Convention on the Rights of the Child - Rebecca Rios-Kohn

Merci Beau coup. Bonjour! Good afternoon. Since it's late in the afternoon and being the eighth speaker, I would hope that you would let me indulge a little bit, because as we talk about the convention on the rights of the child, and it's been mentioned a couple of times already by various speaker, I wonder in such a large sophisticated audience as this one, how many of you actually have read the convention and feel that if you were asked questions about it you could really answer that you know more or less what the convention says. Would you all be willing to raise your hands. Come on, be honest, pretend I'm your mother. Well it's better than I thought. I asked that question once to a group full of parliamentarians that had ratified the convention and only one raised his hand. But that is not to start on a negative note. Actually, I'd like to leave one message today with you, and that is, as we're talking about Child Health for the year 2000, and as we're talking about the World Summit goals, which are to be achieved by the year 2000. I'd like to just plant the idea that the convention as a global and timeless instrument, can set us on a course beyond the year 2000. So many of the children that might be listening today might think of this as the vision of the next century.

Convention may be first universal treaty on child rights

In record time, the convention on the rights of the child has captured unprecedented international support and may soon become the first universal treaty on children's rights, in fact it may soon become the first universal human rights treaty in history. To date, as has been said before, there are a 174 nations that have become states parties to the convention. Which have either ratified or acceded to the convention, and so that makes it the most widely ratified human rights treaty. And this leaves only seventeen countries left to ratify before we can say that we have achieved universal ratification. Seventeen countries, now we're at a countdown, and I hesitated at first, whether I would start with the issue of ratification, because a lot of cynics seem to not think it's such a big deal, I mean so what. But it's very important I think to underscore how difficult it is to get the international community to agree on anything. And the fact that the international community has dared to say, that children have human rights, whether they were realizing or not that they were saying this doesn't matter at this point. We've got them agreeing on something on behalf of children and I think this is what we must focus on. So there we are, with only seventeen countries left to go. Now we should say, well who are these guys, who are the seventeen countries left out there. And it's quite dramatic to look at the countries that are left, by region. And I'm sorry now that I didn't bring a fancy diagram to show you. But anyway, let's just imagine that we have the globe and we're looking at each region.

US not ratified Convention

It's dramatic to see the whole Western Hemisphere, and see that all countries have ratified except for one. And that one of course is the United States. Which stands alone in all of the Western Hemisphere, and I have to say that it is encouraging that the United States, on February 16, did in fact sign the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which is after all a good intention that it will ratify at some point. And that's one of the weaknesses of the convention that it doesn't say how much time a country has in which to ratify. But then let's look at Europe. There are only three countries left in Europe. Andorra, Leichtenstein and Switzerland. And Switzerland always stands alone as you know. Now, we have Africa. There are only three countries again. Somalia, which doesn't have a government, Swaziland, which has shown interest recently in not being the last country in Africa to ratify. And South Africa, which we are very much expecting will soon ratify because President Mandela has taken it as a personal interest. Then we have in Asia, only Brunei and Singapore. And both of those countries have contacted UNICEF expressing interest to ratify at some future date. And then we have a couple of islands, four islands, in the South Pacific, islands that I didn't know much about but I'm now very interested in because we need them to join the Convention of the Rights of the Child, so that we can achieve universal ratification before the end of 1995. This is Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, Palo; a new republic, so these are the four in the South Pacific.

