Why we need a new approach to children’s rights

Gordon Brown
United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education; World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Financing, The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown
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Two tragic and haunting images have emerged this year: hooded Islamic State executioners holding their knives to the necks of innocent victims, and masked medical workers bravely fighting an uphill battle against an Ebola outbreak for which the world was not prepared. But the year’s lasting legacy will be an even more extensive disaster, with recovery taking years, if not decades: nearly two million newly displaced children, trapped in conflict zones across Iraq, Syria, Gaza, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere.

These children have joined the ranks of 25 million displaced boys and girls worldwide – a number equivalent to the population of a midsize European country and the largest in the 70 years since the end of World War II. Images of vulnerable, desolate refugee children – likely to be displaced for a decade or more – have become so common that the world seems unable to comprehend what it is seeing.

But the plight of child refugees is only one reason why a new approach to children’s rights is needed. This year, an estimated 15 million school-age girls will become child brides, forced into marriage against their will. Some 14 million boys and girls below the age of 14 are child laborers, many forced to work in the most hazardous of conditions. And 32 million girls are denied the basic right to attend school, owing to gender discrimination; around 500,000 of them are trafficked each year.

In the 1950s, the fight against colonialism dominated world politics. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, great civil-rights battles were waged against racial discrimination and apartheid, followed by struggles to advance the rights of the disabled and sexual minorities. It is our generation’s task to tackle the civil-rights movement’s unfinished business, by ending the exploitation of children, especially girls, and ensuring compulsory universal education.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), I, along with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi, and the head of the United Kingdom’s Overseas Development Institute, Kevin Watkins, am calling on the world community to offer practical support to the burgeoning civil-rights struggle of young people. We can do more to end child labor, child marriage, child trafficking, and discrimination against girls, by not only demanding the proper policing of domestic laws, but also by establishing a new International Children’s Court, buttressed by a credible reporting and sanctions system.

Violations of children’s rights are now so rampant that there simply is no alternative. Indeed, though no human-rights treaty has been more widely ratified than the CRC, which requires governments to report on their compliance once every five years, its work lacks adequate resources and enforcement. Only one in seven countries submit compliance reports on time, and one-third do not submit even a year late. Meanwhile, the scantly funded offices that manage the information have a two-year backlog.

Another promising initiative – the “optional protocol on communications,” aimed at enabling children and their advocates, for the first time, to bring cases before the UN Human Rights Committee – has been similarly weakened by a lack of strong support, authority, and resources. Indeed, only 14 countries have ratified the protocol since it was agreed in 2011.

Moreover, states are not legally bound to change the policies or laws that are deemed to be violating their international human-rights obligations. And a shortage of investigative resources has led to an emphasis on problematic legislation, instead of the larger issue of inadequate enforcement of laws that promote the CRC’s principles.

So there is a case not only for an International Children’s Court, but also for children and their representatives to be granted the right to petition it. Such a court should have the capacity to receive and investigate individual complaints, the power to monitor independently the enforcement of laws, and the resources to devote to investigations into relevant areas, including child labor, child marriage, child slavery, genital mutilation, and child rape.

Over time, a reporting system could be implemented to facilitate an examination of the impact of health and education policies on the world’s most marginalized boys and girls. Such research could provide compelling evidence to support compulsory universal education as the ideal mechanism not just for ending educational exclusion, but also for bringing an end to child labor and trafficking, early marriage, and discrimination against girls.

Another advance could follow, based on Graça Machel’s victory a decade ago in convincing the UN Security Council to implement a system for reporting violence against children in conflict zones. At the time, it was agreed that a Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, whose work is backed by the threat of sanctions, would also be established. Today, a similar post – underpinned by the same system of reporting and sanctions – should be created to focus on children’s other rights.

Next month, Satyarthi and the girls’-rights leader Malala Yousafzai will receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, reminding the world that a children’s-rights struggle is underway – one that is increasingly being led by young people. Indeed, frustrated with adults’ failure to discharge what should be their duties toward children, young people are forming child-marriage-free zones, launching anti-slavery groups, and organizing education-rights campaigns. Such initiatives – including Bangladesh’s 20 child marriage-free zones, Nepal’s Kamlari Forum, and Ethiopia’s Yellow Movement of university students – may not yet be trending on Twitter and Facebook, but they are engaging millions of young people worldwide.

Now, the Global March Against Child LaborGirls Not Brides, and A World at School have come together to support the #UpForSchool petition, which links the universal provision of education to ending child exploitation. Over the next several months, youth groups in 190 countries will be collecting, it is hoped, a record number of signatures.

But we must do more than read and sign the petition. We must recognize that today’s movement to ensure children’s rights is the civil-rights struggle of our generation – and do whatever it takes to support it.

Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate

Author: Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education. 

Image: Syrian refugee children attend a class at their camp in Amman December 23, 2013. REUTERS.

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