications of these developments for schools in the UAE.
Federal Law No. 3 of 2016 (Child Rights Law)
The Child Rights Law is aimed at protecting the rights of children across the UAE.
The Child Rights Law contains a section on “Educational Rights” which includes an obligation on the State to prohibit all kinds of violence in educational institutions and to preserve the dignity of children.
The Child Rights Law also refers to the State’s obligation to develop specific and organised programs for reporting and filing complaints in order to ensure investigation of acts and irregularities violating educational rights “in the manner specified by the Executive Regulations”.
The Executive Regulations to the Child Rights Law have not (at the time of writing this article) been published.
As a Federal Law, the Child Rights Law applies across all of the Emirates. Whilst the extent of the reporting and complaint filing obligations is unclear (for schools outside of Abu Dhabi at least) pending receipt of the Executive Regulations, schools would be well advised to review their child protection policies in light of the apparent renewed focus on this issue.
ADEC Child Protection Policy
Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) has released a Child Protection Policy which applies to all public and private schools in Abu Dhabi, the key provisions of which are summarised below.
• Publication of Child Protection Policy
Public schools must comply with ADEC’s Child Protection Policy whereas, for private schools, there is a positive obligation to publish their own child protection policy which meets, and does not contradict, ADEC’s Child Protection Policy.
Private schools in Abu Dhabi should therefore review their existing child protection policies to ensure compliance with the new ADEC Child Protection Policy (particularly in relation to reporting obligations and requirements, explained below).
• Scope of protection
One of the stated purposes of ADEC’s Child Protection Policy is the protection of students whilst in a school’s care from “all acts and omissions constituting physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, neglect, and bullying”.
Behaviours in students which might indicate each of the above, are set out in the Child Protection Policy. Staff should be trained to identify such indicative behaviours and encouraged to raise any suspected issues with the Principal at an early stage.
• Role of school Principal
ADEC’s Child Protection Policy emphasises the importance of the school principal as “guardian” of all students whilst they are under the school’s care. Additionally, it states that the school principal is responsible for ensuring that child protection procedures are understood by all staff.
This serves as a further reminder of the importance of the role of, and potential liabilities of, the principal of a school. Principals will of course want to take proactive measures to ensure that all staff are aware of, and comply with, ADEC’s Child Protection Policy.
• Wide responsibility for the protection of students
A school’s responsibility for the protection of students includes travel to and from school using school transport and moving between, waiting for and taking part in all activities organised by the school inside and outside of the school premises.
Safety on school transport is of course a topical issue following a number of fairly high profile incidents, prompting an announcement prior to the start of the academic year of tighter safety measures on school buses.
• Reporting obligation
All school staff must report cases of suspected abuse or neglect directly to the Ministry of Interior Child Protection Centre within 24 hours using the reporting link available on ADEC’s website.
This obligation extends beyond school staff to those who have regular or temporary contact with students or provide services to the school. Schools should consider how to effectively communicate this message to non-staff.
• Suspension of duties
Any staff member who is suspected of an offence involving student abuse and/or neglect must be suspended from duties pending the outcome of the investigation.
Such suspension should be with full pay and it should be made clear that no decision has been reached regarding the allegations.
When communicating the allegations to the relevant staff member, regard must also be had to the wide reaching defamation laws in the UAE which make it a criminal offence to publish a statement regarding another which is capable of subjecting that other to punishment or exposing him to public hatred or contempt (even where such a statement is true). Any correspondence in relation to allegations of this nature should therefore be very carefully drafted.
Consideration should be given to how the staff member’s absence will be explained to other staff, students and parents to ensure that, assuming the charges are not upheld, the staff member is able to return to the school with minimal disruption.
Federal Law No. 3 of 1987, as amended (UAE Penal Code)
Schools in the UAE need to be aware of the potential criminal implications of comments made between students and/or staff.
Where comments made between students and/or staff are of a religious or sexual nature, this could potentially amount to a crime under the UAE Penal Code.
Students, parents and staff should be made aware of the types of conduct and/or comments which will be considered unacceptable by the school and/or in breach of UAE law and should be warned of the potentially very serious implications of committing such conduct / making such comments.
Schools must also be aware that, under the UAE Penal Code, there is a general duty to report criminal conduct to the police. This duty can sometimes be problematic for employers where, for a variety of reasons, they do not wish to involve the police.
Federal Law No. 2 of 2015 on Preventing Discrimination and Extremism (AntiDiscrimination Law)
The Anti-Discrimination Law is primarily aimed at preventing religious extremism. However, its terms are fairly widely drafted and include, for example, disparaging the “Devine Entity” or disrespecting any of the “the heavenly religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism”.
There have been a number of reported cases of prosecutions under the Anti-Discrimination Law relating to comments made publically on social media. Students, parents and staff should be cautioned to carefully consider what they post on social media and should be warned of the potentially very consequences where inappropriate comments are made.
Whilst the majority of reported cases appear to relate to comments made publically, there have also been examples of prosecutions for comments made in a private forum. For example, a Syrian doctor was jailed for 7 years and fined AED 500,000 for insulting God and Islam whilst arguing with the owner of the medical clinic for which he worked. Prosecutions could therefore conceivably be made in relation to negative comments of a religious nature between students or staff, for example.
The Anti-Discrimination Law provides for joint liability for representatives, managers or agents of a corporate body if any of their employees commit an offence under the Anti-Discrimination Law in the name and on behalf of the corporate entity. It is therefore particularly important that schools have in place robust anti-discrimination policies which clearly set out the standards of behaviour expected of staff and that staff are regularly trained on such policies. In the event of a dispute, this should assist in demonstrating that any discriminatory comments made by staff were not “in the name and on behalf of” the school.
However, under the Anti-Discrimination Law, persons may be discharged from penalties under the law where they report a crime before it is otherwise detected. This, together with the duty to report under the UAE Penal Code, means that staff need to be encouraged to report such matters to the Principal/HR as soon as possible so that appropriate action (which may include reporting the matter to the police) can be taken.
Actions for Schools
In light of the apparent renewed focus on child protection issues in the UAE, and wide scope of the provisions under the Penal Code and Anti-Discrimination Law, all schools would be well advised to take the following actions:
• Review their current Child Protection Policy in light of Child Rights Law or, for those in Abu Dhabi, the ADEC Child Protection Policy. For schools in Abu Dhabi, the reporting obligations and procedures should be clearly stressed.
• Ensure that a regular training programme is in place so that all staff, and those providing services to the school, are made fully aware of the provisions of the school’s child protection policy.
• Put in place a policy to warn students (and their parents) and staff of cultural and legal requirements in the UAE and the potential implications of making comments which offend the UAE or religion, for example, on social media or otherwise.