20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Louis Michel

The ideal gift
It is a great honour to contribute to the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In my experience as the European Commissioner responsible for development and humanitarian aid, children were at the core of my mandate, as they constitute by far the largest population group in the countries with which I worked.

The ideal gift to commemorate this occasion would have been for the European Community to sign the Convention itself, as a very concrete expression of its commitment to children’s rights. However, unlike the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention does not currently permit signing by regional bodies.

Despite this limitation, the European Commission de facto respects the Convention, and all of the European Union’s 27 Member States have ratified it. The opening articles 3.3 and 3.5 of the Treaty of Lisbon state that the European Union”protects the rights of the child” both within its Member States and externally. Pending the ratification of this treaty, our challenge is to fulfil our declared intent so that children are not treated as an afterthought in development and humanitarian work. We want to be able to look back, 10 or 20 years from now and say: "So many more children are in school, healthy and performing well, ready to play their role in society in an ever more global world." As one of the biggest providers of development assistance in the world, the EU can drive this change.

The European Commission, together with its Member States, promotes a number of policies on children in third countries, all of which are intended to contribute to the fulfilment of the Convention. Given the current global financial crisis, which has put the prosperity of future generations at risk, it is more pertinent than ever to put children at the forefront of our partnerships. History shows that children are especially vulnerable to recessions, as they are often removed from school to work or care for their families, or they suffer malnutrition as food becomes scarce or more expensive. Such episodes can have a permanent impact on a child’s development, with important future implications for society as a whole. 

The European Commission recognizes that many of its development and humanitarian policies and actions have an effect on children – either positively or negatively. In order to address these pressing challenges, the EC is constantly striving to improve its advocacy on children's rights in its non-child-specific interventions.

One part of these efforts is the introduction of two sets of guidelines, one on children in armed conflict and the other more broadly on children’s rights, with a special focus on violence. Pilot countries have been identified for implementing both sets of guidelines, with those selected for the children in armed conflict guidelines building on and contributing to actions under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1612.

In 2008, the European Commission presented its vision in a Communication entitled ‘A Special Place for Children in EU External Action’. This policy outlines a comprehensive strategy to maximize the complementarities of all instruments available to the EU, particularly development cooperation, trade policy, political dialogue and humanitarian aid – while ensuring coherence between the Union’s efforts and partner country initiatives.

In May 2008, the 27 EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs adopted an important policy statement underlining the commitment of the Council of the European Union to a comprehensive and integrated human rights-based approach to children’s rights, re-emphasizing the importance of basic services for children and of child protection systems. Specific actions on child protection are also planned, and the Commission will surely address the issue of child participation – a major challenge facing communities and governments worldwide.

In situations of humanitarian crisis, whether resulting from natural disasters or conflict, the European Commission's response aims to reflect the Convention’s principles and provisions. Children are among the most affected groups in crisis situations and are at risk of such human rights violations as sexual exploitation, domestic violence, forced labour, human trafficking, physical and psychological trauma and recruitment by armed forces or groups. These violations can have a lifelong effect on children, a concern given due importance in the Commission's humanitarian mandate. In addition, the EU has collectively singled out three priority issues related to children affected by crises and emergencies: separated and unaccompanied children, children associated with armed forces or armed groups, and child education in emergencies.

One noteworthy initiative is the development of a ‘Children’s Rights Toolkit’ that is being adopted by the European Commission, in tandem with UNICEF. This toolkit will improve the capacity of key stakeholders – including European Commission officials in Brussels and abroad – to better identify and address issues related to children’s rights and to design and implement better integrated and more effective policies.

As a former educator, I am heartened to note that more children, especially girls, are attending school. As a part of its response to the global financial crisis the European Commission has focused on helping developing countries, especially in Africa, maintain social spending. We are starting to see marked progress in children’s rights; I hope on the Convention’s 20th anniversary these efforts will bear further fruit.

Louis Michel was the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid between 2004 and 2009. He was Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister for Institutional Reform of the Kingdom of Belgium from 1999 to 2004. Prior to his political career, Louis Michel worked as a teacher in Belgium.

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