UN: Growth of World Law: The Convention on the Rights of the Child

UN: Growth of World Law: The Convention on the Rights of the Child

When the Convention on the Rights of the Child was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989, governments took a major step forward in establishing a framework of world law to protect the basic dignity and rights of children in all parts of the world. This universal framework is based on the principle that each child should have the possibility to develop into an active and responsible member of society. The way in which a society treats its children reflects not only its qualities of compassion and protective caring, but also its sense of justice, its commitment to the future and its urge to better the human condition for coming generations.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is unique in the response it has met. No other human rights treaty has been ratified so quickly by so many. The fact that a government has ratified gives the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in a country a new opportunity to raise fundamental issues about the status of children in an on-going way. In many States, the Convention has resulted in increased political attention to children and young people. The Convention can serve as an agenda for discussion on the current circumstances of children.

The effort to create a legal framework for the welfare of the child began early in the League of Nations efforts with the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 which was largely based on a text written by the then newly-established non-governmental organization “Save the Children International Union”. Child welfare has always been a prime example of the cooperative efforts among governments, scholars highlighting the conditions of children, and NGOs working actively in the field. The Geneva Declaration served as the basis for the UN General Assembly resolution on the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted also on 20 November 1959. The 1959 Declaration was followed with the more specific provisions of the Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, and the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict.

In 1978, some representatives of both governments and NGOs, in UN human rights circles in Geneva felt that it was time to bring together these different declarations and provisions into a single text that would have the legal force of a UN convention. The Polish delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights took the lead in this effort, but some governments felt that the different declarations needed to be closely reviewed and measured against changing realities. Thus a Special Working Group on the Rights of the Child was created in 1979 under the chairmanship of Poland. Governments and NGO representatives worked together from 1979 to 1988 for a month each year. There was a core group including the Association of World Citizens which worked steadily and which represented a wide range of different beliefs, values and traditions, as well as a wide range of socio-economic realities.

As a result of serious discussions, the Convention covers a wide range of human rights, which can be summarized as the three “Ps”: provision, protection, and participation. Each child has the right to be provided with certain things and services, such as a name and a nationality, to health care and education. Each child has a right to be protected from certain acts such as torture, exploitation, arbitrary detention and unwarranted removal from parental care. Each child has a right to participate in decisions affecting their lives as well as in community life.

The Working Group managed to come to a consensus on the final version in time for the General Assembly to adopt it on 20 November 1989, the anniversary date of the Declaration. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is meant to provide guidance for governments to review national legislation and policies in their child-related initiatives. It is by examining national law and policy and the effectiveness of structures and mechanisms that progress can be measured.

To help governments to fulfil their obligations and to review national practices, a Committee on the Rights of the Child was created as called for in article 43 of the Convention. The Committee is composed of 10 independent experts elected by the states who have ratified the Convention for a four-year term. The Committee usually meets three times a year for a month each time in Geneva to review and discuss reports submitted by governments. The sessions of the Committee are largely carried out in a non-confrontational dialogue with an emphasis on ‘unmet needs’, realizing that many countries have a limited capacity to comply fully with the Convention’s provisions without technical and financial assistance. The discussion usually lasts six to nine hours for each country. The Committee asks many questions and based on the government’s responses, makes suggestions for improving the promotion and protection of children’s rights in the country.

The Committee has a permanent secretariat in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. NGOs continue to work closely with the Committee on the Rights of the Child providing additional information and disseminating widely the conclusions and recommendations that the Committee prepares after receiving national reports.

By creating a common legal framework, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has increased levels of governmental accountability, bringing about legislative and institutional reform and increasing international cooperation. As James P. Grant, then UNICEF Executive Director said “Transcending its detailed provisions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child embodies the fundamental principle that the lives and the normal development of children should have first call on society’s concerns and capacities and that children should be able to depend upon that commitment in good times and in bad, in normal times and in times of emergency, in times of peace and in times of war, in times of prosperity and in times of recession.”

There are four major areas of action that arise from the Convention of the Rights of the Child which reflect its guiding principle that “Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.” These four action areas are health, education, conditions of labour and protection in armed conflict. I will briefly highlight three of these action areas with which I have personal experience with an emphasis on the important role that non-governmental organizations such as the Association of World Citizens play.

Despite concerted efforts at the local and national level, there are still millions of children who are deprived of school-based education. In addition, much education does not prepare children for a creative and meaningful livelihood. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has tried to mobilize world cooperation to meet the goal of education for all. The full realization of the right to education for all without discrimination or exclusion is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

Education, of course, is not limited to school-based education. Parents and other adults have an important role to play in education for they are models for identity – what it is to be a person. Each culture and each historical era presents only a limited number of socially meaningful models with which a young person may use to draw together what becomes his personality. Thus, it is important that we as adults present models which can help guide the young to grow up emotionally secure, loving life and looking forward to the future.

