20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Peter Woicke

Doing our part: accountability and enforcement in children’s rights

Nearly 90 years ago, an inspirational woman, Eglantyne Jebb, put forward what was – at the time – a revolutionary idea. Jebb was the founder of Save the Children and an early proponent of children’s rights. She challenged the social norms of her day when she said, “I believe we should claim certain rights for the children and labour for their universal recognition.” In 1923, Jebb penned the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which continues to greatly influence the children’s rights movement today.
From Save the Children’s earliest days, championing rights has been in our blood. Jebb’s focus on health, nutrition, education and protection remain the basis for Save the Children’s work, and are the same concerns that have informed the Convention on the Rights of the Child for the past 20 years.
There has been remarkable progress for children since the Convention came into effect. Around the world, the formal acknowledgment of child rights has changed the way we relate to children and to one another. It has paved the way for children to be understood as people with human rights and legitimate opinions, as active individuals with a valid claim to be taken seriously. The Convention gives us a universal starting point, a common language and a cohesive framework to work together for and with children.

Including children’s voices
Girls and boys now have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives, and more adults who have decision-making power over children now listen to their views about problems and solutions. Children simply know a lot that adults do not always see and understand. They cut to the core of what needs to be done, and their inclusion in official dialogues has been a vital part of the changes we have seen.

Locally and nationally, the Convention has helped create an environment for change, catalysing invaluable partnerships between communities, national and international organizations and governments themselves. Working together, we have made dramatic improvements in the lives of children. It can surprise adults to see the results.

In Zambia, for example, child rights clubs have been introduced in schools, creating changes in communities across the country. One example of their impact comes from the country’s Eastern Province, where a male teacher was abusing girls and threatening to kill them if they told anyone. However, because the girls had learned about the Convention from their child rights clubs, they confronted the teacher – an act of empowerment that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. He eventually admitted his wrongdoing, was arrested, brought before a court and dismissed from his job.

Collaboration is key
The Convention has also helped create change at the international level by providing a common foundation for global partnerships on child rights. These collective efforts have brought about impressive advancements for children in the past two decades. Without the Convention, I do not believe 28 million more children would be in school now compared with the end of the twentieth century, or that the global number of children under five dying each year would have fallen by 27 per cent between 1990 and 2007. While this progress warrants celebration, pressing questions on how to ensure rights for all children and overcome discrimination and lack of resources remain.

Greater accountability at all levels is pivotal to making the Convention more effective. Through my work with Save the Children, I have found that local programmes and governance are often instructive in providing examples of meaningful accountability. In Fortaleza, northern Brazil, Save the Children Alliance has worked with children to help them understand how their town council makes budget decisions. This knowledge allows them to advocate for their rights by lobbying for child-friendly amendments in the municipal assembly that influence the budget.

Likewise, in parts of Colombia where there is inadequate provision for the implementation of child rights, the Inspector General, a national-level official, has the power to demand changes. If these requests are not met, he or she also has the power to bar the concerned governor or mayor from public office for up to 20 years.

Accountability and implementation
It is encouraging to see examples of a willingness for change, but what happens when those who should secure child rights instead fail to honour them? By ratifying the Convention, State Parties have agreed to implement and be accountable for the human rights of all children in their countries. The Convention is the only international human rights treaty that has a mandatory reporting procedure. Unfortunately, however, it has no complaints mechanism for children when their rights are violated. Child rights organizations, UN agencies and states face the challenge of implementing provisions that enable effective remedies for violations of child rights.

Accountability for child rights extends beyond the state to the entire international community. We must do more to make sure every child’s rights are fulfilled and respected, and put an end to discrimination, and care for the most vulnerable and marginalized children: girls, children living in conflict and political instability, children from ethnic minorities and children with disabilities. Appropriate and innovative policies, legislation, and action in support of child rights at the local and national levels must not be thwarted by a lack of resources. This also means raising awareness and providing increased assistance for children caught up in man-made and natural disasters.

Children are acutely aware of the injustices that populate our world, and they also have an understanding of how to address these inequalities. We must listen to them. If we do, lasting change is possible. If we do not, children will grow up to perpetuate the same violence and discrimination they experience.

When the Convention on the Rights of the Child reaches its 25th birthday in 2014, I hope to write about how we, as a world community, held ourselves to account by listening to and learning from children. Every child has rights. Twenty years after the birth of the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, our job is simple: for every child, make these rights a reality.

Peter Woicke was born in Germany in 1943 and graduated from the University of Saarbrücken, Germany. He spent 29 years with JP Morgan in Beirut, London, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Singapore before moving to the World Bank. For six years, Mr. Woicke headed the International Finance Corporation in Washington, D.C. Since then, he has held various non-executive board directorships and currently serves as the Chair of the International Save the Children Alliance.

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