Viewpoint – 20 November 2018

Time to act together on children’s rights

Reaffirming the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in these challenging times is a global obligation

By Norbert Meder
Chief Executive Officer of SOS Children's Villages International

Born “in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity”, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is one of the most widely ratified international treaties and a powerful symbol of hope for delivering a better world to future generations.

There is no question that this agreement, adopted by the UN on 20 November 1989, is a landmark achievement for children’s rights. It enshrines in international law the right of every child to be treated with respect, dignity and equality, and to be protected from exploitation, sexual abuse and neglect. It also obliges governments not only to protect and provide for children, but to help them reach their full potential.

Since its adoption, the CRC’s recognition that every child has a right to “grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” has also been strengthened by a protocol calling for an end to the use of children in armed conflicts and the adoption of the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. The Guidelines, ratified on the 20th anniversary of the CRC, rectified the significant gaps in implementing the rights of children who are either without parental care or at risk of losing it.

No time for complacency

Despite these historic achievements, we cannot rest on our laurels. Nearly three decades after the Convention’s adoption, the world is falling short of its commitment to provide millions of children with a safe, loving and caring start to life.

Living up to the CRC’s optimistic “spirit”, as outlined in its preamble, remains a struggle. Protracted conflicts, political unrest, mass displacement, natural disasters and climate change expose millions of children to family separation and the loss of loved ones, and imperil their rights to stability, education and basic care.

Today’s challenges are all the more daunting when you consider that close to 30% of the global population is under the age of 18. Many of these children and youth live in lower- and middle-income countries. Yet children and youth everywhere should have the opportunity for economic and social progress, and to be active members of society, regardless of their homeland or economic status.

Challenges of this magnitude need joint action, like the international cooperation that led to the CRC. Instead, we see growing numbers of countries backing out of international cooperation efforts. The Global Compact for Migration, due to be adopted in December 2018 with the aim of improving cooperation on migration, offers the most recent example. The leaders of Austria, which now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and Hungary have followed the United States in rejecting the legally non-binding agreement. Several other European countries have also indicated they would no longer support it, driving a further wedge in efforts to jointly address the migration challenges within the EU and sending the wrong signal to the rest of the world.

Experience shows that conflict, displacement, and other traumatising events destroy a child’s sense of security and can have a life-long impact on their wellbeing. Rebuilding a home or school after a war or disaster is the easy part of restoring a community and giving a child a sense of normalcy. The far bigger challenge is addressing the long-term mental health needs of children.

Creating a better world

We live in an imperfect world where we cannot wish away war, conflict or natural calamities. Yet imperfection is no excuse not to pressure political leaders to live up to their obligations under the CRC, to treat all children with dignity and respect, and to empower them to determine their own future. We urgently need to act on the CRC’s commitment to the right of all children to a secure, loving and caring start to life.

If these rights are to be more than words on paper, we must ensure that the basic obligations to children are never open to negotiation. The greatest way to honour the CRC in the coming year is to live up to its ambition and build a better world for – and with – younger generations. Their future defines ours.

Norbert Meder is the Chief Executive Officer of SOS Children's Villages International. Photo of Norbert Meder by Werner Gstrein. Top photo by Giti Carli Moen.