Hoda Badran, Professor of Social Research and Community Participation at the University of Helwan, Cairo, is the current Chairperson of the International Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee was established by the United Nations to monitor the progress of the Convention.
The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child has now been ratified by 174 of the world's nations - making it the most widely and rapidly accepted Convention in human rights history.
Some have pushed for rapid ratification by all countries to provide a universally accepted `moral platform' from which to defend children's rights. Others have argued that the `rush to ratify' devalues the Convention because neglect and abuse are still common in many ratifying countries.
Ratifying countries are obliged to report to the 10-member Committee on the Rights of the Child - of which I am currently the chairperson - detailing the steps being taken to put the Convention into practice.
Well, say the critics, all this certainly creates jobs for bureaucrats, produces prodigious amounts of paperwork, and provides endless excuses for meetings, but what does it offer to the millions of children in the world who are malnourished, uneducated, abused, prostituted, exploited?
Statement of intent
Loud and passionate public protest against violations is essential. There should be more of it. Public outcry, nationally and internationally, is one of the few powerful and immediate ways of protecting children's rights.
But the Committee on the Rights of the Child has a different job to do.
Rightly or wrongly, it makes the assumption that by ratifying the Convention a government is making a serious statement of intent. Our purpose is to help governments live up to that promise.
This means meeting with governments - usually Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Attorneys-General, and Members of Parliament or Congress - to discuss the situation of children in their country. We examine the facts on health, nutrition and education, and we look for the internal disparities that are often more revealing than national averages. We also look closely at institutional arrangements, national legislation, and juvenile justice systems.
We do not rely solely on governments; we also consult with non-governmental organizations.
The Committee then issues its concluding observations.
In the unfailingly polite language of the diplomatic world, those observations begin with `positive aspects'. We "note with satisfaction" that Viet Nam has passed new laws on the Protection, Care and Education of Children, or that Egypt has established a National Council for Childhood and Motherhood.
Each report then turns to `points of concern'. In the case of Bolivia, for example, we noted "the disparities ... based on race, sex, language, and ethnic or social origin." In the case of the Russian Federation, "we are concerned that society is not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the disabled."
We also express our `deep concern' over the continuance of child labour, child prostitution, the failure to protect children in armed conflicts, and the breadth and depth of discrimination against girls. And we point out repeatedly that culture and tradition are not acceptable reasons for violations of a Convention which now stands as an internationally agreed minimum standard for children everywhere.
Polite, yes. Uncritical, no. Assisted by the four lawyers on the Committee of 10, we look closely at each nation's legislation. We point out that a lower minimum age of marriage for girls than for boys is discriminatory (violating article 2 of the Convention). Or we cite cases where juvenile offenders are not separated from adults (violating article 37). Perhaps most important of all, we remind governments that the Convention on the Rights of the Child includes not just civil and political rights but also the rights to adequate nutrition, primary health care, and a basic education - "to the maximum extent of their available resources."
A process that works
Finally, we make specific recommendations. We recommend that country x may wish to study what has been done in country y, or that training courses should be organized for the staff in juvenile correctional facilities. In the case of the Sudan, for example, the Committee "expressed the hope that the review of child-related laws will result in the total abolition of flogging" (the Government responded by announcing that this practice would be ended).
Where possible, we also identify sources of help - from the United Nations system, from aid programmes, or from voluntary organizations.
This is an unspectacular, even bureaucratic process. But it is aimed at bringing change inside national establishments - in national institutions, national plans, national legal systems, national policies.
This is our cause. And however passionately we may feel as individuals about issues that come before us, it is a cause that would not be advanced if we merely directed the finger of accusation.
We have seen enough in five years to know that this approach works. When the Government of Viet Nam, for example, accepted that we were more interested in helping than criticizing, they submitted an open and self-critical report. Subsequently, Viet Nam acted: laws covering the protection, care, and education of children have all been passed.
Submissions from 174 countries, so far, must be reviewed in this way by a Committee that is already falling behind in its work. Its 10 elected members - lawyers, academics, civil servants, social workers - spend three months of each year on the Committee's business. But without more institutional support - to research its concerns and publicize its findings - the Committee will be unable to maintain effective dialogue with governments. This is yet another example of the international community wishing to be seen to be taking action on human rights while not being prepared to provide the institutional resources to make that action effective.
The child rights Committee is only one of the tools needed in the struggle to engrave the Convention into the conscience of nations. But its reports have a special place in that struggle. For they assess each nation's performance against a universal standard to which the government is already committed. With the help of the public and the non-governmental organizations, the media and the professional bodies, these reports should become a powerful means of increasing public pressure, monitoring the progress of the Convention, and protesting its violations.
Five years after making its first report to the child rights Committee, each country must submit a second report on the changes made. The first of those five-year reports will soon fall due. Nation by nation, they will be a revealing guide as to whether or not the promise is being kept.
As yet, there is no place for cynicism about the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is only a crying need for wider public involvement in forcing the pace down the long road from universal ratification to universal implementation.
Current members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child are: