Convention on the Rights of the Child
New York, 6 March 2000
Judge Kaye, President Cooper, Judge Corriero, Counselor Holmes, Professor Kandel, Members of the Association, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am delighted to be here for this special symposium, and doubly pleased that it is being held here, at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
Over the three decades since I became a member, I have amassed a great store of affection and respect for this institution, which for 130 years has embodied the inextricable link between public service and the practice of law.
Indeed, it is that ideal that unites all of us here tonight.
Some might find this surprising. Jefferson, for example, had little faith in the collaborative instincts of members of the legal profession. Speaking of the Congress, he once remarked that it ought not to be expected that lawyers should do business together.
I suspect he would be amazed at the innumerable good works of this Association -- works that flow from a tradition of promoting political, legal, and social reform, aid to the disadvantaged, and high ethical standards -- all of them causes championed by an organisation that now boasts over 21,000 members.
Tonight, I want to discuss an aspect of international law that is as close to my heart as it is to the center of my daily work -- and that is the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC) -- and why, 10 years after its adoption, it continues to make a difference in the lives of children the world over.
Ladies and gentlemen, because of the CRC, human rights are fundamental to UNICEF’s work as a development agency. Indeed, UNICEF is specifically mandated, in Article 45 of the CRC, to help foster the implementation of child rights. We do this in tandem with our efforts to promote the human rights of women as well, for neither can be realised without the other.
The primacy of human rights is, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon. It begins with the Charter of the United Nations in 1945 -- and, three years later, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaim that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
The acknowledgement that children have the same human rights as adults is even more recent. Indeed, for much of human history the idea was inconceivable. Children’s needs were considered, if at all, as matters of charity and kindness -- certainly not as fundamental rights.
But on November 20, 1989, after more than a decade of intricate negotiations that originated with a 1978 proposal by the Government of Poland, the UN General Assembly adopted the CRC -- the first and only human rights instrument to focus specifically on the rights and freedoms of persons under the age of 18.
The approval of the CRC was a remarkable achievement, one that was held up as an example of the potential for global cooperation in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Moreover, for the first time in a UN treaty negotiation, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) played an leading role in the deliberations.
Skeptics were unimpressed. There were predictions that few countries would go on to formally embrace the proposed treaty, much less live up to its comprehensive standards. Yet within a year, the CRC had won the ratifications necessary for its entry into force. No human rights instrument had come into force so quickly.
By 1997, the CRC had achieved an unprecedented level of support when country ratifications reached their current total of 191 governments --virtually the entire community of nations save two: Somalia and the United States.
Thanks to the Convention, child rights are now recognised as human rights, to be ensured by adult society as a matter of legal obligation, moral imperative and development priority.
Simply put, the CRC is the legal foundation for the ethical and moral principles that guide UNICEF’s country programmes for children. And its basic thrust, which springs from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration, is also simple: that the rights of children apply to all children, including the poorest and most vulnerable -- that is to say, all rights for all children, in all situations, all of the time, everywhere.
Child rights include the right to health and nutrition; to quality basic education; to gender equality; to protection from economic exploitation and hazardous labour; to rest and leisure; to freedom of expression, and to the right to a name and a nationality.
The CRC calls on us all to respect "the best interests of the child" as a primary consideration in all actions and decisions that affect them.
Moreover, it requires States Parties to recognise children as full citizens and real actors for change -- and to promote their active, free and meaningful participation in decision-making in matters that affect them.
The CRC also makes it clear that the sustained realisation of the human rights of children hinges not only on what governments do, but on the outcome of partnerships involving a broad range of allies in civil society --partnerships based on shared human rights principles, values and perspectives.
These partnerships include cooperation within the UN System, which is committed to the mainstreaming of human rights into the whole spectrum of development activities, as well as the work of grassroots non-governmental organisations and the private sector --including professional associations like this one
All these elements help guide UNICEF’s rights-based efforts to ensure the survival and full development of children.
But in practice, has any of this made a difference?
