On October 20, 1989 the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child, CRC. On September 2, 1990 it became effective. This document defined for the first time a worldwide standard for child protection and rights. 195 out of 197 countries endorsed the convention. An approval that largely outreaches all other UN conventions. Thus the convention acquired almost universal relevance.
The legal scenario, threats and protection possibilities regarding minors were also core elements of the course held this year on international law in terms of human rights delivered by the René Cassin International Institute for Human Rights (Institut International des Droits de l’Homme– René Cassin) in Strasbourg. This 3-week course allows each year the conveyance of current knowledge and topics concerning international law in terms of human rights, based on international conventions and mechanisms. Around 300 participants from numerous countries attended this meeting that offers each year a venue for intense learning and engaged debates. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom invited 9 experts in human rights from Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali and Turkey to take part in the course and acquire updated knowledge. The purpose is that knowledge and contacts should be useful for those projects in which participants are actively engaged.
In the topic courses the notion of “child” was addressed from the most varied perspectives: children in violent conflicts, protection of children against sexual exploitation, religious practices and children’s rights, children as victims of human rights abuse in wars and civil wars, children’s rights and criminal law related to young offenders, legal scenario regarding international kidnappings, protection of non-accompanied children during migration, child protection and new technologies, fight against forced labor of minors.
Particularly current in the last decades was the issue concerning the recruitment or forced use of “child soldiers”. Unfortunately, many countries and militias involved in war or civil war conflicts do not want to leave the practices of recruiting children and teenagers for fighting purposes. The UN child convention prohibits their direct and active engagement in violent conflicts. However, their provisions are not accurate, mainly as to age limits. This was one of the reasons why the USA, almost in solitaire, did not endorse the convention. (Another reason probably lies on the prohibition of death penalty for children.) The practice of military schools to recruit extremely young candidates would particularly collide with the convention.
The core question “What is a child?” is replied in the convention with a “mild” answer. A child is a person who has not reached 18 years of age, provided the states’ national laws do not determine otherwise. Establishing an age limit is thus left to discretion of the national law, which –regarding the recruitment of child soldiers– leads to extremely unsatisfactory results. Some verdicts of the International Criminal Court and other courts have restricted even further the engagement of children and teenagers in combats. According to the statute of the special court for Sierra Leone, engaging child soldiers is considered a war crime.
A few years after the Convention was approved, it was generally agreed that protection-related provisions were not enough to control the acute threats faced by children. Therefore, three additional protocols were signed:
1. Additional protocol against child exploitation, child prostitution and child pornography (2002)
2. Additional protocol about children in armed conflicts (2002)
3. Optional protocol on individual appeal procedures (2002)
An interesting aspect in the evolution of documents refers to the fact that –unlike the Convention– the additional protocols were endorsed by the USA.
From the extensive provisions set forth in the Convention, five basic core rights for children are derived:
– The right to survival
– The right to development
– Non discrimination
– Advocacy of children’s interests in all relevant decisions thereof
– The right to participation
All the contractual parties in the Convention are committed to use their available resources to enable the children’s development (education, instruction, health) and gradually engage them in social processes.
The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) considers the possibility that a state could ratify a treaty without granting its agreement to the contents, but only “under reserve”, which restricts the engagement. This option has led to a generalized practice of restricting the rights granted by the Convention by means of extensive restrictions. Thus Iran endorsed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with the condition that the sharia and the national criminal law should remain unaffected. That is why a 9-year-old child in Iran can still be sentenced to death. Singapore endorsed it with the exception of its national law; Saudi Arabia did it under reserve of the sharia. In Brunei, the Convention is only valid if it does not interfere with the Constitution and Islamic law. That means, a generalized tendency to subordinate the bonding nature of the international conventions to national law can be perceived. An evolution that does not precisely benefit the children’s development opportunities and that infringes the Vienna Convention’s spirit. There is still a lot left to do!
For the Foundation’s participants, efforts have resulted worthwhile. Despite a heavy workload under summer temperatures of up to 44 ºC and in spite of Ramadan, which Muslim attendants abided by, almost all the participants passed the difficult final test.
by Dr Gabriele Thöns