Child Rights as the Cutting Edge of Human Rights

Presentation by Mr. Kul C. Gautam
Regional Director, UNICEF, East Asia and Pacific region
At a Public Seminar organized by the United Nations Association of Singapore  to commemorate 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Singapore, 15 August 1998

Everybody recognizes that children have needs. They need our tender loving care. They need to be protected against disease and malnutrition. They need to be sheltered against abuse and neglect. They need to be provided with opportunities for education and recreation.

As with all human needs, these are to be provided in accordance with availability of resources at the disposal of parents, communities and the government.
The notion that children have rights, not just needs, is a revolutionary idea of the late 20thcentury.  At first it may even appear odd that children who lack maturity and therefore have no vote and no voice in public affairs, should be deemed to have any rights at all. But then the history of human rights, and indeed of human civilization, tells us that what we regard as rights of citizens today were once exclusive privileges of the ruling elites. Barely two centuries ago, the only source of any right was the divine rights of monarchs, and whatever derivative rights they granted to their subjects as a matter of their benevolence. Even the most advanced nations of the world did not consider women as having equal rights with men until earlier this century. And there are still societies today where the extent to which one enjoys rights depends on one’s position in society in terms of one’s nationality, ethnic origin, race, creed, gender, and political views.

It was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that codified for the first time in human history that all human beings have certain inherent and inalienable rights. However, a Declaration is not an enforceable legal instrument. Many of the civil and political rights contained in the Declaration were eventually incorporated into U.N. Conventions and national legislations, and were thus made enforceable. The socio-economic and cultural rights, including those affecting the well-being of children, on the other hand, were seen as aspirational goals subject to availability of resources, and were left essentially to voluntary implementation.

The coming into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 is therefore a major landmark of historic significance in the evolution of human rights. No longer would the basic needs of children be viewed simply as desirable goals – often seen as a charitable afterthought, but as fundamental human rights of children which every ratifying State Party has a legal obligation to implement.

With 191 countries as State Parties, the CRC today is the most universally ratified of all human rights conventions ever promoted by the United Nations. There is essentially only one country in the world, the United States of America that has not ratified the CRC. (The only other remaining country is Somalia, which, as you may know, does not have a functioning government to ratify it).

The CRC has often been called the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights of children. It recognizes every child’s right to develop physically, mentally and socially to his or her fullest potential, to express his or her opinions freely, and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future. Universality, non-discrimination, and the best interest of the child being the determining factor in cases of controversy, are the salient features of the Convention.

While social and economic rights, such as a right to free and compulsory primary education, a right to preventive health care, nutrition and sanitation, are the hallmarks of the CRC, it also recognizes a variety of civil and political rights. These include a right to a name and a nationality, to freedom of expression, the right to participation, commensurate with the maturity of the child, to decisions affecting his or her well-being, and the right to protection against abuse, exploitation and discrimination. Recent efforts to combat against child labour, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, improved juvenile justice, and even the Convention against landmines – have been inspired and reinforced by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The framers of the Convention recognized that not all countries, especially the low-income, least developed countries, would be in a position to fully implement their children’s right to survival, development and protection soon after ratifying the CRC. They therefore provided, that in the case of the social, economic and cultural rights, State Parties would undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources, and where needed, within the framework of international cooperation. Thus both rich and poor nations have obligations to meet under the Convention. In this increasingly interdependent global village, national responsibility and international solidarity go hand in hand in protecting the rights of children.

This clause about implementing certain rights of children progressively and to the maximum extent of available resources, could potentially be used by governments as an escape valve to avoid their responsibility and accountability by pleading lack of resources. To overcome this escape hatch, the international community has agreed on certain specific and quantifiable goals that all countries, no matter what their level of development, can reasonably be expected to achieve given adequate political commitment.

The World Summit for Children held in 1990 agreed to a set of goals to be achieved by specific dates, such as:

  •  the reduction of infant and under-five mortality rates by one-third  by the year 2000
  • reduction of illiteracy rate by half
  • increase in childhood immunization rate to 90 percent
  • eradication of polio
  • virtual elimination of iodine deficiency and vitamin A deficiency
  •  universal access to basic education and completion of primary education by at least 80 percent of school age children
  • etc.

UNICEF’s assessment shows that quite a few countries are on the way to achieving many of these goals. Although war and pestilence in Africa, persistence of poverty in South Asia, and the economic crisis in Southeast Asia, are hampering progress, wherever there has been genuine political commitment, significant achievements are being made to meeting these goals, and honouring children’s rights.

Another international agreement reached at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, called for developing countries and their donor partners to enter into a compact to ensure that at least 20% of national budgets, and 20% of ODA would be allocated to financing basic social services: primary health care, nutrition, basic education, low-cost water and sanitation programmes. Such financing, eminently within the capacity of all countries, could help reach many of the goals for the survival, protection and development of children.

In reality neither most of the developing countries nor their donor partners have reached the goal of 20/20. However, this is really a matter of political choice, rather than financial affordability. Where there is a will, resource constraints are not the biggest stumbling blocks for countries to implement the CRC in the progressive and incremental manner envisaged by the major World Summits and UN Conferences of the 1990s.

The former Executive Director of UNICEF, the late James P. Grant, used to say that morality must march in tandem with capacity. In the past when children used to die in droves because of diseases against which we had no vaccines or medicines, it would have been tragic but unavoidable to let them die. Today when low-cost vaccines and medicines are readily available, to allow preventable child deaths to occur in huge scale is to condone the violation of their human rights. To tolerate child labour for want of basic schooling facilities is a violation of child rights.

Children have only one chance to grow. The earliest period of infancy and childhood is when their bodies and brains develop and determine their future potential as adult citizens. For a child who is malnourished, deprived of health care, education and positive psycho-social development, there is no second chance to recuperate. That is why children deserve a first call on society’s resources – in good times as well as in bad, in times of prosperity as well as in times of austerity.

Child rights are therefore the very foundation of human rights. Besides protecting their own rights, it is in the hearts and minds of children that we must inculcate from the youngest age respect for diversity, tolerance, non-violence, solidarity. A child whose own life is stunted with poverty, malnutrition, ill health, no education, will not only not grow into a productive citizen, he or she will be a living example of the deprivation of human rights. A child growing up in an atmosphere of abuse and exploitation will have the scars of these experiences deeply imbedded in his or her psyche. A society that values human rights has an obligation to ensure that it raises its young generation in a positive atmosphere of respect for human rights, starting with the rights of its youngest citizens.

The universality of human rights has sometimes been questioned by some proponents of Asian values. Without entering into that debate, let me laud one aspect of the Asian values that augurs well for human development and ultimately for human rights. It has been said that a key to the prosperity of the East Asian Tiger economies is the huge investment they made in human development – in health, nutrition and education of their children. I suspect that the solid foundation of human development will greatly help in the recovery of those countries suffering from the economic crisis at present. The importance that most Asian parents attach to the education of their children, is one Asian value that is certainly a harbinger of progress in human rights.

Promotion of child rights could truly be a cutting edge for universal acceptance of human rights generally. It is UNICEF’s belief that the time has now come to put the needs and rights of children at the very centre of development strategy and human rights campaigns. In the larger scheme of things in national politics and international relations, there will always be something that is more urgent and pressing, but there will never be anything that is more important than the well-being of children.

Thank you.