3 April 1998

The Convention on the Rights of the Child:
A Powerful Tool for the Future

“A century that began with children having virtually no rights is ending with
children having the most powerful legal instrument that not only recognizes
but protects their human rights.”

-- Carol Bellamy, Executive Director, UNICEF

A guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, is that the best interests of children must always come first, in good times and bad, in poverty and prosperity, in war and peace.

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child asks everyone to pay more attention to children, to specific aspects of kids' lives, and to expect more of ourselves in how we treat children,” explained U.S. Committee for UNICEF President Charles J. Lyons. "The treaty urges all nations to provide the highest possible standard of well-being for their children. The Convention argues that actions taken that affect children should be decided on ‘the best interests of the child.’ All children deserve to be protected and to be given the best possible chance in life, simply because they're children. Our actions, as a nation and as individuals, should be guided by this imperative."

Drafting of the Convention began in 1979, the International Year of the Child, and today the 54-article treaty holds governments accountable in respecting the rights of children, including:

· freedom from violence, abuse, and hazardous employment;
· freedom from hunger and protection from diseases;
· free compulsory primary education;
· adequate health care;
· and equal treatment regardless of gender, race, or cultural background.

After the Convention was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989, it was opened for signature on January 26, 1990. That day, 61 countries signed it, a record first-day response. Since then, in just eight years, the Convention has been ratified by every country in the world except Somalia and the United States.

"Although credit also has to go to governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UNICEF put the Convention over the top in terms of ratification. It became a priority. Every country representative in the UNICEF system had to work with the host government to sign the Convention and get it ratified," Lyons said. "The Convention — that is, the advocacy for and protection of children's rights — has become a clear, guiding set of principles for UNICEF. The Convention is an important tool in advocating for the needs of children around the world, and its principles are not only applied in UNICEF's regular programming but have also helped UNICEF address the immediate needs of children trapped in war and other emergencies."

"The best example I know of is south Sudan."

Operation Lifeline Sudan

Civilian casualties have become commonplace in Sudan, so much so that former UNICEF Project Officer Iain Levine says Sudanese civilians use the expression "to whom it may concern" to describe bullets for Kalishnikov assault rifles. Africa's largest country, three times the size of Texas, Sudan has been in a protracted civil war since 1983 and has endured armed conflict for 30 of the last 40 years. More than 1.3 million people have died in fighting or war-related famines, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees estimates some 2 million Sudanese are war refugees.

A major famine in 1988, which killed approximately 250,000 people, led the United Nations to appoint former UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant as the Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Sudan. Grant, who died in 1995, forged a spectacular success. He convinced the Sudanese Government to permit humanitarian organizations to work in areas of the country controlled by rebel forces, primarily south Sudan, a war-ravaged zone that has only 40 kilometers of roads. The massive relief effort, named Operation Lifeline Sudan, got under way in March 1989 and continues today. Last year, UNICEF provided 3.4 million Sudanese with clean water, medicines, basic education, emergency shelter, and other critical programs like family reunification and teacher training.

"Withholding relief supplies became a war tactic in Sudan," said Levine, who worked for UNICEF from 1988 to 1997, including duty in Sudan. "It is a war with horrendous human rights abuses, including killings, rapes, military recruitment of child soldiers, and incidents of child slavery.

"UNICEF and its partner NGOs realized that we had to get the combatants to commit to protect the rights of civilians. We also needed to protect the humanitarian supplies that the Sudanese people were due. In short, we decided providing humanitarian assistance required more than providing food. The international community asked the same question that became an important issue in Sarajevo, ‘Does humanitarian intervention border on hypocrisy when the children we feed are subsequently decapitated by Serbian shells?’”

Levine and other UNICEF staffers began to hold talks with rebel leaders on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in 1995 two rebel groups, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and the South Sudan Independence Movement, made a commitment to abide by Convention principles to protect women and children.

"We now had a written commitment. When we came across human rights violations, UNICEF and our NGO partners could say, 'Wait a minute, you made a promise to us and a promise to these children.' I had many talks with rebel commanders about child soldiers. When we got reports of it occurring, I could tell a rebel officer that his commander-in-chief, John Garang or Rick Machar, supports the Convention and he pledged an end to child combatants. You're going back on his position," Levine said.

"Now, did the commanders always demobilize their child recruits? No, but at least it changed the whole tenor of the discourse. And that was terribly important." Making a Difference Through Legislation and Ratification

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is also being used by governments to pass legislation that defends the rights of children, including Sri Lanka, where the age of military recruitment was recently raised from fifteen to eighteen, and Viet Nam, which has applied the Convention to provide educational opportunities to mentally impaired children.

Industrialized countries are also using the Convention. France, for example, has utilized it to train law enforcement professionals in child rights law, and also to examine helping poor teenage children by providing them with state social security benefits.

U.S. Committee President Lyons says getting the Convention known, discussed, and ratified in the U.S. is a priority for the organization, but he acknowledges it will only happen through the engagement of many American organizations, child advocates, educators, and many, many others.

"The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide took 30 years to get ratified by the Senate. The chemical weapons ban took nearly a decade. It can take years, at times decades, for a constituency to develop for an international treaty," Lyons explained. "What is needed is an effort that is focused solely on informing Americans about the Convention and urging people across the country to make their voices heard on the importance of the Convention for U.S. children. The U.S. Committee must be a part of this dialogue. And we will work with others in this country to insure that the U.S. finally joins the rest of the world in supporting the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

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