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A note of caution on using the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

By Ian Hassall Emma Davies - posted Friday, 2 May 2003

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989, has been used as a banner for a worldwide children's movement that has grown up in the last 25 years. That it was ratified within the space of two decades by all but two countries is testimony to the activity of lobbies for children throughout the world.

The rapidity with which governments adopted the Convention could also be influenced by their perception that promises to children are unlikely to rebound to their electoral disadvantage. For it is generally true that wars are not fought, strikes are not called and governments do not rise and fall over the fate of children.

Nevertheless active lobbies for children have made real gains in advancing children's status in the law, in public policy and in provision of services. These advances can be measured by the establishment in many countries of commissioners or ombudsmen for children, of specific government policies for children and of ministers for children. These developments have been accompanied by programmes for improving opportunities for children, reducing violence toward them and alleviating their poverty.


The Convention and the children's movement arose from a realisation that children, while usually cherished by their families, did not as a group occupy a favourable position in society, were the most vulnerable in times of political and economic upheaval, were most likely to be poor and were most subject to violence. As just one instance of the vulnerability of children in times of social change there is evidence that children were disadvantaged by the neoliberal economic reforms that have affected much of the world in the past 30 years. Although the position of children in public policy remains insecure advances have been made in raising their status and protecting their interests.

The Convention has had a central place in these developments, as a standard against which to judge law, policy and practice and as a source of authority in relation to submissions and cases. It has achieved currency in many countries. It is accepted in New Zealand case law as a point of reference, routinely backs submissions to the legislature and other bodies and is used in courses that encourage children to speak up for themselves and authorities to listen to them.

While the Convention remains of central importance in keeping this momentum going it is able to carry only a certain amount of weight. It is not a substitute for independently developing arguments for advancing children's interests. It must be used strategically with due regard to the case being made, the intended audience and the timing of its effect.

Reference to the Convention in a submission may not bring instant recognition and respect and may provoke antagonism for reasons that run counter to the expectation that enthusiasts have for a positive impact based on the following reasons.

1. Because it has been almost universally adopted.

There are undoubtedly many countries that took the decision before ratifying that they intended to live up to the terms of the Convention. Others clearly didn't. Some, at the time of ratification, entered reservations whose effect was to completely nullify any commitment. Others submitted almost completely fictitious reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on their performance in relation to the Convention. Even in those countries which took the Convention seriously it may not be well known in spite of efforts to comply with Article 42 requiring that it be publicised.

2. Because it is a United Nations document.

Declarations such as the Convention evoke in some people fear of interference in their lives by agents of the state and by extension, of interference in their national sovereignty by a supra-national body, the United Nations. Since its inception, the UN has been criticised both for intervening and failing to intervene, and a common negative view of it is as expensive, unaccountable and ineffectual


3. Because it is about rights.

There is a popular view that children's rights are about encouraging them to misbehave in defiance of their parents and elders. Many people reject the sense of unbalanced entitlement that they see as accompanying rights talk. It evokes for them the image of the self-centred and the feckless who resort to asserting their rights as a substitute for dealing fairly and reasonably with their fellows. There is an understandable desire that children should not be brought up in this mode.

4. Because it is about children.

Children under threat as individuals tend to excite widespread sentimental concern. As a group they often don't get a look-in in the hard politics of budgetary allocation. Political parties have only recently begun to include policies for children in their election manifestos and few countries have a co-ordinated children's policy backed by a budget and an administrative set-up. Reporting on children in the media is still largely confined to cute illustrations and sentimental stories. Political journalists seem fearful that reporting child-related issues seriously will undermine the hard-nosed image they are careful to maintain.

5. Because it transcends cultural bias.

There is a fine balance in the Convention between an individualist and a collectivist world view. Not everyone would agree that the balance has been struck at the right point. Articles 24-29 which declare the State's responsibility to children might be considered by individualists to go too far in one direction and Article's 12-27, the freedoms, might be considered by collectivist traditionalists to go too far in the other.

6. Because it is invariably relevant

The Convention is a formulation of rights. It says how states should behave toward children to enable them to fulfil their destinies. It is not a model public policy for children. It does not say what structures and processes are to be put in place and what money is to be spent to the benefit of children or otherwise. The likely effectiveness of a children's policy and how it rates against competing policies are matters outside the frame of reference of the Convention.

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This is based on a paper published in Childrenz Issues, journal of the Childrens Issues Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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About the Author

Ian Hassall and Emma Davies work in the Institute of Public Policy at the Auckland University of Technology.

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