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We need a global civil rights movement for children

Written by Kevin Watkins

​Twenty-five years ago the international community united behind a promise to protect the human rights of the world’s children. That promise has been comprehensively broken.

Signed in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the pillars of the international human rights system. Its 54 articles and associated protocols enshrine the right of all children to survive, flourish, live in security, and have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

No human rights treat is more widely endorsed. Yet the Convention is widely and systematically violated with near total impunity.

Take the right to education. Under the terms of the treaty, governments have a responsibility to ensure that every child has access to schooling. Yet 115 million school age children are working in the most extreme forms of child labour. Instead of having their young minds nurtured they are risking life and limb working down mine shafts, in factories and fields.

Forced marriage is another violation of the Convention. Most countries around the world outlaw child marriage. Yet around 150 million girls, most of them in Africa and South Asia, marry before the age of 15 – often to men twice their age. Apart from losing out on their only chance of an education, these girls face the acute health risks that come with early pregnancy.

Some of the most egregious violations of child rights are on the rise. Child trafficking and slavery has reached epidemic proportions: over 5.5 million children are now living in conditions of slavery. Once viewed as a ‘Third World’ problem, that epidemic is now playing out in Europe and the United States. The Rochdale sex-trafficking scandal in the United Kingdom turned the spotlight on the criminal gangs forcing young girls into prostitution – and on the authorities’ inept response.

One of the protocols to the Convention promises children the right to protection during armed conflict. Yet from Syria to Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, schools – and school children – have been targeted by armed forces in flagrant violation of a raft of human rights provisions, including the Geneva Convention.

A quarter of a century after the inception of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is time to deliver on its promise. The principles underpinning the Convention reflect the best of humanity. But elevated principles do not keep kids out of hazardous employment, or protect vulnerable children from trafficking and forced marriage. We need a new global civil rights movement that turns principles into the practical interventions that can transform the lives of children.

What needs to happen to galvanise action? Three priorities stand out. First, in some areas we need to make the transition from soft law to hard law through the creation of an International Court for Child Rights. Modelled on the European Court for Human Rights and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, the new court should be empowered to hear individual petitions, impose legal penalties, and investigate systemic rights abuses in areas such child labour, child trafficking and slavery, and forced marriage.

Second, the UN committee charged with overseeing the Convention on the Rights of the Child needs to up its game. Currently, governments report to the committee once every five years. Too often the dialogue surrounding the reports is polite to the point of being anodyne. The committee is not there to engage in UN diplomacy; it is there to defend children. It should ruthlessly investigate violations of the Convention and report very publicly on its findings. The threat of reputational damage is a force for change.

Finally, it is time to show solidarity with children and their representatives working, often in the face of extreme intimidation, to change the world. Last month, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to a Pakistani school girl, Malala Yousafzai, and an Indian child labour activist, Kailash Satyarthi, who have dedicated their lives to advancing the cause of child rights. They are part of a rising tide of protest and leaders of an emerging civil rights movement.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a manifesto for that movement and a call to action – and now is the time to act on the promise.