Twenty years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child brings progress on child rights, but challenges remain
In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) became the first legally binding international convention to affirm human rights for all children. While great progress has been made on child rights in the past 20 years, much work remains to be done. Dan Seymour, Chief of the Gender and Rights Unit of UNICEF’s Policy and Practice Division, offers his assessment.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) represents a major milestone in the historic effort to achieve a world fit for children. As a binding treaty of international law, it codifies principles that Member States of the United Nations agreed to be universal – for all children, in all countries and cultures, at all times and without exception, simply through the fact of their being born into the human family.
The treaty has inspired changes in laws to better protect children, altered the way international organisations see their work for children, and supported an agenda to better protect children in situations of armed conflict.
In every region of the world, we find numerous examples of the CRC’s impact on law and practice. In 1990, Brazil followed ratification of the Convention with a new Statute of the Child and Adolescent based on its principles. Burkina Faso created a Children’s Parliament to review proposed legislation, in response to the principle of participation set forth by the Convention.
The CRC was the first international convention to be ratified by South Africa, leading to changes such as the prohibition of corporal punishment and development of a separate juvenile justice system. The Russian Federation also set up juvenile and family courts in response to the CRC, while Morocco established a National Institute to Monitor Children Rights.
Finland took a number of new measures for children inspired by the Convention, such as a plan for early childhood education and care, a curriculum for the comprehensive school, quality recommendations for school health care, and an action plan against poverty and social exclusion.
And Eritrea issued its Transitional Penal Code, with penalties for parents or guardians who neglect, abuse or abandon their children.
This wide acceptance of the CRC can give the misleading impression that it is neither challenging nor new. Yet the very idea that children are the holders of rights is far from universally recognised. Too many children are considered to be the property of adults, and are subjected to various forms of abuse and exploitation.
The recognition that children have a right to a say in decisions affecting them, articulated in Article 12, is not only disrespected on a regular basis; its very legitimacy is questioned by many.
Nor can we claim that we live in a world where children's best interests are the primary consideration in all decisions affecting them – as demanded by Article 3 of the Convention. In fact, the contrary is evidenced by the way the humankind allocates its resources, the limited attention it gives to ensuring the best for its children, the way it conducts its wars.
Foundation for change
Like all powerful ideas, the CRC reflects a demand for deep and profound change in the way the world treats its children.
That the world fails to respect the rights of its children – even to deny that children have rights – is clear in the alarming numbers of children who die of preventable causes, who do not attend school or attend a school that cannot offer them a decent education, who are left abandoned when their parents succumb to AIDS, or who are subjected to violence, exploitation and abuse against which they are unable to protect themselves.
We cannot claim that the Convention has achieved what needs to be achieved. Rather, it has provided all of us with an essential foundation to play our part in changing what needs to be changed.
Power of the Convention
Effecting that change requires us to use the CRC in its fullest sense, and to take advantage of its three fundamental strengths.
This 20th anniversary of the CRC reminds us, most of all, of what we have left to do. The Convention demands a revolution that places children at the heart of human development – not only because this offers a strong return on our investment (although it does) nor because the vulnerability of childhood calls upon our compassion (although it should), but rather for a more fundamental reason: because it is their right.
Dan Seymour is Chief of the Gender and Rights Unit of UNICEF International’s Policy and Practice Division