20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Ishmael Beah

Child rights: On the right path, but a long way to go
The remarkable value of the Convention on the Rights of the Child may not always be fully appreciated in countries where child rights are not systemically threatened or abused. I came to understand the need for a specific, legally binding international instrument addressing child rights after living in Sierra Leone, a country that for many years was consumed by fear, death and the violation of human rights. As a child growing up during the civil war, I was forced to fight in the conflict that ravaged the social fabric of my home and society. Human rights violations were rampant, but through the work of organizations committed to the implementation of the Convention I was eventually freed from my involvement in the war. Later, after leaving Sierra Leone, I began working as an advocate for children affected by armed conflict. The Convention and its two Optional Protocols have become valuable tools for me in creating a strong advocacy platform to speak on the rights of children.

A pivotal introduction to advocacy
My introduction to the Convention occurred in the winter of 1996, during my first trip to the United States. I came to the United Nations to attend a conference organized by UNICEF and Norwegian People’s Aid on the effect of war on children. This conference recognized the importance of including children in discussions of their rights and incorporated many of the principles identified in the groundbreaking Machel Study on the impact of armed conflict on children launched that year.

During the conference I met 56 other children who had been directly impacted by armed conflict and who, like me, were being introduced to the child rights articulated by the Convention. I was 16 years old at the time, and I remember how this knowledge – particularly for those of us from war-torn countries – rekindled the value of our lives and our humanity. In that moment, I knew I would work as an advocate for children’s rights, and my commitment to spread awareness on the Convention was born.

Knowledge brings hope
Before the Convention gained widespread acceptance in the 1990s, it was difficult and extremely rare for there to be public discussions about child rights. While there is undoubtedly much to be done in ensuring widespread implementation of the Convention, its entry into force has set the stage for the application of national-level monitoring and accountability mechanisms. The incorporation of many of the Convention’s articles and principles into national legal structures gives children and youth hope that one day their rights will be realized. During my travels throughout the world, I have seen that once children know these rights exist, they eagerly ask for them to be met, and they have expressed the value of having a common legal standard. Knowledge of the Convention’s existence enables them to ask their governments to provide for their rights in concrete terms.

Setting standards for survival, expression and education
The Convention consists of 54 articles that encompass a broad range of economic, social, civil, cultural and political rights, all of which contribute to creating a powerful and comprehensive framework for child rights. My experiences, first as a child realizing my rights had been violated and now as an advocate for child rights, have convinced me there are specific articles that set a baseline of responsibility from which the other articles operate.

The first of these is article 6, which states that all governments must “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” In places where human rights are not guaranteed, article 6 serves as a tool for lobbying on behalf of children, to remove them from war and to protect them from harm. It also provides a mandate to safeguard the development of children, which in war-torn countries often requires the presence and efforts of human rights workers. I benefited from the existence of aid workers in Sierra Leone, and from the rights embodied in this article.

My life has also been enriched by articles 12 and 13, which guarantee children and youth the right to express their views fully in matters affecting them, and “to seek, receive and impart important information” of all kinds and by all media. These articles have helped many children become active participants in finding solutions to problems that affect them. By encouraging children and youth to be outspoken through artistic mediums, and by including them on government and United Nations panels, officials are moving from looking at children’s rights in abstract terms to seeing them as the deeply human struggles they are.

Articles 28 and 29, which articulate the right to education, also require special mention. In post-conflict nations, where refugees and internally displaced persons are struggling to rebuild their lives, children fiercely want an education. When children and youth engage in school, or informal learning, the chances of them being recruited for war or violence, for hard labour or exploitation lessen. Lack of education is a root cause of many of the injustices children suffer, and more must be done to provide them with access to quality schools. This is particularly true for young girls, who often suffer the additional burdens of domestic labour, child marriage and early pregnancy, sexual violence and gender-based discrimination.

The work to fulfil child rights is not an easy task. But it is one that cannot be ignored. The Convention on the Rights of the Child demands that families, communities and governments acknowledge and meet their fundamental responsibilities to care for and protect the world’s 2.2 billion children. While I believe the international community has come a long way in the implementation of the Convention, stronger child, youth and community participation is required to sustain success. Ultimately, children will determine the moral and ethical future of nations, and the world. Their voices must be heard.

Ishmael Beah, born in 1980 in Sierra Leone, is the author of best-selling A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.  He is UNICEF’s Advocate for Children Affected by War, a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Advisory Committee, co-founder of the Network for Young People Affected by War (NYPAW) and President of the Ishmael Beah Foundation. Beah has a bachelor’s degree in political science from  Oberlin College and lives in New York City

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