The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its implementation

Den 1 och 2 oktober anordnade Barnombudsmannen, Svenska Kommunförbundet och Landstingsförbundet rikskonferensen "Barn här och nu" i Stockholm. Marta Santos Pais, chef för Unicef Innocenti Research Center i Florens hedrade konferensen med sin närvaro. Hon är en av världens stora auktoriteter på barns rättigheter. Här kan du läsa hennes tal från konferensen.


Marta Santos Pais, Director, UNICEF IRC
Stockholm, 1-2 October 2003

Thank you for the invitation. It is a wonderful pleasure to be associated with this important event on CRC in Sweden, steadily one of the leading countries in:
- CRC advocacy
- Best interests policy action
- Children in development cooperation
- Children in international debate and EU Constitution
- Children’s strong institutions, Ombudsman
- Movement child friendly cities

This important meeting takes place as we celebrate the 13th anniversary of the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A celebration which is informed by a mix of pride for the unique process of social change it has generated – quite unthinkable two decades ago – as well as by a sense of frustration for the many challenges children continue to face everywhere in the world.

At the time of its adoption, the Convention was for many simply another treaty, in some cases, an unnoticed initiative… The crucial debate in the world at that time was a different one – the end of the cold war, the erosion of two separate political and ideological blocks, a drastic shift towards a North-South divide and a call for an urgent focus on the neglected plight of the developing world.

But for others, the Convention was envisaged as an opportunity to lay the foundation for a new international order based on human rights, solid democratic institutions and international solidarity – a new order where the weakest and often least noticed would have a voice.

The World Summit for Children took wise advantage of the CRC adoption. As the first world gathering of Heads of State and Governments, it generated strong political commitment around a time-bound Plan of Action designed “to give every child a better future and make respect for children’s rights and welfare truly universal”. At the beginning of the decade, the international community had both a clear normative framework and a programmatic strategy for decisively improve respect for the rights of the child.

The decade shaped a unique process of awareness and action to translate the CRC and the WSC agenda into concrete achievements – a process that was meaningfully illustrated by the Secretary General’s Report “We the Children” submitted to the Special Session on Children. Moreover, it provided an opportunity to definitely de-mystify the perception that the CRC implementation and the WSC follow-up were two separate and parallel processes, replicating the traditional divide between normative and operational activities.

With the End Decade Review, more than 160 countries reviewed and assessed achievements, identified lessons and persisting challenges, and were given an opportunity to shape a priority agenda for the future. At the regional level, the EDR further generated important political processes and agreements on shared goals and targets.

This process laid the foundation for the SSC. In spite of the increasing conference fatigue, the Special Session was quite different in nature as a result of the engagement of critical actors, including Ombudspersons for Children, Parliamentarians, Mayors, religious and opinion leaders, and challenging the traditional UN bureaucracy, with the unprecedented participation of children as partners in the high level political debate.

An agenda for action was agreed upon, a follow-up process anticipated and, in an equally important manner, clear expectations were created – now the challenge is to ensure they are translated into tangible reality for all children!

The several years since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child allow us to gain some perspective over the process set in motion since. And it clearly makes us realize that the Convention was different in many ways.

a) First, the Convention illustrated in a vivid way the meaning of the universality of human rights. Having been ratified by virtually all countries in the world, all bar two (United States and Somalia) the Convention set an ethical and legal framework for the development of a tangible agenda for children everywhere, and in addition provided a common reference to promote and assess progress within and across countries.

· The ratification of the Convention was, for many countries, the first international commitment made in the area of human rights; it was also their first acceptance of a system of international scrutiny, through the monitoring role of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Now political dialogue and pressure can take place on the basis of freely accepted obligations.

· For countries with long democratic traditions, it provided an opportunity to recognize that it was important for policies to be informed by the voices and potential of their youngest citizens, and in turn to promote a renewed reflection on the values of genuine democracy, full citizenship and social inclusion of all members of society.

