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What We Can Contribute to Realizing the Rights of the Child

Lucerne, Switzerland, May 2007

Human Rights and particularly Children’s Rights are of great interest to me for three key reasons: Firstly because of my profession as a barrister specialising in human rights. Secondly, as a mother of four children which means I share the...

Human Rights and particularly Children’s Rights are of great interest to me for three key reasons:

Firstly because of my profession as a barrister specialising in human rights.

Secondly, as a mother of four children which means I share the concerns and hopes of all parents about the changing world in which they will live.

And thirdly in my capacity as President of Barnardo’s - the UK children’s charity through which I have learnt about the daily breaches of the rights of vulnerable and disadvantaged children and also of their astonishing resilience if we give them the support they need and deserve.

The protection of children and the safeguarding and promotion of children’s rights, of course, should matter to everyone.

The protection we give our children is one of the key indicators of the health and strength of our societies.

As one of the weakest groups, children must be nurtured and protected to enable them to learn about the world and grow to take a key role in mankind’s development.

This is not just in their interest but in all our interests. Because it is in their hands our future lies.

This explains why so much emphasis over many decades has been given protecting and extending children’s rights through laws and international frameworks.

But as Kofi Annan memorably reminded us back in 2001 they are not alone the answer.

He said:

“The idea of child rights, then, may be a beacon guiding the way to the future - but it is also illuminating how many adults neglect their responsibilities towards children and how children are too often victims of the ugliest and most shameful human activities.”

Just as it is individuals who are guilty of these shameful activities, not matter what the law or interntional conventions might say, it also as individuals - as parents, as campaigners and as consumers - that we must take up the fight to ensure societies meet their responsibilities to children across the world.

And it is also the role of the individual that I want to talk about today.

The advances we have already seen, of course, in establishing children’s rights and the protections that flow from them start with individuals.

The UK, like its European counterparts, has a long tradition of individuals campaigning to protect our children and, in doing so, changing our societies for the better.

It was the Earl of Shaftsbury over 170 years ago who led the mass campaign to persuade Parliament to outlaw child labour in factories.

Thanks to his efforts and those of many other individuals throughout the country, in 1833 the Factory Act made it illegal for children under 9 to work in textile factories, and outlawed older children from working more than 8 hours a day.

In 1842 he also piloted the Coal Mines Act through the Commons, prohibiting women and children from working underground.

Thirty five years later it was another individual Thomas John Barnardo who set up a school in the East End of London for poor children.

Three years later, he opened his first home for boys.

It is from these small beginnings that the charity which still proudly carries his name has grown.

By the time of his death in 1905 Barnardo’s ran 96 homes caring for more than 8500 children.

While a century later, Barnardo’s no longer runs orphanages , its commitment to children and the vision of its founder is still strong, supporting 111,000 children and families through 383 vital projects at home, school and in the community.

I’ve also seen, of course, the difference that concerned individuals - Barnardo’s staff and volunteers - have made to the lives and children.

Building on these solid foundations, the twentieth century welcomed a number of reforms focusing on the universal rights of children.

At the end of the First World War , two remarkable women, Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton, launched ‘Save the Children’ to send food to suffering children.

Eglantine Jebb declared that we need “to place in children’s hands the means of saving themselves.”

Even in its early days ‘Save the Children’ did not see children as helpless recipients of aid, but as young people with their own views and abilities.

In 1923 it was Eglantyne Jebb who pioneereed the world’s first charter on children’s rights.

It promoted the principle that children were entitled to a good quality of life and that government, families and other adults were obliged to provide this.

So instead of being seen as charity cases, children, perhaps for the first time, were portrayed as having rights which adults must fulfil.

By the end of the century this idea had taken hold and altered international thinking about children.

In 1989, the charter formed the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) - the first binding universal treaty dedicated solely to the protection and promotion of children’s rights, providing a detailed framework of principles and standards for treatment of the world’s children.

Unusually for a human rights instrument, it combines economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights and consequently offers the fullest legal statement of children’s rights to be found anywhere.

It focuses both on the protection of individual children and on the creation of general conditions in which children’s full potential can be recognised.

Significantly, the UNCRC balances the welfare of the child - incorporated in rights to protection, prevention of harm and service provision - with the right of children to participate and to be involved in decisions which affect them.

In this way, the UNCRC introduces an additional dimension to the status of children by recognising them, not merely as the recipients of adult protection, but as individuals with a right to fully participate and be involved in the decisions that impact on their lives.

