Opinion Piece by UNICEF Iran Representative on Anniversary of Child Rights Convention

Children’s Rights in Iran: finding a consensus

Celebrating a birthday is always a special event, but turning 18 has a special meaning for most of us. This year, on 20 November, we are celebrating such a very special birthday – of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A landmark human rights document ratified by nearly every country in the world – except Somalia and the United States of America – the Convention represents the most important international legal framework for the realization of human dignity during childhood. It establishes political duties for both state and society to realize social living conditions that allow children to grow up healthy, happy and well-educated, and it sets international standards for laws and policies towards a child-friendly society.

UNICEF, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, is guided in its day-to-day work by the provisions of the Convention. Iran, which has actively contributed and supported UNICEF since its establishment, has played an important part in drafting this document. Iranian representatives in the international drafting committee for the Convention emphasized the need to protect children without primary caregivers and encouraged international cooperation and aid for disabled children. They also asked for international assistance on infant mortality and child malnutrition to be included in the document.

Iran signed the CRC on 5 September 1991 and the Majles ratified it on 20 February 1994. Moreover, Iran only recently also ratified one of the optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child: the optional protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

However, upon ratification of the Convention, Iran deposited a general reservation. This reservation reads: "The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves the right not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the domestic legislation in effect."  It is remarkable that 13 other member states have officially rejected this reservation, often objecting to its very unspecific nature and declaring it being against the spirit of the Convention. Although 10 other Islamic countries have deposited similar reservations, Iran’s provision has become the most objected in the history of the Convention.

Any State signing and ratifying the Convention can express reservations, provided that they are no attempt to contravene its spirit or violate its principles. It would indeed be a logical contradiction if a country becomes a member of a treaty while at the same time declaring that it doesn’t want to apply or abide by it.  Unspecific reservations to the Convention, as is the case with Iran, create an overall unsatisfactory situation: they leave it unclear which international standards are guaranteed for children in a given country and which of the universal rights are not accepted. Therefore, it would be desirable to clarify which articles of the Convention are objected by the Iranian State and which are not, to avoid confusion and uncertainties for everybody in Iran who is concerned about children, as well as for the children themselves.

Iran’s general reservation to the Convention has chiefly been justified in Islamic terms. To clarify the relationship between Islam, Sharia and child rights, UNICEF has increasingly begun to turn to religious scholars and academic researchers, including such renowned institutions as Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Mofid University in Qom. UNICEF particularly hopes that such process will help clarify why adolescents in Iran can still be executed, although this is clearly against article 37 of the Convention and also not practiced in other Islamic countries.

In my view, there are no principle grounds for assuming that Islam and children’s rights are contradictory concepts. And why should they be? Islam is a religion of compassion and solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. It is a religion that promotes education, health, hygiene and protection of the weak. It promotes the well-being of children. It establishes a comprehensive responsibility for adults to do everything they can so children can grow up healthy, well educated, happy and well protected. It is also a religion that treasures and defends the dignity of the human being, no matter if that human being is a man or a women, an adult or a child. In sum, it has established the principle of rights and duties for children and adults. Hence, there is broad ground for dialogue and consensus between universal children’s rights, religious beliefs and the principles of Islam, a field that academics and scientists have only recently begun to explore.

Rights as those stipulated by the Convention can be established on paper. However, they will lead to the realization of human dignity only if social action is taken. This means something very concrete – to put into place public policies that are carried out by a well-functioning governmental and non-governmental institutional structure and to establish mechanisms for monitoring the realization of these rights.

Finally, it is important to highlight today that children’s rights are everybody’s business. While governments have a special accountability to ensure child rights, they cannot and should not do the job alone. Broad-based social engagement and social dialogue between all sectors of society is a public and private responsibility and must happen to fully achieve the realization of child rights.

Today, we remind all sectors in society of their all-encompassing responsibility for the new generations and call on them to dialogue, cooperate and act together to ensure that all Iranian children and adolescents grow up healthy, well educated and well protected from harm.

Dr. Christian Salazar Volkmann, Representative of UNICEF Iran



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