· International organizations, within and beyond the United Nations system, were strongly influenced by the CRC. ILO mobilized political support for a new Convention on the worst forms of child labour, now widely ratified; UNHCR issued a set of important Guidelines for Refugee Children; UNESCO has pursued its work in the field of human rights education, increasingly using the Convention as a tool children feel identified with; at the regional level, new standards were developed by the Council of Europe specifically on children and currently a multi-disciplinary forum reviews and promotes policy action to ensure the safeguard of their rights.
· For UNICEF, the Convention has provided an enhanced vision for its mandate and a sense of purpose for its advocacy and operational activities. As its Mission Statement affirms, UNICEF advocates for the protection of children’s rights and strives to establish them as enduring ethical principles and international standards of behaviour towards children. With this approach, UNICEF is engaged in the effective mainstreaming of the rights of the child in all of its activities, as well as in its collaboration with other UN partners.

b) Second, the Convention stressed that children’s rights are human rights. This may be perceived as an obvious statement, but in practice children had remained invisible and unheard, and children’s interests had rarely been perceived in a distinct manner. While a lot still remains to be done, we need to recognize that with the Convention, children’s rights can no longer be perceived as an option, a question of favour or kindness. They generate obligations everyone need to honour and fulfill.

In this spirit, the Convention reaffirmed the notion of State accountability for the realization of human rights. It stressed that passivity and indifference are no longer acceptable answers, and there is a responsibility to act, ensure progress and allocate all needed resources for the safeguard of children’s rights – all children, everywhere. Similarly, the Convention called for the transparency of public policies and the monitoring of their impact on children, including through the periodic reports submitted by States parties to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
It also showed that this commitment needs to be translated at the municipal and local level – with the need for municipalities to develop a clear agenda.

c) Third, the Convention promoted a holistic approach to the child and called for multi-disciplinary action to overcome challenges compromising the realization of their rights. Moreover, it called for the consideration of the child with distinct and central political consideration. According to the Convention:

· Children are citizens and have the right to express their views and have them taken into account;
· All actions need to be guided by the best interests of the child, promote equity and protect against discrimination;
· Children can no longer be perceived as not-yet persons, expected to wait in the lobby of life to become mature by the magic effect of attaining the age of majority.

d) Fourth, the Convention stressed that every child is important. It is not enough to attain good averages or a high rate of general progress in any given country. It is critical to identify disparities, address those children who are not affected by the wave of progress, who remain neglected or forgotten on the basis of their gender, social or ethnical origin or simply because they live in remote areas. It is on this margin of vulnerability, on the children who struggle to survive behind a curtain of silence and discrimination that our action needs to focus and our commitment to human rights can be measured.

e) Fifth, the Convention promotes an international system of solidarity designed to achieve the realization of children’s rights. Using its reporting system as a reference, United Nations agencies and donor countries are expected to provide assistance to the areas where a particular need has been identified by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, while recipient countries are required to recognize and address the same priorities. With this approach, the Convention showed that there is no dichotomy between human rights and development. This vision has had important implications:

· children’s rights provided an opportunity to translate into practice the Secretary General’s call for the mainstreaming of human rights in UN development activities, including in the context of the CCA/UNDAF process;
· bilateral development agencies are increasingly adopting a child focus and using the Convention as a framework for their development cooperation agenda – this has been clearly the case of Sweden, but also in Norway, the UK and Canada.
· A similar pattern is being pursued by children’s rights NGOs – as in the case of Save the Children Alliance.

f) Sixth, children’s rights are gaining visible space in the international peace and security agenda. As a result of the ground-breaking study of Graça Machel, since 1998 periodic Security Council discussions address the reality of children and the denial of their rights, both in thematic debates, (in particular to address the situation of children affected by armed conflicts and the protection of civilians), and country specific reports (including those concerning Sierra Leone, Liberia or the DRC).

Training activities for peacekeeping personnel incorporate the protection of children’s rights, and child protection advisers are an inherent component of UN peacekeeping missions – as in the case of Sierra Leone and the DRC. At the same time, the Secretary General has taken an important lead in efforts to put an end to the recruitment and participation of children in armed conflicts, by setting 18 as the minimum age for peacekeepers and encouraging States to refrain from sending troops below 21.

At the EU level, together with the reference to children in the Constitution, work is being done to develop a policy document on children in armed conflict – which, when adopted (hopefully by December this year) will be the first ever thematic policy framework on children adopted by the Council, with potential impact across the activities of the EU institutions.
Sweden can again make a unique contribution and we very much count on the strong commitment and leadership by Sweden in these discussions.

Beyond these important aspects, the Convention has also played a decisive role as a catalyst for standard-setting activities at the international and regional levels.

· To mention just a few, two Optional Protocols to the CRC are now in force (to enhance the protection of children both from armed conflicts and from sale, trafficking and sexual exploitation) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child has just started the process of review of reports on their implementation.