3 gulf nations hold out

And finally, let's not forget the Middle East, which was very reluctant in the beginning to ratify, but leaving now only three countries, United Arab Emirates, Oman, both countries have shown interest, and finally, Saudi Arabia. And in these particular countries we have been speaking to government officials at the highest level just to remind them that most Muslim countries, once they found out that Islamic Law and the Convention are in fact compatible, then they overcame their reluctance to ratify. I've spent a lot of time on that, because I do thing we're at a countdown, and we need everyone to think about how we can build solidarity world-wide to increase respect of children. And then UNICEF of course, has been very active in promoting ratification. It has set this as a mid-decade goal, and we're very proud to see that perhaps we will achieve this goal, at least we're getting so close. Now, the significance of the Convention of the Rights of the Child becoming the Law of the Land in all nations should not be underestimated. By embracing the convention, virtually all nations, as I said before have dared to accept that children are human beings with human rights. Now, you can imagine how extraordinary this is again, because during the ten years that it took to draft the convention, there was a great deal expressed by a number of delegations because they were not so prepared to recognize children's rights to say freedom of expression, religious freedom and freedom of association. And I'd like to point out that one of the outstanding features of the convention is the fact that it recognizes the participation of children in a free society. Now, cynics are the first to say well, there are many shortcomings. The convention has many shortcomings. The fact that all these countries have ratified but with a number of reservations. Or the fact that it only provides minimum standards. And the fact that even thought it's legally binding, people are saying well, it's not automatically enforceable. The point I'd like to make here is that let's look at the convention as a point of departure. As a window of opportunity. As a window of opportunity that we must not miss. At the very least the convention must be viewed as a global and timeless instrument, which has potential to set those of us working for the cause of children on a course well beyond the year 2000. It is well worth to point out several characteristics which distinguish the Convention of the Rights of the Child from other commitments made by governments. First, let's look at the fact that it provides a comprehensive instrument on child rights never before achieved. Before you had a number of rights in different human rights treaties, in fact there were eighty treaties covering a wide variety of issues, and children's rights could be found in this big body of law. However, now we have it all in one text. Also, it sets standards that are global in scope. We should note that there are standards that both the industrialized countries and developing countries must yet achieve or meet should I say. And the conventions the result of a long process of negotiation and compromise. And what should be the duties of states, societies, the families and the international community. It takes into account the different cultures, religions, legal systems as well as the economic development of richer and poorer countries. It represents both the moral and legal commitments and upstate parties, and recognizes that the basic needs of children are in fact human rights. And this is quite a radical perspective. Now, significantly, the World Summit for Children took place just about the time that the Convention of the Rights of the Child was entering into force with the required 20 ratifications in September of 1990. And the declaration of the World Summit sets forth an ambitious agenda, which has been stated many times earlier today, but it also includes the Convention of the Rights of the Child. And it states for instance, that the Convention of the Rights of the Child does provide a new opportunity to make respect for children's rights and welfare truly universal. Thomas Handburgh, a member of the committee on the Rights of the Child, likes to point out that the same forces in the world, the same political will that enabled the summit to take place, will also enable the convention to come into force at the same time. And he also liked to point out that while the declaration, the World Summit Declaration is, the commitment of the World Summit Declaration is extraordinary, but it is not legally binding as the Convention of the Rights of the Child is.

Convention on Rights of the Child legally binding

Now I'd like to also point out that the World Conference on Human Rights that took place in Vienna, also urged all countries to ratify the Convention of the Rights of the Child by 1995. And also called for it's effective implementation. I like to point this out because of the fact that it was the World Summit, the Convention of the Rights of the Child's wide acceptance, and the Vienna Conference that actually propelled UNICEF into more action along the rights of the child. It propelled UNICEF to recognize or to respond not only to children's needs, but also in terms of children's rights. And this has in fact over time broadened the scope of UNICEF and has serious implication now for the expansion of it's mandate and mission. And it's worth noting also the special relationship that the Convention of the Rights of the Child has placed on UNICEF. And in fact, Article 45 expressly mentions UNICEF by name and this is the only UN agency or UN body that is expressly stated by name in the convention and I must say that this is a rare thing in a human rights treaty. So it gives UNICEF a special responsibility and it quotes in Article 45, that UNICEF in particular should foster effective implementation and encourage international cooperation. Now much has been said about Mr. Grant's vision, and I would say that in this regard, he also had great vision to see that the Convention of the Rights of the Child was something that UNICEF should embrace. And as an eyewitness, as a participant in many of the events that we have mentioned today, such as the summit and the Vienna Conference and so on, it was the late Mr. Grant who envisioned the direction that UNICEF was likely to take, beyond the year 2000. He articulated the path on which UNICEF had already embarked in one of his last major speeches before the third committee of the UN General Assembly last November. He said that quote, "From now the Convention of the Rights of the Child will be the framework for our programs of cooperation in over 130 countries, based on an in depth analysis of the status of children's rights in each country. He further stated that it is UNICEF's belief that the time has come to put the needs and the rights of children at the very center of development strategy. Now this has had great implications for UNICEF, to incorporate the Convention of the Rights of the Child into it's country programs.

