Today (20 November) the international community is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Ratified by 194 countries worldwide, the CRC is the most widely supported treaty in international human rights history. It represents an unprecedented global commitment to address the particular needs of children, regardless of age, race, religion or ability – certainly something to celebrate!
As this momentous occasion approaches, we reflect on what this commitment to children has meant in practice. For children in detention – a particularly vulnerable group – how does the CRC protect them? What has it achieved for these children in its 25 years and where will the challenges lie in the next 25 years? Renate Winter is a former youth court judge and a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, responsible for monitoring implementation of the Convention. PRI caught up with her recently to gauge her views on some of these issues…
What impact has the CRC had in its lifetime on children who come into contact or conflict with the law?
Under the CRC, State parties are obliged to report on the implementation of the Convention and the situation of children in their jurisdiction. Through this process, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the Committee) examines every aspect of a child’s life in nearly every country in the world. In each case, after the last hearing of the delegation of the State party in Geneva, the Committee issues recommendations as part of its Concluding Observations. These recommendations should assist States to improve the situation of its children, as they not only identify the gaps in the protection of children’s rights, but also indicate how to fill those gaps and who to address for assistance.
Since 1989, we have seen change in the lives of children in several countries, even if it has often been slow to come about. While sometimes the problems that need to be addressed seem huge, such as child marriage or lack of birth certificates for example, steady progress can usually be seen when we compare statistics from earlier reports (with a caveat of course about the value of statistics and their interpretation in general). Sometimes it is the smaller problems that are harder to overcome because they are rooted in the tradition or culture of a country (for example, the training of small children for bull fighting).
One of the most difficult problems we have is convincing member States that imprisoning children in conflict with the law is the least appropriate and the most costly method and leads to high rates of reoffending. Even though this is difficult, discussing prison problems with State delegations has led to improvements in the situation in some prisons.
Over the last 25 years, what do you think have been the key strengths and achievements of the CRC in providing protection for these children?
The obligation to report to the Committee on the international stage is an effective tool in itself to encourage member States to invest in the future of their children, as it is rather unpleasant and a diplomatic no-go to give the impression that one doesn’t care about one’s children. Therefore the CRC (as a document as well as a treaty body) can influence budget planning to a certain extent.
Beyond this, the most effective tool of the Committee is the issuing of General Comments, which explain in detail the meaning and consequences of an article, a problem or a right and provide guidance and good practice examples on how to solve problematic issues.
In child justice, the most important achievement to date has been the installation of restorative justice mechanisms (in Austria, Georgia, Germany, the UK, USA and New Zealand, for example) and alternatives to punishment (Albania, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Senegal, Peru, Hungary…) in the penal sanction catalogue of many member States. Furthermore, the notion of the child victim and witness including explanation of their needs and problems and their protection has become widely known and accepted and is being established in several new youth codes or in the adaptation of old ones, in Austria and in Israel for example.
Despite its successes, many children are not enjoying the protections set out in the CRC – why is this?
There are many reasons why member States do not address all the provisions of the Convention, and they differ greatly from one country to another. In most countries, it is not the law that is missing but its implementation. Governments often sign up to be bound by the Convention but subsequent Governments cannot fulfill its requirements or do not want to. Sometimes, the economic or political situation in a country changes and causes the value of a child as a person in its own right to change with it.
The most common reason for not realising the rights of children as they are set out in the Convention is poverty or a lack of resources, especially in developing countries; this may be because there is no money available or because the money is used for other purposes.
In some countries, children by tradition have almost no value or are seen as the property of the family, clan or tribe. In such countries, change usually comes about slowly, starting in big cities and eventually trickling down to rural areas.
There are also governments who have almost no power to pursue a child rights agenda as control of their country lies with organised crime, military dictatorship, a religious community, a large international enterprise or so on. In such cases, the economic interests of the rulers are certainly not directed at the rights and welfare of children but rather at how to use them in a most profitable way.
Finally, there are countries where there are just too many children and not enough schools, jobs, food or water. These countries can afford just the absolute minimum for the majority of children. Anything else would be an unaffordable luxury.
Has the CRC aged in the last 25 years? Is it still relevant in today’s social, political and technological context and what do you think is needed to maintain its relevance as a living document?
I do think that the CRC is as valid now as on its first day of existence. Unfortunately, I must say that in no country have all provisions of the Convention text and General Comments been fulfilled, but the CRC is very, very, very relevant for making the lives of children better in every context; in poor and rich countries alike. As I mentioned above, the General Comments are an extremely effective way of keeping the CRC very much alive. More and more NGOs are now requesting more and more General Comments on ‘old’ subjects such as breastfeeding as well as on “new” ones such as internet abuse and cybercrime.
What emerging challenges do you think will face the CRC in the next 25 years? Where is its focus most needed and how would you like to see it develop?
This is a really difficult question to answer as nobody knows where global politics will lead us. However we do know that world populations will continue to grow, especially in the poorest countries, and we know that natural resources are beginning to become scarce, so I am sure that quite a lot of basic problems will become more difficult than they are now. For this reason, monitoring and evaluation of some kind of equal distribution will become important (for example food, water, access to education and access to healthcare).
In other regions, the environment will pose enormous problems with countries submerged and whole populations needing to be resettled; children will have to adapt to completely new ways of life.
In still other countries, technical development (Facebook, internet bullying, cybercrime, addiction to surfing the internet, texting, sextortion and so on) will pose severe threats to the healthy development of a child and their social behaviour.
I think all of this has to be taken into consideration already right now in order to be able to cope at least to a minimum with the near future (after all, 25 years isn’t very far away, is it?)
PRI has been participating in an international conference at the University of Leiden law school to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRC. Find out more.
Photo copyright: Lynsey Adario. With kind permission.