The UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child And Its Importance to the Human Family by Richard Mitchell
I’d like to tell you about one of the most significant events in the history of our planet, one that will continue to shape the community of nations that makes up our world for at least the next century. I believe that this event will come to be used as the standard by which civilized nations measure each other’s conduct, ultimately determining whether or not these nations will engage in formal relationships—economic, cultural, athletic or what-have-you. Interestingly, this event occurred with hardly anyone noticing!
I tend to see the world around me in fairly big pictures. It’s probably a coping mechanism—I’m consistently shocked at how others squander precious resources on such moral trivialities as the president’s sexual improprieties in the White House (didn’t we agree to the separation of State and the Churches at one point?). But, since we’re considering immoralities, try this one. What about the immorality of 40,000 children under five years of age dying each and every day on this planet? That’s another story, but I believe these two stories are intrinsically linked. What we pay attention to tends to grow ever larger in our awareness. Which of these two stories have you been paying most attention to recently?
In the early 1990’s, I became interested in the human rights of children and youth in our world, not just within the context of my profession. I decided to educate myself and, in the course of my research, I became acquainted with a document called the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It changed my life.
I want to take this opportunity to share a bit with you about how the CRC came to be, and then you can see for yourself if you want to participate in the global evolution (perhaps revolution) in thinking, and in the ethical behavior towards young people that it represents. (I purposefully stayed away from “paradigm shift” this time, but that would not be an inappropriate description.)
My name is Richard Mitchell and I am a neighbor of yours up above the 49th parallel in Victoria, British Columbia. I have worked here in BC for over 15 years with children, youth, and families in all the relevant Canadian bureaucracies—the schools, the child welfare system, the jails, and presently, in a child psychiatric facility. Although many of my colleagues are burnt crisp and cynical, I have somehow remained optimistic and productively engaged in my career. I am inspired by the work and by the outrageous things I learn and see each day. Sometimes, I am enraged and depressed as well, but I still find something to enjoy or encourage me most days.
The work I am presently doing as a child and youth counselor at a Victoria psych assessment facility is absolutely the most challenging in my career. This is the “front line” where the very damaged and disturbed 5—10 year olds that I support are extreme in their behavioral presentation. Just to be admitted to our six week residential treatment program, kids must have a psychiatric diagnosis based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition (DSM IV)—the bible for all mental health professionals using the western medical model.
Imagine an endless stream of 5—10 year old kids arriving at my facility, kids who are so psychiatrically and emotionally disturbed at such an early age that they need the support of the community just to be safe. Multiply that by similar facilities in every city of our nation, and you begin to grasp the dimensions of an extraordinary social problem. I know you face a similar situation in your state and throughout the US. Something vital is missing from our communities and our families, something crucial to the healthy development of children. The US-based public education campaign “I Am Your Child” is pointing to this as well.
I am an effective practitioner. Many, if not most, of the kids and families I work with gain a measure of peace and healing from my relationship with them. But for a society to function well takes more than effective individuals. Functioning social systems are required as well. The perspective I have gained from my position on the “front line” has helped me to realize that, in regard to children, our society is missing something vital systemically. Consequently, the impact I want to have on the larger picture of what is possible for our world is diminished.
This awareness drew me to part-time graduate school at the University of Victoria four years ago. While there, I took a course on a United Nations human rights document for the world’s children, the CRC. I am now wrapping up my Master’s thesis looking at the current effects and the unrealized potential of national and international implementation of this unprecedented human rights initiative.
I must take a brief aside and make plain one of my assumptions here as a Canadian. This may not be an assumption you share, but I hold this to be the truth: overall, the United Nations does good work, especially UNICEF. If the global community had not already created the UN at this point in history, far-thinking humans would have to invent it in order to dialogue about our collective destiny on this chaotic and disordered little world. Although the bureaucratic and political challenges of the UN sometimes blunt its effectiveness, I believe that the world is a better place for its presence, and perhaps more importantly, its potential. Here in Canada, this assumption of the UN’s inherent goodness is virtually universal.