Incorporating Convention into UNICEF's program a challenge

We had for sometime been promoting and doing a great deal of advocacy on the Convention of the Rights of the Child. But to actually incorporate the convention into our programs, this is a big challenge for UNICEF, and this has required the organization to make considerable changes in it's operations, to develop new policies in areas where UNICEF did not necessarily have great expertise. Revise manuals, guidelines and train staff. Also support governments in the preparation of the reports to the committee on the Rights of the Child. Provide technical assistance to government for their revue of national legislation. This has great implications as you can see for UNICEF's work. And UNICEF is also looking to broaden it's country programs to include children below the age of 18. It is looking to foster alliances with new non-traditional partners who might be in a better position to promote the rights of the child. Such as jurists, lawyers, human rights organizations and others. And it also needs to draw on the expertise of others. Other UN agencies, NGOs in particular, who have a great deal of experience in areas that we are just now embarking on.

New UNICEF head gives promotion of child rights top priority

I'm happy to mention that UNICEF's new executive director, Carol Bellamy, has already declared that the promotion of protection of rights is a top priority for UNICEF. Last week she took the lead by approving a procurement policy, which provides a new set of guidelines for all purchasing procedures that UNICEF will engage in. Now this is really important when we're talking about child labor. Under this policy, UNICEF will purchase products only from those companies which do not exploit child labor and comply with the existing national labor laws and Article 32 of the Convention. And in this regard, UNICEF offices are now required to notify government authorities of this new policy to notify all potential and established suppliers. And it's necessary to undertake spot-checks of facilities where there is reason to believe that exploitation of children is occurring. And if any suppliers are found to be exploiting children, UNICEF will terminate all purchases with that company until the situation is corrected. Now, in the area of health, my colleagues have spent a great deal of time talking about the key issues and I would just like to mention here, that please become familiar with two particular articles of the Convention, in all your advocacy. And these are Article 6, which states the rights of the child to survival and development, and Article 24, which recognizes the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.

Article 24 addresses rights to access to health care

I should also say that Article 24 recognizes that no child should be deprived of his or her right of access to health care services and moreover the convention obligates the states parties to promote and encourage international cooperation and further states that particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries. I would add here that the language used by the drafters in Article 24 is very powerful. And it implies affirmative obligations and it expects states to undertake appropriate measures. Words like shall and to ensure have active connotations and these should not be overlooked. I say this because of the fact that much of the important international work for children has been done in sort of a charity oriented environment. Whereas the Convention of the Rights of the Child adds a powerful legal dimension which is used constructively could dramatically change the way decisions are made in all actions concerning children. And I should also say here that it should also be used, this idea of rights, the concept of rights, in the development process. In closing, I would like to just remind everyone, of the emphasis that the convention places on international cooperation. It states in the preamble and throughout the text itself, that the importance of international for improving the living conditions of children in every country in particularly in the developing countries, it stresses this. And finally, I would say there are many reasons to believe the Convention of the Rights of the Child, is a powerful useful advocacy tool. But it also presents many challenges to us all and here we need to spread the word, really disseminate the convention widely so that it becomes well-know so that the rights of children are taken seriously. Thank you very much.