UN Child Convention 25 years – what remains to do?

Twenty-five years have passed since the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the General Assembly. It has since become one of the most well-known and broadly supported international human rights treaties.

All the states in the world – except the United States and the war-torn Somalia and South Sudan – have ratified it and thereby legally bound themselves to implement its provisions.

As a result, the situation of children has been placed higher on the political agenda. Yet, the actual implementation of the convention has been less effective than we anticipated. The main reason for this failure is the absence of a systematic, comprehensive approach to children’s rights as a political priority.

Although children make up a large section of the population and constitute the future of society (in more ways than one), their concerns are seldom given top priority in politics. Ministers responsible for children’s affairs tend to be junior and are kept outside the inner circle of power. Children’s concerns are often seen as non-political, and sometimes trivial. The image of politicians on the campaign trail kissing babies has become symbolic of this trivialisation.

Gestures are not enough to meet the requirements of the convention – what is needed is serious political discussion and real change. Improvement in the status of, and conditions for, children are of course the very purpose of the convention. With ratification, a state commits itself to respecting the principles and provisions of the convention, and transforming that commitment into a reality for all children.

One possible reason for the delay in implementing the convention could be the decision makers’ lack of understanding or acceptance of the obligations arising from it. They appear not always to have made the distinction between charity and a rights-based approach.

Children in need, just like persons with disabilities, have long been the favoured “objects” of charity. They have been given support, not as a matter of right, but because people have felt sympathy for them. This is one of the attitudes that the convention challenges.

The convention sees the child as a subject. He or she has the right to schooling, health care and an adequate standard of living, as well as the right to be heard and to have his or her views respected. This goes as much for the cute toddler as for the problematic teenager.
The very notion that children have rights is a radical one, totally alien to the old-fashioned belief that children are only entitled to rights on their 18th birthday, and that their parents hold these rights until that date.

That children and their interests should be given priority is another important message in the convention. It states as an overarching principle that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” in all actions concerning them, whether those actions were taken by local or national authorities, parliaments, courts, or social welfare institutions, and including those run on a private basis (Article 3).

The convention also requires concrete steps to be taken to guarantee genuine implementation. It prescribes that governments must take legal, administrative and other measures and use “the maximum extent of their available resources” to ensure that children can enjoy their rights (Article 4).

Many of us who took part in the drafting of the convention were aware of the risk that the final text would be seen by some as an idealistic wish list rather than as a definition of the human rights of children. The challenge was to give substance to the obligations which would follow from a rights approach.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the elected body which monitors the application of the convention, has attached a great deal of importance to the methods and means used for its implementation. Based on that experience, and suggestions from UNICEF, non-governmental organisations and governments, one could develop a checklist for systematic measures that governments should take if they are serious about their obligations to children. These measures include the need to:

• develop a comprehensive national agenda for children;

• ensure that all legislation is fully compatible with children’s rights which requires incorporating the convention into domestic law and practice, as well as ensuring that its principles and provisions take precedence in cases of conflict with any national legislation;

• make children visible in the process of governmental policy development by introducing child impact assessments;

• carry out adequate budget analysis to determine the proportion of public funds spent on children, and to ensure the effective use of all such resources;

• establish permanent bodies or mechanisms throughout all sectors of government (including local authorities) to promote co-ordination, monitoring and evaluation of activities in furtherance of the convention;

• ensure that adequate data is collected and used to constantly improve the situation of all children in each jurisdiction;

• raise awareness and disseminate information on children’s rights and what they mean in reality, including through training for all those in government – especially, but not exclusively, for those whose work relates to children or who work directly with children;

• involve children themselves, as well as civil society, in the process of implementation and awareness-raising;

• develop independent statutory offices for children – a children’s ombudsman, commissioner or other similar institution – to promote children’s rights; and

• give children’s rights priority in all forms of international co-operation, including programmes for technical assistance.

These 10 recommendations are mutually reinforcing and have several characteristics in common. Each relies on public debate and transparent procedures. Each advocates a “first call” for children, while recognising the need for co-ordinated efforts to ensure that children’s rights are incorporated into the existing administrative structures, and they require children themselves to take part in the process.

The basic idea is that children’s issues be moved from the exclusive realm of charity on to the political agenda – and placed high thereon.

Several European governments have taken action on these recommendations, for instance, through adopting a national strategy, improving their internal co-ordination around children’s issues, developing good data collection systems and appointing an ombudsman for children (either within the office of the general ombudsman or as a separate body).

Yet, there are glaring gaps which appear to indicate that governments are still not being sufficiently serious. This is particularly reflected in the continued lack of child protection.

Too little is being done to give children with disabilities an opportunity for good schooling; children within minorities, not least the Roma, are disadvantaged in most spheres of life; children in conflict with the law are too often detained; children among irregular migrants are vulnerable and suffer exploitation; and refugee children are not well treated. Corporal punishment is retained in about half of the countries in Europe and some children also face violence at school. Justice systems, schools and cities are not yet child-friendly.

One reason why powerful politicians tend to issue rhetorical statements rather than develop concrete children’s programmes is probably because many of them lead a life which isolates them from a child’s everyday reality. Yet the opinions of children themselves are not taken seriously, and their parents or guardians are also accorded little time or opportunity to present their views.

In fact, the genuineness of political commitment is most clearly tested in budget discussions. In the current austerity programmes there have been budget cuts in several countries which have affected children and services directed at them – either directly in the state budget, or via reduced support to local authorities.

Funds for education, health care and social benefits for vulnerable groups have been significantly reduced in a number of countries, and this is before governments start paying back the debts incurred when public money was used to meet the financial crisis and rescue the banking system.

This has provoked a widespread discussion on the meaning to be accorded to the UN convention’s commitment that “the maximum extent” of available resources go to children. Inevitably, children’s interests will also suffer when society as a whole is forced to tighten its belt. However, it is clearly against the very spirit of the convention if decisions are made which would penalise those who are already vulnerable, and so increase existing inequalities. In a time of economic stringency, the human rights principle of non-regression is an important one for the authorities to bear in mind as they choose which government programmes to maintain or to abandon.

It is now particularly urgent that the short and long-term economic impact on children be analysed before budgets are finalised. In Europe we already have a serious problem of child poverty – it is appallingly widespread in some countries, and a large number of children are disadvantaged from the outset. An economic crisis is hardly an argument for not addressing child poverty – on the contrary, it this is when it is even more urgent to do so.

Resource limitations cannot be seen as an excuse by states for ignoring their obligations to protect children’s rights or for delaying the implementation of measures. The greater the difficulty, the more reason there is to act with a clear political strategy so as to address the problems in a systematic fashion.

Indeed, it is particularly in times of crisis that the state has to reaffirm its commitment and to fully respect the rights of children – all children.