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International Efforts to Secure Child Rights

A) The Convention on the Rights of the Child

“ A century that began with children having virtually no rights is ending with children having the most powerful legal instrument that not only recognizes but protects their human rights.” – Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director.

“To look into some aspects of the future, we do not need projections by supercomputers. Much of the next millennium can be seen in how we care for our children today. Tomorrow's world may be influenced by science and technology, but more than anything, it is already taking shape in the bodies and minds of our children.” – Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was carefully drafted over the course of 10 years (1979-1989) with the input of representatives from all societies, all religions and all cultures. A working group made up of members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, independent experts and observer delegations of non-member governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies was charged with the drafting. NGOs involved in the drafting represented a range of issues – from various legal perspectives to concerns about the protection of the family.

The Convention reflects this global consensus and, in a very short period of time, it has become the most widely accepted human rights treaty ever. It has been ratified by 192 countries; only two countries have not ratified: The United States and Somalia, which have signaled their intention to ratify by formally signing the Convention. .

Like all human rights treaties, the Convention on the Rights of the Child had first to be approved, or adopted, by the United Nations General Assembly. On 20 November 1989, the governments represented at the General Assembly agreed to adopt the Convention into international law.

When a government signed the Convention, it had to widely consult within the country on the standards in the Convention and begin identifying the national laws and practices that needed to be brought into conformity with these standards. Ratification was the next step, which formally bound the government on behalf of all people in the country to meet the obligations and responsibilities outlined in the Convention.

The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, set the end of 1995 as a target for the universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. By the last day of that year, 185 States had ratified, making it the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. As of mid-2003, only two States had not yet ratified.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere - without discrimination - have:

a) the right to survival;
b) to develop to the fullest;
c) to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation;
d) to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

Translating child rights principles into practice requires action and leadership by governments. By ratifying the Convention, States commit to undertaking "all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the Convention" (article 4) and to reporting on such measures to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the internationally-elected body of experts charged with monitoring States' implementation of the Convention. The Committee then reviews and comments on the States' reports.

As noted by a member of the Committee during a review of one State's report, there are no specific right or wrong measures of implementation. What is key is that the Convention should be the main benchmark and inspiration for action at all levels of government. And because the protection of human rights is by nature a permanent and endless process, there is always room for improvement.

In its reviews, the Committee urges all levels of government to use the Convention as a guide in policy-making and implementation, to:

1) Develop a comprehensive national agenda.

2) Develop permanent bodies or mechanisms to promote coordination, monitoring and evaluation of activities throughout all sectors of government.

3) Ensure that all legislation is fully compatible with the Convention by incorporating it into domestic law or ensuring that its principles take precedence in cases of conflict with national legislation.

4) Make children visible in policy development processes throughout government by introducing child impact assessments.

5) Analyze government spending to determine the portion of public funds spent on children and to ensure that these resources are being used effectively.

6) Ensure that sufficient data are collected and used to improve the situation of all children in each jurisdiction.

7) Raise awareness and disseminate information on the Convention by providing training to all those involved in government policy-making and working with or for children.

8) Involve civil society – including children themselves – in the process of implementing and raising awareness of child rights.

9) Set up independent statutory offices – ombudspersons, commissions or other institutions – to promote and protect children's rights.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child consistently urges governments to take special measures and develop special policies and programs for children. In this way, it has contributed to the creation of a higher political priority for children and has promoted a growing awareness of how the actions and inaction of government affect children.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 1386 (XIV), 14 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 19, U.N. Doc. A/4354 (1959).

The General Assembly:

Proclaims this Declaration of the Rights of the Child to the end that he may have a happy childhood and enjoy for his own good and for the good of society the rights and freedoms herein set forth, and calls upon parents, upon men and women as individuals, and upon voluntary organizations, local authorities and national Governments to recognize these rights and strive for their observance by legislative and other measures progressively taken in accordance with the following principles:

Principle 1

The child shall enjoy all the rights set forth in this Declaration. Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights, without distinction or discrimination on account of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, whether of himself or of his family.

Principle 2

The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.

Principle 3

The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and a nationality.

Principle 4

The child shall enjoy the benefits of social security. He shall be entitled to grow and develop in health; to this end, special care and protection shall be provided both to him and to his mother, including adequate pre-natal and post-natal care. The child shall have the right to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical services.

Principle 5

The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition.

Principle 6

The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.

Principle 7

The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. He shall be given an education which will promote his general culture and enable him, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop his abilities, his individual judgment, and his sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society.

The best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with his parents.

The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavor to promote the enjoyment of this right.

Principle 8

The child shall in all circumstances be among the first to receive protection and relief.

Principle 9

The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation. He shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.

