Blog: New UN initiative gives power to kids all over the world

World Vision Canada's Debbie Wolfe examines the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and what it means for children. This blog post first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Starting today (15 January 2014), children will be able to appeal directly to the United Nations when their rights are overlooked, neglected or violated. And the movement to hand this power to the world's children was started by a Canadian with an iron will and a huge heart.

In the United Nations offices in New York, Costa Rican officials signed onto a new international treaty handing children the right to appeal directly to the UN when their national governments fail to uphold their rights. It could have been any country; Costa Rica just happened to be the 10th. That's the number of ratifications required to create new international law. Canada has not yet ratified.

"It's such an incredible day for children," says Sara Austin of World Vision Canada, who first began the groundwork for this new legislation as a university student in the mid-1990s. A life-long advocate for children, she noted that while international law existed to protect their rights, there was no mechanism for children to seek help when their rights were violated.

"Because children have been largely powerless to direct their countries' policies, or to see them enforced, millions of girls and boys around the world grow up abused, ignored or neglected," says Sara.

Even when governments acknowledge children's rights to healthcare and education, for example, many children are turned away because they have no birth certificate proving their identity. Similarly, governments with laws forbidding child prostitution or other kinds of dangerous and degrading labour have failed to ensure children are protected.

A whole new chapter

It shouldn't be this way -- and the world has agreed so. Childhood should be worry free, not shrouded by desperation and danger. Almost all countries have ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which describes and enshrines children's rights. And now countries have the option of ratifying this new piece of legislation, known as an 'Optional Protocol', giving children the power to seek and receive help when their rights are trampled.

For those of us working to improve the world for children, it feels like the beginning of a whole new chapter. Many of us at World Vision have gulped back tears to see the real-life implications when children's rights are violated. We've sat and talked with children in alleys, factories, or refugee camps. Felt that familiar gut-punch when hearing the details of their lives. And wondered what would become of them a few months from now.

But as of today, we'll have the joy of seeing children speak up for themselves. Parents, teachers, community leaders or workers from agencies like World Vision will now be able to sit with children as they write, type, or dictate information that will trigger a response in the halls of global power.

A brave move 

In cases where countries have ratified the Optional Protocol, 10 so far, the UN's committee of experts will field a complaint. And the country in question will be required to provide proof that the changes have been made.

Children will have the dignity of knowing that both their suffering and their rights are of paramount concern to the world's leaders. That they matter. That they have rights. That people care. And that they were born into a world where children actually have a voice.

"It was a very brave thing for these 10 countries to do," says Sara Austin. "They understand the implications, and it's not something that they undertook lightly. It shows that there are people in these governments who have a tremendous amount of good will. They want to do the right thing."

A relentless love for children

Sara's own journey was a singular act of bravery, courage and determination. In a world where heroes often disappoint or change course, I see her as a true hero for children everywhere. Her work on this idea, which started when she was a university student in the mid-1990s, has spanned 15 years. In that time, she began working with World Vision in a series of extremely demanding positions, then married, and became a mom for the first time.

Many people would have handed the torch to another, especially when finding themselves leading conference calls of international working groups while feeding or playing with a baby. But she didn't.

Sara came up for the idea of the Optional Protocol as a graduate student in international law at the University of Oxford. Sara noted that the International Convention on the Rights of the Child was the only international human rights legislation without some kind of mechanism for complaint. That is: when children's rights were violated, there was no way to actually hold governments accountable.

"This can't be right, I thought," says Sara. "The UN Convention is the most widely ratified of all treaties -- yet children can do nothing when their rights are violated?" At the time when the Convention was drafted in the late 1980s, a few people had raised the idea that children should have a complaints mechanism.

But it was quickly shut down," Sara explains. "There was far less understanding about children and their capabilities for knowing their own needs, and giving input into their own futures, even among child-focused organizations like World Vision," she says. "We've come such a huge distance since then."

Determined not to give up

Sara's own proposal was also shut down, she remembers, when she and an international working group of NGO members first appeared before a UN committee in 2006 to raise the idea of a tool for children.

"They said no," she remembers. "But we were determined not to give up. We continued to meet with the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child, with government representatives in Geneva and New York, and with governments in capital cities worldwide. I was convinced that it would work. We just had to be persistent."

And although it did work in the end, today is bittersweet for Sara. While she's overjoyed that children around the world will now have a voice, she's sorry it was so long in coming.

"I remember sitting under a bridge with a 13-year-old girl in Thailand," she shares, of her work overseas with World Vision. "She'd been forced into prostitution as there was no other way for her family to survive. She was HIV positive. I wish she could have been alive to use this tool. She had a right to a very different life."

With children like this in mind, Sara and her group will be back in New York within weeks, visiting embassies for countries which have yet to ratify, continuing their campaign to give power to the world's children.

"I want to see children all around the world living, thriving, and having a say in their own futures," she says. "Let's not waste any more time."