Why do children’s rights matter?

Putting children at the centre

By Professor Geraldine Van Bueren QC, barrister and professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary University of London. She represented Amnesty at the United Nations during the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). 

This is extracted from an article that originally appeared in Issue 203 of Amnesty Magazine. To receive your free copy every quarter featuring all the latest news and opinion about human rights become a member today for only £3 a month. Join Amnesty

Before the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), children really were invisible within the UN system and in the policies and laws of many countries. For example, it was only in 1977 that there was any international law at all on children in armed conflict and child soldiers. There was also an element of sweeping things under the carpet, such as the sexual exploitation of children. When we discussed the issue during the UNCRC drafting process in the 1980s, there were some who felt that it lowered the tone and that we really should not be dealing with things like that.

We worked co-operatively with other civil society organisations, and we were supported by Unicef, which provided the funding for us to do the work. The Holy See (the Vatican) did not block the convention, even though it is silent on abortion, feeling that it was in the best interests of living children to move forward. It was one of the most un-cynical acts of international diplomacy.

People from a range of completely different cultures took part in drafting the convention, and you had to take time to learn and understand. It really galvanised a child-centred approach and has done a huge amount over the past 30 years. For example, there has been a reduction in child mortality of over 50 per cent for under-five year olds. Globally, the proportion of under-nourished children has almost halved. That is extraordinary. It has also set in motion work on sexual exploitation, trafficking, and children in armed conflict.

Children’s right to participate

Importantly, the UNCRC gave children the right to a voice. It created space for children to participate in local and national budgetary planning. For example,  in 2003, in the municipal assembly of Fortaleza in northern Brazil, children proposed 33 amendments to the municipal budget, three of which were approved for the 2004 budget. Peru has also begun to support children to analyse and propose changes to its budgets. Then there is action on climate change. Greta Thunberg and other children recently took a petition to the Committee on the Rights of the Child about climate change, on the grounds that it violates their rights to health, life and culture. That is exactly what it is there for: it is a vehicle for peaceful change.

In terms of the UK, I hope the UNCRC will be incorporated into domestic law as a final safety net for children. Wales has partially incorporated it and Scotland is considering doing so, but England and Northern Ireland have not. Optional Protocol 3 – which allows individuals and groups to bring complaints to the UN against states that have ratified the convention – is an additional safety net, but obviously it would be quicker if children could take action in their own countries.

Incorporating the convention into domestic law is also important because of the socioeconomic rights it contains, which are not protected anywhere else: children’s rights to the highest standard of health care and an adequate standard of living. Under the UK’s Human Rights Act (HRA), when a minister introduces a statute into parliament they have to state whether it is consistent or not with the HRA; you could have a similar provision with the UNCRC. For example, the rights to adequate

standards of living would include the right to food. So, ministers would have to think about things like breakfast clubs during school holidays. It would be a very powerful policy tool in the best interests of all children in the UK – and indeed for adults. None of us wants to see children going hungry or parents having to forego food so that the children eat. 

The concept of children’s rights was once a radical proposition. Now, it is accepted.

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