· Moreover, important new treaties have been adopted to safeguard the rights of the child in a number of critical areas, including to protect the child from exploitation through the ILO Convention on the worst forms of Child Labour (ILO Convention 182); to protect the child from trafficking (Palermo Protocol); to safeguard the rights of the child in the context of inter-country adoption (Hague Convention); as well as to fight impunity for crimes against children through the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The Convention has been quite special in all of these dimensions, but its national implementation process is also quite unique! Let me just briefly recall a few aspects to illustrate this process.

The Convention has paved the way for the recognition and safeguarding of children’s rights at the national level including through law reform processes.


· Several countries have incorporated children’s rights in their Constitutions (including South Africa, Ethiopia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela, and in Europe countries such as Finland, Cyprus and Belarus);
· An important process of law review has been undertaken to ensure compatibility with the provisions of the CRC, in some cases, through the adoption of a Code on the rights of children and adolescents, (as in the case of Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua);
· Often, legislative changes were introduced in particular sectors, including to protect children from child labour (in India, Pakistan or Portugal), from sexual exploitation (including to establish extra-territorial jurisdiction as in the case of Australia, Belgium, Sweden and Germany), in the context of Juvenile justice (as in the case of Sweden, Norway, Spain, Ukraine, Costa Rica and Salvador) and inter-country adoption (including in Spain, Portugal, Paraguay, Romania and the UK).
· In addition, some important steps have been taken to promote behaviour change and forbid practices contrary to the spirit and provisions of the Convention, such as:

- the ban on female genital mutilation (in several western African States, including Senegal and Burkina Faso); 
- the prohibition of violence against children, including corporal punishment in schools and within the family (as in the case of Sweden, Austria, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Cyprus); 
- as well as of death penalty, recruitment into armed forces and access to an employment below a minimum legal age.

These reforms confirm the Convention’s potential to promote a process of social change, even in sensitive areas where cultural traditions had for long been anchored in society.

The process is further illustrated by the encouraging movement towards the withdrawal of reservations entered to the Convention, for instance by Myanmar and Pakistan which had excluded the application of the Convention in sensitive areas such as death penalty and torture. Hopefully, many others will soon follow this approach.

Similarly, we note an increasing consideration of the Convention in judicial decisions, by national and international courts – even in the US, where the CRC is not yet in force. The European Court on Human Rights uses the CRC as a key reference and complement to the European Convention on Human Rights. Again last July, the Court stated that “The human rights of children and the standards to which all governments must aspire in realizing these rights for all children are set in the Convention on the Rights of the Child” (case Sahin vs. Germany.)

Many States have undertaken an important institutional reform, including through the development of an Ombudsperson or a Commissioner for Children. As we see in Sweden, guided by the best interests of the child, and acting as an independent voice for children, these institutions are in a position to monitor and evaluate policies undertaken, as well as to challenge decisions that may disregard children’s rights. Their role has been critical to ensure that children are considered as a central theme on national political agendas.

The work of Ombudspersons for Children is also a priority area for UNICEF and the Innocenti Research Centre has developed a number of studies on this reality, one of which “The Innocenti Digest on Independent Institutions for Protecting Children’s Rights” was launched at the Special Session on Children.

But this is clearly also a priority for many other partners, including the Council of Europe. In a recent meeting promoted by the Council, young participants strongly highlighted how they themselves value these independent institutions and the need for them to have the necessary powers and resources, and to act as watchdogs and strong advocates for children’s rights. Just last week, the EU Ministers responsible for Children, gathered in Lucca, Italy, reaffirmed the critical role of Ombudspersons to ensure respect for children’s rights and encouraged the development of such institutions in all countries and their close collaboration, including through the European Network, ENOC.

The role of Ombudspersons is equally key beyond Europe. At the United Nations Special Session on Children, UNICEF facilitated the first-ever global meeting of Ombudspersons for Children which became instrumental for the inclusion, in the Plan of Action adopted by the Special Session, (“A World fit for Children”). The meeting further led to the development of a Global network of Ombudspersons for Children, building upon the excellent work and experience of ENOC and expanding beyond Europe such institutional co-operation.

At the global meeting, participating independent institutions made important commitments also to:
· double the number of existing Ombudspersons offices or commissions for children by the end of the decade
· actively promote the follow-up to the SSC. In this regard, particular emphasis was given to
a) creating awareness of the role of such independent institutions in promoting, protecting and monitoring children’s rights,
b) promoting the involvement of Ombudspersons offices in the development, implementation and review of National Plans of Action on Children’s Rights,
c) promoting the allocation of resources for children’s policies within countries and in development co-operation.

