20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Yanghee Lee

Participation and Compliance: The Committee on the Rights of the Child
This is a landmark year for children and all who work alongside them and on their behalf as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a legally binding document, the Convention has been instrumental in setting standards of children’s rights and motivating institutional capacity-building for the promotion and protection of children. It has made children and their claim as equal participants in societies more visible by calling for their inclusion in public and political discourses on issues affecting them. Since its inception, many countries have undertaken legislative reforms to include children’s rights in their constitutions.

Success despite challenges: adapting the Convention to a new century
Compliance with the Convention has not been without its challenges. That children are true and deserving rights holders was not an easy concept for many societies around the world to accept. Likewise, the justiciability of the rights enshrined in the Convention continues to be debated. Despite these challenges, its success is undeniable. On the Convention’s 20th anniversary, it is important to celebrate the many ways it has advanced children’s rights while also acknowledging that it will have to adapt to a new century of threats facing children.

One of the more effective implementation measures of the Convention was the creation of an independent body of experts that reviews the integration of the Convention into international jurisprudence and States’ national systems. The Committee on the Rights of the Child met for the first time in 1991, and as of its 51st session 18 years later has reviewed 333 country reports on compliance to the Convention, 47 country reports on compliance to the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and 35 country reports on compliance to the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The Convention and the Committee continue to be vital in the initiation of critically important international activities regarding child rights. Once a year, the Committee holds a Day of General Discussion that is devoted to in-depth analysis of an area of children’s rights. This practice started in 1992 with an exploration of children in armed conflict and ultimately resulted in the Secretary-General commissioning a major study on the impact of armed conflict on children. This produced the groundbreaking report by Graça Machel that has revolutionized the way the United Nations and the governments of its Member States respond to the mobilization of resources to children in conflict zones. Likewise, the UN Study on Violence against Children, which revealed the magnitude and degree of violence that children around the world are subjected to, was inspired by a Day of General Discussion.

The third P: Participation
The Committee also releases General Comments that are its interpretation of a particular right or theme enshrined in the Convention. These functions provide guidance to States parties on their responsibilities under the Convention while helping to bolster its compliance. One of the most influential comments to date is General Comment No. 5, which identifies several ways States parties should understand and implement the Convention. This comment has provoked challenges to governments to enshrine child rights and protection into their existing national systems. Since its publication, many countries have begun to withdraw reservations to the Convention, set up coordinating bodies and ombudsperson offices that specifically advocate for and administer policies for children and include them in the decision-making process.

The most recent interpretation of the human rights provisions enshrined in the Convention is General Comment No. 12 (2009) on the right of the child to be heard. The Convention itself does not specifically mention the right to participate, but Article 12, which is addressed in this General Comment, has come to be known as the ‘participation right’. With the publication of this General Comment, the third ‘P’ – of provision, protection and participation – is strengthened, giving full recognition to children as rights holders.

A new way forward?
The call for greater participation by children is gaining additional momentum from an initiative brought by Slovenia and advanced by Slovakia earlier this year. The Human Rights Council unanimously agreed to establish an open-ended working group to explore the adoption of a third Optional Protocol to the Convention. This protocol would provide a communications procedure to allow children and other child rights stakeholders to air grievances to the Committee and challenge abuses of their rights. More than 38 Member States co-sponsored the group, which is to have its first session for five working days in Geneva before the end of 2009. Regardless of the group’s decisions and recommendations, its very creation signals the seriousness with which States parties take children’s rights.

This fall, the Committee on the Rights of the Child will spend focused energy analysing the challenges, old and new, that confront the realization of children’s rights. After 193 ratifications and 19 years of reporting, the need for a robust evaluation and analysis mechanism to better understand the situation of children remains more important than ever. We must continue to work to ensure the dignity of children is preserved and hold States accountable for defining their obligations, both in material and moral terms, to prevent violations of children’s rights. This includes challenging societies to address the many and varied ways they commodify children and the associated discrimination that does not view children as legitimate rights holders. States parties must include children in the policymaking process and ensure their voices are heard and considered in the development of programmes and standards that uniquely impact their lives. Only when States embrace children as their partners will their rights take root and later bear the fruit of peace and equality the Convention seeks for each child. Members of the Committee join the community of nations and individuals worldwide in celebrating children’s rights and the 20th anniversary of the Convention.

Professor Yanghee Lee is the current Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. She has been a member of the Committee since 2003 and was elected as its Chair in both May of 2007 and 2009. A national of the Republic of Korea, Professor Lee has taught at Sungkyunkwan University since 1991. She is the recipient of many recognitions and awards, including the 2007 Year of the Woman Award (Korea).

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