The answer is plain: in the decade since the CRC was adopted, the world has seen dramatic gains for child health and development -- especially since governments at the 1990 World Summit for Children, the first major effort to implement the CRC, agreed on a series of universal goals for child survival and development.
For example, over 80 per cent of young children in developing countries are now immunized; polio is on the verge of eradication; iodized salt is protecting an estimated 12 million infants each year from brain damage; and severe forms of vitamin A deficiency, including blindness, have declined sharply thanks to supplementation programmes.
It is also because of the CRC that the walls of apathy and denial that have surrounded such issues as child labour, sexual abuse and exploitation, gender-based violence and exclusion, and the ravages of armed conflict are finally beginning to crumble.
The evidence includes the recent adoption of a global treaty to end the use of anti-personnel landmines, which kill and maim thousands of children every year and cripple their countries’ capacity for development. And the world now has an agreement on an International Criminal Court, a major step toward ending the culture of impunity that has allowed millions of children and women to be targeted in warfare.
Moreover, in scores of countries, in every region of the world, the importance of child rights has been tangibly affirmed through concrete changes in law, policy, and practice. At least 23 countries have incorporated child-rights provisions into their constitutions -- including South Africa, Ethiopia, Brazil and Ecuador -- and, most recently, Venezuela, which held a child-rights referendum just three months ago.
Twenty-three other countries are in the process of reviewing their laws to bring them into line with the Convention. And at least 30 others have adopted legislation to ensure compatibility with the provisions of the CRC.
In addition, in scores of other countries, important steps have been taken to promote behavioural change and to put an end to practices that are incompatible with the spirit and provisions of the CRC.
These range from bans on female genital mutilation (in several West African States, including Senegal and Burkina Faso), to the prohibition of corporal punishment of children in schools and within the family (as in the case of Sweden, Austria, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Cyprus), as well as bans on the use of the death penalty, recruitment into armed forces, and employment below a minimum legal age.
The Convention’s bedrock principles --non-discrimination; the right to life, survival and development; the best interests of the child, and participation -- are vital yardsticks to measure how successfully various justice systems use a child-centered perspective, and how effectively they meld it into both legislation and practice.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is precisely these kinds of reforms that demonstrate the CRC’s potential to promote a process of real social change, even in sensitive areas where cultural traditions have long held sway.
And yet, many millions of children remain untouched by the progress.
It is unacceptable that, in a $30 trillion global economy, 1.2 billion people live in what the World Bank categorises as "absolute poverty," struggling to survive on $1 a day, in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering and want. At least half of them are children -- 12 million of whom die every year before their 5th birthday of preventable causes like measles, acute respiratory infections and tuberculosis.
We see also a proliferation of humanitarian calamities affecting children above all, the product of armed conflict, environmental degradation, forced migration and terrorism -- along with the effects of natural disasters like famine, floods, storms and earthquakes.
Meanwhile, 130 million children, the majority of them girls, are not in school -- while countless others lack qualified teachers and even pencils and paper. An estimated 250 million children work to survive, and many are targets of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Never have these realities had as much visibility as they have had since the adoption of the CRC. And never before has the responsibility of donor countries to support the realisation of children’s rights been so clear.
Yet recent years have been marked by the crushing effects of debt on the world’s most impoverished countries --and by a steady and unprecedented decline in official development aid. The United States, for example, spent 4 per cent of its budget on development aid and international affairs 35 years ago. Today it amounts to a small fraction of 1 per cent.
In public health, the explosive spread of HIV/AIDS throughout much of the developing world threatens to compromise the hard-won progress of previous decades. Twenty-two million people are living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa alone -- two-thirds of the world’s total -- while globally, over 16 million people have died of AIDS, most of them Africans. Over 12 million children have been orphaned.
At the same time, millions of children and women continue to be targeted in military action, and hundreds of thousands of children continue to be used in armed conflict as soldiers, porters, or sexual slaves. In the decade since the CRC was adopted, 2 million children have been killed in war and more than 6 million injured or disabled.
