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 stand outside the inner circle
of power. When political issues are divided into “soft” and “hard”,
those relating to children are dealt with as “soft-soft”. Often these
issues are seen as non-political and sometimes simply 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 is of course
the very purpose of the Convention. With ratification, a state has
committed itself to respect the principles and provisions of the
Convention and to transform them into 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 may not always have made the
distinction between charity and a rights-based approach.
Children in need, just like persons with disabilities, have long been
the favourite “objects” of charity. They have been given support, not as
a matter of right, but because people have felt pity 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 to
be heard and 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 taken by local or
national authorities, Parliaments, courts, or social welfare
institutions, 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
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 clear substance to the obligations which would
follow from the rights approach.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the elected body to
monitor 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 some governments, one could define key measures in a
checklist on systematic measures that serious governments ought to take.
These 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 national legislation
- make children visible in the process of policy development throughout
the government by introducing child impact assessments
- carry out adequate budget analysis to determine the proportion spent
on children and to ensure the effective use of resources
- establish permanent bodies or mechanisms to promote co-ordination,
monitoring and evaluation of activities throughout all sectors of
government, including the local authorities
- ensure that sufficient data are collected and used to improve the
state 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 whose work relates to children or who work 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 institutions – to promote
children’s rights, and
- give children’s rights priority in all forms of international
co-operation, including in programs for technical assistance.
These ten 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. They require
children themselves to take part in the procedures.
The basic idea is that children’s issues be moved from the exclusive
realm of charity onto 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 on children’s issues, developing the data
collection system and appointing an ombudsman for children -within the
office of the general ombudsman or separately.
Yet, there are glaring gaps which appear to indicate that the
governments have not been sufficiently serious. This is also reflected
in the continued lack of child protection.
Too little is being done to give children with disabilities an
opportunity for 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 the irregular
migrants are vulnerable and suffer exploitation. Refugee children are
not well treated. Corporal punishment is retained in about half of the
countries in Europe and some children also face violence in school.
Justice, schools and cities are not yet child-friendly.
One reason why powerful politicians tend to be rhetorical rather than
concrete on children’s issues is probably because many of them lead a
life which isolates them from a child’s everyday reality. The opinions
of children themselves are not taken seriously and their parents or
guardians have, in many cases, little time or opportunity to present
In fact, the seriousness of the political commitment is now being tested
in the ongoing budget discussions. In the wake of the current recession,
there have already been budget cuts in several countries which have
affected children – 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 some countries. And this is
before governments start paying back the debts incurred when state money
was used to meet the financial crisis and rescue the banking system.
This has provoked a discussion on the concrete meaning of “the maximum
extent” of the available resources to go to children. Inevitably,
children’s interests will also suffer when the whole society is forced
to tighten its belt. However, what is clearly against the very spirit of
the Convention are decisions which would penalise those who are already
vulnerable and thereby increase the existing inequalities.
It is now particularly important that the short- and long-term impact on
children are analysed before the next budgets are approved. Also in
Europe we now already have a serious problem of child poverty -
appallingly widespread in some countries. Here, a large number of
children are disadvantaged from the very start. This has to be addressed,
the current crisis is no argument for not doing so – on the contrary.
Resource limitations cannot be seen as an excuse for ignoring
obligations to protect child rights and for delaying the implementation
of measures. The greater the difficulties, the more reason to act with a
clear political will in order to address the problems in a systematic
Indeed, it is particularly in times of crisis that the state has to
reaffirm its commitment and to fully respect the rights of children –
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