20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Thomas Hammarberg

Ring loud, ring clear: Children’s voices and the vision of Janusz KorczakThe Convention on the Rights of the Child is a remarkable success. It has been ratified by all but two of the world’s nations. It has enhanced legislation, policies, programmes, policies and outcomes for children. Twenty years after its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989, it continues to act as a catalyst for concrete actions and the implementation of child rights.

Its success, however, does not imply that its mission is complete; on the contrary, much remains to be done to ensure children enjoy their rights. One aspect of the Convention that requires greater attention is a child’s right to have his or her views taken into account.

The importance of respecting children and their opinions was the main message of the Polish writer, doctor and educationalist, Janusz Korczak, whose teachings came to inspire the drafting of the Convention. In an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, Dr. Korczak, his colleagues and some 190 children practised children’s rights in their daily lives. In the midst of the horror ravaging Europe, this community developed a small democracy with an assembly, agreed rules of behaviour and a court. There was a billboard for messages and a newspaper for news and discussion. Their fledgling democracy came to a terrible end on 6 August 1942, when German Nazi troops led staff and children to their deaths at Treblinka’s gas chambers.

Despite the immortalization of Korczak’s work, there are still those who see his ideas as either unrealistic or something to be addressed in the future. This attitude of passive resistance also characterizes the way many governments and adults approach Article 12 of the Convention, which advocates for the views of children to be included in government affairs. The provision that “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” places an obligation on governments to include children in matters affecting their lives. Yet this is perhaps one of the least implemented aspects of the Convention.

Youth Participation
Notwithstanding lingering ambiguities and debates concerning how a child’s right to be heard and to participate in decision-making can be realized, it is time to confront this challenge. Respecting the views of children requires long- and short-term objectives and strategies to address social attitudes and behaviours that do not acknowledge children as deserving partners in governance. Mechanisms for youth participation in political and community decision-making must be created within political bodies, and systematic consultation and serious consideration of children’s views is imperative.

Unfortunately, I believe many adults consider this prospect a threat. The issue of children’s participation is seen as a ‘zero-sum game’, where one side wins only if the other side loses. With this mindset, when children gain more influence, it is at the expense of adults, making the latter less able to control the family or uphold discipline in the classroom. In many countries, adults oppose children’s participation in the name of parents’ rights or religious principles. Overcoming entrenched attitudes towards children’s participation may take some time, but as individuals and governments we have an obligation to pursue these changes.

Can this issue be raised in a meaningful way? Can it be shown that there is no contradiction between giving children the possibility of influencing their lives and society, on the one hand, and safeguarding the role of adults to care for, guide and protect children, on the other? Can it be made obvious that this is not a zero-sum game, but that all sides stand to gain if adults learn to support children in the exercise of their right to be heard?

I believe it can, and that these efforts should begin by addressing children in their primary arena: the home. Raising awareness among parents and caretakers about a child’s right to be heard and helping them cope with their parenting roles in this respect must be a priority. Likewise, there is a particular need to encourage teachers, who interact with children in their most formative years, to facilitate child participation.

Interactive learning, relevant curricula, and democratic attitudes and procedures for education and peer interaction are essential contributions. Such measures should focus on strengthening children’s ability to express themselves. In a similar fashion, organizations advocating for the realization of children’s rights should be promoted, and groups such as sports teams, arts associations and scout clubs must be encouraged to listen to children and respect their opinions.

Government action
Governments could take the lead in changing views by developing their capacity within political parties to consider the needs of youth constituents. By allowing children to participate in the political process, and by enforcing laws that protect children, States parties will make inroads against discrimination towards children. This is imperative in justice systems where court procedures need to be adjusted to enhance children’s rights. Whether they are perpetrators, victims or witnesses to crimes and misdemeanours, children should have an influence on administrative or judicial decisions relating to them, especially for custody care and adoption.

Where governments fail to champion child rights, civil society and the media can nudge countries towards this realization by having ‘child-friendly’ news presentations and by presenting children’s views on matters of concern to them. More child-focused correspondents and young journalists would also be welcome.

These steps would be in line with the vision of Janusz Korczak. Enabling children to express themselves and have their views heard and respected in their homes, schools and communities from an early age will enhance their sense of belonging and their readiness to take on responsibility. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was created to protect youth, and our world, by recognizing that today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. All of us must strive, in our personal, professional and public lives, to include children in shaping the future they are inheriting.

Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights. Previously, he served as Secretary General of Amnesty International and of Swedish Save the Children. He has also been a board member of the Swedish Committee for UNICEF and vice-chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

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