The UNCRC, I am pleased to say, is now the most widely recognised in international law, having been ratified by all the countries of the world apart from the USA and Somalia. It provides the framework for a rights based approach to the protection of children.

It does not alone, however, guarantee the legal protection of children.

While ratification of the convention commits subscribing Governments to guaranteeing the rights of all children, these principles must be enshrined in national laws in order to deliver a rights based approach.

Many countries have indeed used the UNCRC as the basis for revising domestic legislation and improving the protection of children. Here in Switzerland you ratified the Convention in 1997 by incorporating it as Article 11 of the Constitution.

In the UK, the principles found within the Convention have been incorporated into domestic laws such as the Children Act 1989, although there has been no specific legislative “adoption” of the UNCRC.

From these principles we have seen, for example, the establishment of Children’s Commissioners in the UK to ensure the rights of children are protected and promoted. They join around a dozen other children’s ombudsmen across Europe from France to Ireland but most notably in Scandinavia where the first such post was established in 1981.

I have been pleased to see the emphasis which has been given by the Commissioners in the UK to communicating directly and effectively with children and young people.

The Commissioner role is a symbolic demonstration of the Government’s commitment to children and young people and an important signal that the views of children are being taken seriously in line with the UN Convention and we look forward to the day we can welcome a Swiss children’s ombudsman.

So, in terms of legal safeguards we have come a long way both internationally and domestically. But we all that they mean nothing to children across our world, and in every country, denied the most basic of their rights.

Whatever the fine words of the international conventions say, millions of children are still forced to grow up hungry, without access to clean water, denied the most basic education or healthcare, compelled by family circumstance or worse to work from a very young age or take over adult caring responsibilities, sexually abused or to fight and kill in wars.

There are, for example, thought to be around 300,000 children, some as young as seven, fighting in wars around the world.

Most are boys, but girls are also forced to fight. Girls are often sexually abused and forced to ‘marry’ adult soldiers. Both Government and rebel armies use child soldiers.

Some of these children see fighting as the only way to escape poverty, whereas for others the offer of regular food is enough to make them sign up. These are lives in which childhood is over before it has even begun.

We also have to face up to the fact that while this year we mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slave trade in the British Empire, modern slavery involving children exists across the world on a massive and distressing scale.

It is estimated that every year, over one million children are trafficked into the modern day equivalent of slavery - secretly transported across international borders and sold as commodities for cheap domestic, agricultural and other forms of labour, or increasingly worryingly, trafficked to be exploited for sex in countries across Europe.

Ever in these areas, there is progress. I particularly welcome the fact that in March this year the UK signed both the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and announced the creation of UK Human Trafficking Centre.

This is directly linked to the introduction of the UK Action Plan on Human Trafficking to ensure the Police and partner agencies work closely together to crack down on human trafficking in all its forms.

These numbers, shameful as they are, are dwarfed by those children forced to work. According to the ILO and UNICEF on child labour, there are over 218 million children trapped in child labour worldwide, of whom some 171 million were engaged in ‘hazardous work’ including in factories, mines and agriculture. 218 million children is about three and a half times the population of Britain. It beggars belief in the 21st century.

I welcome, too, the fact that the UN’s Special Tribunal on Sierra Leone handed down the first ever judgement against recruiting child soldiers and that the first investigations of the new International Criminal Court - in itself a tremendous advance - are against the Ugandan rebel leaders of the Lords’ Resistance Army for a number of crimes, including the kidnapping of thousands of children as soldier slaves or sex slaves.

So we continue to see important advances in the legal safeguarding and protection of human rights against a background of these rights being flouted across the world.

But, and I may not be thanked for this by everyone in my chosen profession, we can’t leave this fight to lawyers or legislators. We all have to take a stand as individuals.

We have to take a stand, for example, in the fight to ensure all the world’s children have access to clean and safe water.

This is a topic close to my heart after UNICEF invited me to act as Ambassador for their Global Task Force focusing on the right to water, sanitation and hygiene. I was honoured to take up their invitation.

For this is an area not just of huge importance but which importantly highlights how human rights and their promotion are not just an abstract ideal but can, with our help, make a real, practical different to the everyday lives of millions of people.

For human rights have to begin with the universal provision of the very basics for human survival. And you can’t think of anything more basic than water.

More than 400 million children, it is estimated, live without access to a safe drinking source.

Over twice as many - almost one billion - lack proper sanitation facilities. And they pay a huge price.

Today and every day, more than four thousand children will die because they drink dirty water and live in unsanitary conditions.

At any one time, half the population of developing countries are suffering illness caused by lack of safe water or poor sanitation.

