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
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
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
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
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