The Progress of Nations: The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Translating principles into law

Of 43 countries whose reports have been reviewed, 14 have incorporated the Convention into their constitutions. 35 of the 43 have passed new laws or amended existing laws to conform with the Convention.

International treaties bind ratifying countries to principles that they are obligated to honour. One way to honour them is for countries to create a legal framework to carry out a treaty's provisions. Some examples:

In Tunisia, changes were made to child-related legislation even before ratification of the Convention (30 January 1992). Education laws were passed in 1991, for example, mandating education for all 6-to-16-year-olds, and penalizing parents who don't send their children to school.

After ratification, the Tunisian Government, with the help of legal professionals and international experts, completed a two-year review of national legislation to bring it into line with its treaty obligations. The result was the new Code for the Protection of the Child (31 October 1995), recently adopted by the Tunisian Parliament. Details were submitted to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which congratulated Tunisia for legislative measures that go beyond the minimum standards of the Convention and are in many cases "more conducive to the realization of the rights of the child than those contained in the Convention."

Other countries have found that they have few laws that specifically protect children. Ukraine, for example, is finalizing a new Children's Act that will be the first legal instrument to protect children's rights.

Photo: Tunisia - penalties if children are not in school. ©

Sex exploitation

Some countries have begun extending legislative protection to children at risk of sexual and other forms of exploitation. In Sri Lanka, parliamentarians quoting the Convention passed four amendments (September 1995) to strengthen laws related to child sexual abuse, child labour, and adoption.

Similarly, the Philippines has taken measures to define and penalize child prostitution and trafficking.

Belgium and Germany recently extended their national jurisdiction in cases of child prostitution and pornography so that adults could be prosecuted for such crimes against children committed outside their national boundaries. They join other countries such as Australia, Denmark, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and the United States that have passed similar legislation.

Law and labour

Several countries have recently adopted a minimum working age, including Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Portugal. Burkina Faso has revised child labour legislation to bring it into line with the Convention.

In Indonesia, a new Convention-inspired Education Bill, introduced in May 1994, has increased the length of compulsory education from six to nine years. It is hoped that this will improve compliance with the minimum working age of 14.

A number of countries that have reported to the Committee have been asked to give children greater legislative protection. The new nation of Belarus, for example, has been informed that existing laws on labour, the family and marriage, and criminal procedure need amendment to bring them into compliance with the Convention. Belarus passed a Rights of the Child Act in 1993.

In some nations, children of refugees or disenfranchised minorities remain vulnerable to violation of their rights. The Committee has asked Romania, for example, for more effective measures to combat prejudice against Gypsy children, whose school attendance is at very low levels.

The Committee also expressed concern about the care and legal protection afforded to immigrant or refugee children, particularly unaccompanied children awaiting deportation in France. In Canada, the Committee observed, the principles of non-discrimination have not always been given adequate weight by those dealing with refugee and immigrant children.

Countries with federal systems face special legislative challenges when it comes to incorporating the Convention into legal frameworks. In Argentina, for example, each of the 24 provinces would need to bring its laws into conformity with the Convention; so far, only the province of Mendoza has passed a new law on children and adolescents. In Canada, another federal system, the Convention is not part of the nation's constitution or federal law, but can nonetheless be 'referred to' by authorities adjudicating cases involving child rights.

The use of the Convention in court cases is still rare, although at least 16 countries say it can be - and sometimes has been - invoked in court. A French court has used the Convention to argue that poor teenage drop-outs should be covered by state social security, while an Australian judge cited the Convention in deciding a child custody case. Nevertheless, as Nicaragua's representative candidly admitted to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, most citizens are probably not even aware that they can cite the Convention to support court cases.

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