That is why UNICEF is encouraged by the recent agreement by governments to approve an Optional Protocol to the CRC, to raise from 15 to 18 the minimum age for participation in hostilities and compulsory recruitment into armed forces.
It is less than an absolute prohibition on the use of children in war, but it is nonetheless an important step in the right direction.
The United States backed the Optional Protocol -- and we very much hope that this may signal an increased possibility that the US will soon join the rest of the international community by ratifying the CRC itself.
US ratification would be a giant step, one that could help greatly re-energise the drive toward child rights.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have amassed a decade’s worth of evidence that the Convention on the Rights of the Child actually works. And it works on multiple levels -- international, national, regional and local -- both as an inspiration and a guide to advocacy for the protection of children’s rights, to meeting their basic needs, and to expanding their opportunities to reach their full potential.
The principle that all children have a fundamental right to education, for example, has enabled UNICEF to emphasise the legal obligations of governments, and to advocate at national levels for greater national budget allocations -- and for government policies aimed at reaching the poorest and most marginalised children.
At the local level, UNICEF supports interventions at community and family levels that help bring girls into schools -- such as in India. Last year in Viet Nam, UNICEF cooperative programmes helped bring 145,000 out-of school children back to the classroom. And in Tanzania, UNICEF has helped make schooling accessible to thousands of disabled children.
The utility of the CRC can also be seen in the effort to combat the sexual trafficking and exploitation of children and women, which has become a worldwide, multi-billion-dollar industry. In Nepal, for example, UNICEF’s rights-based approach has helped galvanise support for development of national and district mechanisms to stop trafficking and promote the training of police and paralegals, while building support for the establishment of community-level surveillance.
Ladies and gentlemen, these kinds of successes are why UNICEF is now working to mobilise a global commitment to reach all the goals of the World Summit for Children; to tackle the challenges of poverty, HIV/AIDS and armed conflict; and to establish a comprehensive agenda for children for the first 10 to 15 years of this new century.
Education, especially for girls, is a prerequisite for attacking poverty. It equips children with the skills and confidence to make the most of their abilities to join a dynamic workforce or succeed in a sustainable livelihood; provides a forum for changing attitudes about violence while promoting equality; and helps put girls on a path to empowerment -- a position from which they can better protect themselves from gender-based violence. But education will be of little use unless children are prepared for it.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that early childhood care can greatly influence a child’s continued learning and psycho-social development in the later years, care that includes such necessities as breast-feeding, clean water, adequate sanitation, healthy environments -- and time and space to play, to be creative, and learn.
Caring for the child also means caring for the mother. For in societies where women have no voice, limited access to resources, no legal protection and no respect, optimal child development --much less survival -- is next to impossible.
This convergence of new scientific knowledge and practical insight is why UNICEF has concluded that the global agenda for children in the 21st Century must be based on three paramount outcomes -- outcomes that can open the way to dramatic gains for human development:
First, we must ensure that all infants begin life in good health -- and that young children are nurtured in a caring environment that enhances the physical, emotional and intellectual capacities that they must have to learn and to grow.
Second, we must ensure that all children have access to, and complete, a programme of quality basic education.
And third, we must ensure that adolescents have ample opportunities to develop into caring and responsible citizens, free to participate in shaping their own societies.
Ladies and gentlemen, the knowledge, the resources and the strategies all exist to make these outcomes for children possible. But without the strong and committed support of all aspects of society -- including the legal profession, society’s conscience and guide -- this priceless chance to guarantee the future of children will be lost.
There is no question that investing in children today will ensure the well-being and productivity of future generations for decades to come. It is an investment well within our means. Reaching the poor and disadvantaged is moral imperative -- but it is also financially and technically feasible.
So I ask you to join us as we pursue this new agenda for children. We ask the chance to work with you, to engage you in the process of building a global alliance that can help bring about a just and peaceful world -- where the test of society’s actions is a simple and straightforward one, the one that informs all UNICEF’s actions, and that sits at the heart, the very core, of the landmark legal instrument we celebrate tonight: "Is it in the best interests of children?"