OP-ED - 10 December 2023

75 Years of Human Rights: A Critical Reflection of its Significance for Children

By Dr. Dereje Wordofa 

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it becomes exceedingly significant to contemplate the global positive outcomes for children, given that child rights are nothing but human rights. Let us, therefore, take a moment to reflect on the progresses made thus far and the obstacles that lie ahead in our commitment to safeguard and uphold the rights of children across the globe.

Over the past seven decades, remarkable headway has been made in protecting and championing the rights of children worldwide. A pivotal moment arrived with the inception of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989, which recognized that children have unique needs, rights, and dignity that extend beyond those stated in the UDHR. Presently, 196 countries have ratified this international convention. 

The UNCRC, now the most extensively ratified human rights treaty, mandates that governments ensure children's fundamental needs for survival and development, shield them from harm, and empower them to actively participate in decisions that impact their lives, enabling them to reach their utmost potential. The spectrum of children's rights is vast, encompassing their entitlement to education, healthcare, protection from violence and discrimination, and access to justice. Besides, it underscores the momentousness of involving children in decision-making processes and recognizes them as active citizens capable of expressing their opinions and contributing positively. 

For example, UNICEF reports that since the adoption of the CRC, the global mortality rate for children under the age of five has reduced by more than half, magnifying the improved survival rates among children. Additionally, concentrated efforts to enhance access to education have resulted in a substantial increase in primary school enrolment worldwide. These indicators exemplify the tangible impact of international collaboration in implementing and advancing child rights, thereby signifying encouraging progress on the 75-year journey of human rights. 

Despite these accomplishments, numerous challenges persist in fulfilling children's rights globally, particularly for those living in the most vulnerable conditions. This includes children lacking parental care, those trapped in conflicts, or those fleeing from human-made and natural catastrophes. Millions of children continue to endure the hardships of poverty, malnutrition, violence, and limited access to quality education and healthcare. 

The grim realities we confront worldwide expose our shortcomings. Recent escalations of conflicts, such as the Hamas-Israel or war in Ukraine, serve as troubling reminders that the profound suffering endured by children leaves little room for celebration during this 75-year milestone. Countless children find themselves trapped in or fleeing from conflict zones, ranging from Haiti to Sudan, Ethiopia to Venezuela, Afghanistan to Mali, the Horn of Africa to the Sahel region, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Syria.  

Unfortunately, these protracted humanitarian disasters are often forgotten. Governments continue failing to uphold the principles of non-discrimination and the best interest of the child as enshrined in the UNCRC. Irrespective of nationality, gender, ability, or religion, every child deserves to be shielded from violence and harm. 

In my recent years, I have been able to witness first-hand the anguish faced by families and children in war-torn regions or those escaping from violence. In Ukraine, I have listened to emotional stories of human suffering, seeing the devastation of economic infrastructure and the heart-wrenching psychological trauma and physical injuries inflicted upon children. Families grieve the loss of their loved ones, while children find themselves bereaved and stripped of a wholesome childhood. In Crotone, Italy, families and unaccompanied children from Africa and other parts of the world seek refuge from conflict and pursue better opportunities, often risking their lives in the process.  

Work in partnership with the government, various organizations attempt to ease their arduous transition into unfamiliar territories, providing essential humanitarian aid, and trauma healing support. The bravery and determination exhibited by first responders offer solace to these suffering families and children. However, this alone is insufficient. The impact of war persists long after hostilities cease, and the process of healing extends far into the future. Many invisible wounds will continue to burden these children's lives. 

Statistics and stories oftentimes fail to account for the countless children who lose their parents or other close family members responsible for their safety and well-being. Yet, every child has the right to be nurtured by their parents, to establish a connection with them, or to have access to alternative caregivers if needed. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left over 10.7 million children orphaned or without caregivers, thrusting them into emotional and economic turmoil. Astonishingly, as reported by the United Nations Development Programme, nearly 600 million children live in "acute multidimensional poverty," where they lack basic necessities and rights. 

Regardless of whether it stems from war, natural disasters, or extreme poverty, children are disproportionately affected. Those who lack parental care or are at risk of growing up alone face extreme vulnerability, as they are deprived of the right to a safe and nurturing family environment. It becomes imperative to prioritize protecting the rights of this particular group, considering their well-being, the future of society, and the moral responsibility of individuals, communities, and governments.  

Organizations dedicated to child welfare, such as SOS Children's Villages, grapple with the formidable task of providing a nurturing and affectionate environment for children in the midst of the most challenging circumstances. Despite the upheavals that have overwhelmed our world, these organizations persist in their social development programmes to bring stability and support, enabling children to flourish despite the formidable challenges they face. As a global community, we must foster environments that cultivate empathy, respect, and support for the unique needs of each child, even in the face of unimaginable suffering. 

The commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Human Rights Day serves as a powerful reminder of our collective responsibility to protect, empower, and support child rights in every corner of the world. Governments, as primary duty-bearers, must reaffirm their commitment to the UNCRC by taking decisive actions to align all laws with its principles and significantly increase financial allocations for the well-being of children, particularly those caught in ongoing or protracted conflicts. By recognizing and promoting the rights of children, we can forge a world where every child has the opportunity to thrive, grow, and fulfil their boundless potential. 

Dereje Wordofa, DBA, MSC, MBA, is president of SOS Children’s Villages International, the world’s largest organization focused on children without parental care. Previously he served as assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.

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