World Vision International
Blog • Friday, May 16th 2014

Showing children their rights matter

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Sara Austin speaks at a UN event

This week at the United Nations, a quiet victory will take place for children. It is a victory that will amplify the voices of children who’ve been ignored, neglected, abused and overlooked. It is a victory with the potential to change their lives.

Thanks to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) — ratified by every country except the United States, Somalia and South Sudan — governments are obliged to create laws and policies that honour the rights of every child. This means providing health care for every child, for example, and universal education. Ensuring they’re given a chance to participate in their communities — and to play. And providing protection from harm of all kinds.

The CRC is a shining beacon of hope for the possibility of life in all its fullness. Yet in my work at World Vision, I’ve too often been struck by how children’s lives can be tragically different from what their governments promise. Children and their advocates have lacked adequate tools to hold their governments accountable for promises made and broken.

I have watched children and NGOs persistently report violations of children’s rights to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. While the UN has repeatedly issued stern recommendations to governments, the pace of change has been unacceptably slow. Even the UN has been constrained in its ability to hold governments accountable.

Next week that will change. It began during my graduate studies in 2006, when I proposed a new international treaty that would give children the power to lodge a complaint with the UN when their rights are violated. The UN would then investigate the claim, and hold the child’s government accountable. This legal mechanism became known as the 3rd Optional Protocol (OP3) to the CRC, and it binds any government that ratifies it.

Fortunately, my thesis has not gathered dust. For the past eight years I have campaigned for the OP3 treaty to come into force. On Monday, the first 10 countries will courageously move to ratify the OP3, clearly demonstrating their commitment to provide meaningful remedies for children whose rights have been denied.

While we celebrate, I will also bear witness for lives that have been lost while the wheels of justice turned too slowly. These children never had the opportunity to experience their rights, and never saw justice for the violations they experienced:

For Noi, a 16-year-old girl from Northern Thailand who was trafficked into the sex trade after being sent by her family to work as a waitress in Bangkok.

For Sikefela, a young girl from Western Zambia who was orphaned at the age of six, and died of AIDS-related causes at age eight.

For Jeffrey, a five-year-old boy from my own city of Toronto, Canada, who slipped through the cracks of a broken child welfare system that led to his severe maltreatment, deprivation and death from starvation in the care of his own grandparents.

Millions more children are still waiting. Forty-five countries have signed the OP3 and are taking steps toward ratification. This leaves 138 countries — including Canada — that must heed the cries of the children and ratify without delay.

UNICEF must work hand in hand with governments towards widespread ratification of the protocol, and to make it widely known and understood among children, NGOs, and other key stakeholders.

As the international community prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child this November, I urge Canada and other UN member states to not postpone justice any longer.

We cannot let more precious lives slip away. Let’s make good on the promises made to children when the CRC was first enshrined a quarter century ago. Let’s show children their rights really do have meaning. Let’s not waste one more day.

Sara L. Austin is a Canadian and a champion for the world’s most vulnerable children. Currently a director at World Vision Canada, she studied International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, and International Development and Women’s Studies at Dalhousie University.