If such actions are feasible at the global level, they are clearly within reach in Europe! And the meeting held here today is a unique opportunity to renew action towards this aim. The fact that the Chairmanship of ENOC will be soon taken by the Swedish Ombudsperson leaves us no doubt that tangible and steady steps will be taken to that aim!

Dear Friends,
Against the background provided by these few highlights, and many other areas could be further addressed, it is hard to remain indifferent in relation to the process of change and impact of the Convention.

So many illustrations could be given! And so much inspiration is to be found in this process. Yet, the other side of the coin also needs to be acknowledged.

Children everywhere continue to be confronted with appalling challenges, often simply dependent on strong political will. War, poverty and discrimination are just a few of the most common factors compromising their daily lives. HIV/AIDS has gained unimaginable dimensions and dramatic proportions for children infected and more widely affected by this pandemic – devastated societies and inoperating traditional child care structures, children growing surrounded by death, suffering and loneliness, children left to their resilience and inexperienced responsibility to ensure their own and often their siblings’ survival, safeguard their protection, affirm their identity and secure their sense of belonging … belonging to a world whose references continue to fade away.

Around the world children’s rights maintain a pattern of denial. Just two weeks ago, our most recent study on OECD countries indicated unacceptable high levels of child deaths as a result of maltreatment – two in Germany every week, four in Japan, 27 in the US …

The world is certainly not easier than it was at the beginning of the previous decade. The human rights euphoria of the early 90s’ seems to loose central stage and to become increasingly diluted. The struggle for the consolidation of democratic institutions seems to have paved the way to a growing lack of public trust in the governance system, often without transparency in its decision making, nor willingness or capacity to overcome social exclusion and marginalization. Potential created by economic growth of the 90s’ has failed to promote more resources for children, investment in social areas or greater ability to fight inequality and poverty, which seem to widen across and within regions, including in industrialized nations.

The clear disrespect for children’s rights is apparent in increasingly public cases of child prostitution, trafficking, sale of children and illegal adoption, torture, as well as participation in armed conflicts. In the recent conflict in Liberia, more than 70 percent of the combatants were children, fighting to secure their own security and survival, no other alternative left …

But at the same time, it is clear that in such a difficult environment our common voice and our distinct and complementary mandates gain in relevance and urgency. By investing in children we lay the foundation for a world that cares and where passivity and indifference have no place.

It is true that a lot remains to be done. But the normative and ethical framework of the Convention, together with the agenda for the decade agreed upon at SSC are a strong foundation for the way forward. And simple and steady action can certainly make a difference.

a) First, we need to ensure that children’s rights are addressed as a central and distinct concern. They matter in all decisions and processes, and at all moments. They matter particularly in times of crisis, economic meltdown and social unrest. It is exactly during these periods that commitments to children are to be revealed and children’s human rights need to be safeguarded.

The previous decade was instrumental to place children’s rights on the map. The present one is key to achieve their effective mainstreaming into the national agenda, translate them into tangible and relevant public policies, promote an engaged participation of the civil society and generate an effective public scrutiny of governmental action.

b) Second, international agreed commitments need to be translated into a clear national and municipal agenda for children’s rights, framed by the CRC and adjusted to the specific reality of each country. This is also the call made by the SSC, through

· the development of an autonomous National Plan of Action for children,
· or/and through the integration of agreed children’s actions and benchmarks within the context of existing national processes.

Whatever the solution may be the children’s rights agenda needs to be clearly identified and safeguarded in the overall national political and development process, including through the effective allocation of resources to achieve its goals and targets. Failing to do so, we run the risk of fragmented and insufficient action for children, and children’s concerns ignored by major political, social and economic decisions.

C) Third, the reality of children needs to be assessed and understood in an accurate, reliable and transparent manner.

· Only this way it will be possible to document the reality of children, all children, including the most vulnerable, promote advocacy policy making and resource allocation in favour of the realization of their rights.

· Only this way it will be possible to monitor policy impact on the enjoyment of children’s rights, to expose challenges, to mobilize support and introduce change. Only this way we can challenge passivity and indifference, and promote steady action to effectively achieve anticipated benchmarks and promote the universal safeguard of children’s rights.

d) Finally, progress made in the realization of children’s rights, needs to be regularly reviewed through a public and participatory process, in which main stakeholders, and clearly also children, take active part.

We need to promote the genuine involvement of children and adolescents, both as a recognition of their citizenship, and an instrumental contribution to the consolidation of democratic institutions and good governance.

In the end, when we envisage the way forward, … it all comes to a question of strong political will.

Marta Santos Pais