The child shall not be admitted to employment before an appropriate minimum age; he shall in no case be caused or permitted to engage in any occupation or employment which would prejudice his health or education, or interfere with his physical, mental or moral development.

Principle 10

The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

B) Resolutions of the General Assembly 2003

The General Assembly adopted two resolutions related to the rights of the child.

The first resolution, dealing with the girl child (A/RES/58/156), was adopted by consensus. The Assembly, inter alia: welcomed the entry into force of the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Protocol on trafficking in persons, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; recognized the efforts of the international community to strengthen the standards for combating sexual abuse and exploitation; recognized the need to achieve gender equality to ensure a just and equitable world for girls.

The second resolution, dealing with the rights of the child (A/RES/58/157), was adopted by recorded vote - 179 in favor, 1 opposed. The Assembly, inter alia: emphasized that the Convention on the Rights of the Child must constitute the standard in the promotion and protection of the rights of the child, while noting the importance of the Optional Protocols as well as other relevant human rights instruments; welcomed the appointment by the Secretary-General of the independent expert for the UN study on violence against children; expressed concern that the situation of children in many parts of the world remains critical as a result of a number of factors, stating that urgent and effective national and international action is called for; noted the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010); recognized that the family is the basic unit of society and as such should be strengthened; recognized that partnership among governments and others, including the private sector, is important for the realization of the rights of the child.

In the detailed omnibus resolution, the Assembly called upon or urged states, or States parties to the Convention, to take specific actions related to: the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols; identity, family relations and birth registration; poverty; health; education; freedom from violence; non-discrimination; girls; children with disabilities; migrant children; children working and/or living on the street; refugee and internally displaced children; child labor; children in conflict with the law; the prevention and eradication of the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; children in armed conflict. The Assembly urged those states that have not yet done so to complete a national action plan as soon as possible, incorporating the goals agreed at the special session of the General Assembly on children.


Why make a special case for children?

The world community in the earliest declarations of human rights recognized the priority that should be accorded to protecting children's rights. Of course, governments must be sensitive to the rights of all their citizens – not just to those of children. But there are strong reasons for making a special case for children's rights:

Children are individuals. They have equal status with adults as members of the human family. Children are neither the possessions of parents nor of the state, nor are they mere people-in-the-making. Governments are morally obliged to recognize the full spectrum of human rights for all children. Using the Convention's definition of children as all human beings being below the age of 18, a large portion indeed of the world's population must be considered.

The healthy development of children is crucial to the future well-being of any society. UNICEF responds to the needs of children in emergency situations, but most UNICEF activities take a long-term perspective by seeking to combat the 'silent emergencies' – such as disease, malnutrition and poverty – that threaten the future of children and societies worldwide.

Children start life as totally dependent beings. Children must rely on adults for the nurture and guidance they need to grow towards independence; such nurture is ideally found in adults in children's families, but when primary caregivers cannot meet children's needs, it is up to society to fill the gap. Because they are still developing, children are especially vulnerable – more so than adults – to poor living conditions such as poverty, inadequate health care, nutrition, safe water, housing and environmental pollution and these conditions in turn jeopardize children's physical, mental and emotional development.

The actions – or inactions – of government impact children more strongly than any other group in society. Practically every area of government policy (for example, education, public health and so on) affects children to some degree – either directly or indirectly. But in many countries throughout the world, policy-making fails to take children into account, threatening their futures. Such a short-sighted approach has a negative impact on the future of all members of society by giving rise to policies that cannot work.

Children's views are rarely heard and rarely considered in the political process. Children generally do not vote and do not otherwise take part in political processes. While many States are beginning to listen seriously to children's views on many important issues – as expressed at home and in schools, in local communities and even in governments – the process of change is still in its earliest stages.

Many changes in society are having a disproportionate – and often negative – impact on children. These changes include transformation of the family structure, globalization, shifting employment patterns and a shrinking social welfare net in many countries. Children are sensitive barometers of social and economic change and the impact of those changes can be particularly devastating in situations of armed conflict and other emergencies.

The costs to society of failing its children are huge. Governments are aware of social research findings that show that children's earliest experiences – within the family and with other caregivers – significantly influence the future course of their development. The way in which children develop determines whether they will make a net contribution – or pose a huge cost – to society over the course of their lives.

The global trend of urbanization has taken an especially severe toll on children. Changes in the global economy, unfavorable weather conditions and recurring armed conflicts have led in recent years to the rapid growth of urban areas worldwide. With nearly half of the urban population in the developing world living in poverty, the plight of children often worsens when families relocate from the countryside to large cities. Dreams of improved living circumstances go unrealized following such moves, while parents and children lose support systems with the break-up of extended families. Among the most conspicuous signs of the poverty of the urban slums is the presence of children on the street – scavenging, begging, hawking and soliciting.