Clean water is also important for education and prosperity.
The daily grind of finding and fetching water can take hours out of every day.

This task largely falls on the shoulders of young people - and young girls in particular, cutting the hours they can spend in schooling.

So here is a campaign in which all of us as individuals who care about human rights should join.

Investment in proper sanitation will help provide clean rivers and clean drinking water. It’s investment that will pay for itself many times over.

In fact the World Health Organisation estimates that each $1 invested in water and sanitation in low-income countries will yield an average return of $8 in saved time, increased productivity, and reduced health costs.

We can all help even the youngest. Recently the school attended by my youngest son raised funds to provide a water tank for a village in Uganda.

We must press, too, as individuals and societies to make real for every child the right to education.

There are some 130 million children not in school, two thirds of them girls.

This is a terrible waste of potential not just for the individual children but for those communities trying to extricate themselves from poverty.

All the evidence shows that extending and improving education is the best possible investment that can be made.

This is particularly the case with educating girls. It is shown to have a huge impact on economic growth, on raising health and stable families and in preventing the spread of infections such as HIV/AIDS.

As the saying goes ‘Educate a man and you educate an individual -educate a woman and you educate a family and a nation’.

And here too, individuals are making a difference. Last year, I visited Afghanistan and a school for girls in Kabul which only a few years ago would have been impossible.

The head teacher was a remarkable woman. When the Taliban had been in power, girls were banned from schools. But she risked her life conducting clandestine lessons for girls. Now she presides over the biggest girls’ school in Kabul with no less than 8,000 pupils aged between 5 and 21.

Many of the older girls had passed school leaving age but, as they had missed out on education, they continued to attend classes.

The school was in a poor physical condition, with bomb damage in the playground, broken windows, and many empty classrooms full of rubble.

They desperately need teaching materials and equipment if the promise of education is to make a real difference to these young people.

There is a tremendous international effort going on to protect the people of Afghanistan, to support the elected Government and to help them rebuild their country.

But we can also do a great deal as individuals to support the efforts of people like this remarkable head teacher through, for example, twinning schools in our countries with those abroad.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that children’s rights are not a concern in our own countries.

I know from my own experience as a lawyer and through my association with Barnados of the vulnerability of children. As a report launched by Barnados this Wednesday shows, even in countries of such relative affluence as the UK, real problems remain.

I am proud of the real progress we have seen in the UK in recent years with 700,000 children lifted out of poverty towards the goal of eliminating child poverty by 2020.

But while we wait for this goal to be achieved, poorer children continue to fare badly in education, are more at risk of early death and childhood accidents, and poor neighbourhoods are hardest hit by crime.

When you look at the scale of the challenges we face, the inhumanity that children face and the sheer numbers denied even the most basic human rights, it is easy to feel despair, easy to give in.

We must not. Because the decisions we take here, often small decisions can and do have a huge impact thousands of miles away.

I recently visited Rwanda, a country which has suffered unimaginable horrors and where the scars of genocide are still raw.

But I saw how a village left devastated by death and division was being brought back to life by something as simple as growing Fair Trade coffee.

By organising the farmers into a cooperative and helping them improve the quality of their coffee, they had won a contract on merit to supply one of the biggest supermarkets in the UK.

As a result of their high-quality crop and the consumer choices made here in the West, life was thriving in a village which was deserted seven years ago.

The community was now back to over 1000 people and even better, their children were attending school with high hopes of a better future.

So yes, it is vital we continue to use the full force of the law to help protect and promote children’s rights.

And international efforts are making a difference. Since the adoption of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, for example, the number of children killed every year by anti-personnel mines has dropped significantly.

Of the developed nations which have taken the necessary step of incorporating the principles of the UNCRC into domestic law, this has led to a rights-based approach which has quickly become the main tool for ensuring the protection of the rights of children.

But we also have a role to play as individuals to further children’s rights - in the home, in school and in the public arena.

It is our duty to ensure our children are listened to and engaged in the society in which they live as equals, where they feel respected and understood, cherished and valued, not abused, forgotten and let down.

We can’t all follow the example of Lord Shaftesbury or Thomas Barnado and head a mass campaign to improve the lives of millions of children.

We can, in our professional and personal lives, in the decisions we take and the example we set, try to put the needs and hopes of children at the top of our agenda.

As Eleanor Roosevelt, who played such a pivotal role in drawing up the UN Charter of Human Rights said, : “

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of an individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attend; the factory, farm or office where he works……. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

This is as important a message today as it was 60 years ago.

Thank you