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Realising children’s rights requires more than rhetoric – systematic and concrete actions are now needed

Strasbourg 16/11/2009
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The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has become one of the most well-known and broadly supported international human rights treaties. Practically all the states in the world have ratified it and thereby legally bound themselves to implement its provisions. As a result, the situation of children has been put higher on the political agenda. Yet, the actual implementation of the Convention has been less effective than we anticipated. The main reason 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 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 (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 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 their views.

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 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.

Thomas Hammarberg