Today, millions of children, especially those living in extreme poverty, have no choice but to accept exploitive employment to ensure their own and their family’s survival. Child labour is often hidden behind the real and non-exploitive help that children bring to family farms. However, such help often keeps children out of school and thus outside the possibility of joining the modern sector of the economy. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that of the some 200 million child labourers in the world, some 70 percent are in agriculture, 10 percent in industry/mines and the others in trade and services – often as domestics or street vendors in urban areas. Globally, Asia accounts for the largest number of child workers – 122 million, Sub-Saharan Africa, 50 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 million. Young people under 18 make up half of humanity, a half which is virtually powerless in relation to the other half. To ensure the well-being of children and adolescents in light of this imbalance of power, we must identify attitudes and practices which cause invisibility.

But statistics are only one aspect of the story. It is important to look at what type of work is done and for whom. The image of the child helping his parents on the farm can hide wide-spread bonded labour in Asia. Children are ‘farmed out’ to others for repayment of a debt with interest. As the interest rates are too high, the debt is never paid off and ‘bonded labour’ is another term for a form of slavery.

In Africa, children can live at great distances from their home, working for others with no family ties and thus no restraints on the demands for work. Girls are particularly disadvantaged as they often undertake household chores following work in the fields. Schooling for such children can be non-existent or uneven at best. There is often a lack of rural schools and teachers. Rural school attendance is variable even where children are not forced to work. Thus, there is a need for better coordination between resources and initiatives for rural education and the elimination of exploitive child labour.

There is still a long way to go to eliminate exploitive child labour. Much child labour is in what is commonly called the non-formal sector of the economy where there are no trade unions. Child labour is often related to conditions of extreme poverty and to sectors of the society where both adults and children are marginalized. Thus, the task of both governments and NGOs is to understand better the scope of exploitive child labour, its causes, the possibility of short-term protection of children and the longer-range efforts to overcome exclusion and poverty.

Protection in Armed Conflict
Children have always suffered during war and conflicts. However, today, in many conflicts, children are not the accidental victims of conflicts but are primary targets. To destroy what is of the highest value to someone is clearly among the most effective forms of terrorism imaginable; to kill and injure children is to rob a family of its future. What better way to undermine popular support for a cause than to attack the beings we love and value most in life?

Thus, there is growing attention to the impact of conflict on children, along with efforts to prevent the use of children as soldiers. There is a need to return to respect for the laws of war protecting civil populations as the impact of violence on children is deep and long lasting. We must remember that crises, conflicts, anxiety, fear and aggression belong to children’s normal development in all circumstances. War, however, changes the context and the meaning of these experiences for the children’s emotional health. Experiences of violence, losses and exploitation are interrelated and often strengthen each other, rotating in an extremely destructive and vicious circle. These experiences of war are very hard for children and result in three basic psychological reactions: fear, protest, and sorrow.

Healing for children marked by armed conflict is a way of restoration. Healing is also an art, whose mastery comes through practice and rigorous dialogue with fellow practitioners. Much of the work to be done with children harmed by war and violence is best done by trained professionals. However, such professional psychological social workers are often not available at all or in very small number in relation to the number of people uprooted in most current conflicts. Thus, there is a role which sensitive and caring persons can play if they can be organized and present in areas of conflict or in refugee camps. One of the most caring and healing ways to help children avoid the destructive burial of feelings is to have them express their deeply felt feelings of insecurity, anxiety, fear, terror, distrustfulness and unhappiness produced by the impact of major disruption, violence and other experiences of despair. Just as physical wounds need caring treatment through time, so emotional wounds need as much caring attention and time to heal.

The issue of children used as soldiers has become a concern of the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council established a comprehensive monitoring and reporting system to identify armed groups which use children as soldiers, sex slaves, spies and porters for war. A first list has been made public which includes the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Janjaweed militias in Sudan, the Maoists in Nepal, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Uganda.

The UN estimates that there are 250,000 children being trained for violence, rape, destruction and hatred. Tens of thousands of children are immersed in a culture of fear and hatred. At the heart of this growing phenomenon of mass violence and social disintegration is a crisis of values. Perhaps the most fundamental loss a society can suffer is the collapse of its own value system. Many societies exposed to protracted conflicts have seen their community values radically undermined if not shattered altogether. This has given rise to an ethical vacuum, a setting in which international standards are ignored with impunity and where local value systems have lost their sway.

The formation of persons with self-confidence, a capacity for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, and intimacy is difficult enough in times of peace and in an orderly society. It is much more difficult in times of violence and war – especially in the civil conflicts most common now, when people who have been living together in relative peace kill each other to the point of genocide.

Children need encouragement and guidance from parents and caregivers to help them express their feelings in a protected and safe environment. Children feel a sense of protection when they are with adults who allow the spontaneous expression of their experiences and feelings and offer interest, acceptance and understanding of these expressions. Especially in times torn apart by strife, violence and disorder, children who have the opportunity to express their experiences become stronger and more resilient and can recover from the destruction caused by war. Children who are listened to and whose feelings are acknowledged by others begin to fell more secure, valued, loved and loving.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a new opportunity to make respect for children’s rights and welfare truly universal. The Convention is an important aspect of World Law. We live in a world society bound through communications and economy to a common destiny. Thus today, there is a need for a universal ethic and a system of law that englobes all humanity. Of the collective norms, the clearest are those that touch the individual most directly such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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