History of the CRC The 54 Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or CRC, is the latest tool created by the world community to advance the notion of human rights, this time for the world’s most vulnerable citizens. Its development began in 1924 within the League of Nations. The CRC was worked on extensively from 1979 (the “Year of the Child”) until its presentation to the UN a decade later, in 1989. Introduced formally at the World Summit for Children in New York in 1990 (the largest gathering of world leaders to that point), the impact of this new document parallels that of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted just after the end of World War II. The CRC represents the zenith of humanity’s efforts to guarantee children the right to healthy survival—to development, education and healthcare, and freedom from physical, mental and sexual abuse or exploitation. Furthermore, the CRC guarantees children the right to participate meaningfully in their own destiny. What a noble concept when read and understood in its entirety. Its Articles support and strengthen the family as the primary environment where these freedoms are given birth and fostered.
In 1948, no one envisioned the impact of these types of UN treaties on the global community of nations. Looking back on the past half century, we see their influence has been profound. At present, all nations have an awareness of human rights, and what constitutes a violation of such rights. Trading nations with more civil social systems can and do apply effective pressure on their neighbors to respect these individual rights and freedoms.
I believe the fact that Nelson Mandela was released rather than murdered, and that South Africa is now a functioning multi-racial and multi-cultural democratic society is the result of an evolving awareness of human rights issues over the past half century. The same could be argued for the breakdown of communism and the Berlin Wall, or the transformation from the brutal personality cult dictatorship of Marcos to the beginnings of democratic institutions in the Phillipines. Numerous other examples exist around the world. These mostly peaceful transitions had their roots in a growing global awareness about the availability of expanding freedoms, found most notably in the US. The world has made progress in the last century and the area of human rights is one of our most important achievements. Now, at least, there are international standards, and pressure can be applied to nations that do not live up to these principles.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child differs significantly from the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 50 years ago. The CRC has a staged implementation process, beginning with signing the document, and then ratifying it throughout a country or State. Ratification is actually an accountability process since each nation is then required to report back to an independent UN body every five years reviewing the state of its children. What makes this treaty so extraordinary is the fact that over 190 nations on the planet have both signed and ratified it. Almost the entire world has agreed on how we wish to treat our most precious resource, our children. Indeed, only two have not! This makes the CRC document the most widely agreed upon issue in the history of humanity.
Of the two nations who have not ratified, Somalia has completely ignored the debate, as you may well expect. The other country has signed, but the ratification process, the real accountability built into United Nation’s Conventions, has been delayed politically. You may be dismayed to find that the United States is this other nation. It is my understanding that the conservative senator Jesse Helms and others have blocked its acceptance in the US Senate.
Widespread misconceptions about the Convention’s intent and provisions, and a lack of public understanding about how this type of agreement is treated by the US government, have induced a significant level of opposition to the CRC in the US (see HYPERLINK “unicef” unicef.org on the Internet). The time is now for public education, grassroots advocacy, and letter-writing campaigns to the US Senate in support of ratification of the CRC.
In the US, such esteemed organizations as the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, the American Bar Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Psychological Association, Amnesty International, Child Welfare League of America, the International Federation of Social Workers, the National Council on Family Relations, the National Mental Health Association, the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, and the YMCA and YWCA of the USA combine to make just a very partial list of supporters.
Let me say here briefly that I am sensitive to the possible perception of tossing stones while living in a more northerly glass house, but I consider this issue worth the risk.
CRC’s Real World Application What makes the CRC such a significant event for the history of our planet? It’s in the leveraging of ethics and economics. This document is nothing less than an international framework for the cooperation of the world community of nations. The terms of such cooperation are largely determined by the industrialized countries of the planet, and are, in fact, an important determinant as to whether the rights of hundreds of millions of children are met or ignored. Although it may seem preposterous to some that international financial agreements and business transactions could take into account and be influenced by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF’s view is that this is not nearly so preposterous as watching millions of children pay with the loss of their rights to health, education and normal physical and mental development for the economic mismanagement of the world into which they were born (HYPERLINK “unicef”@unicef.org 1998, on the Internet. You will also find suggestions there for interested individuals and organizations in America to contribute to the ratification process).
The US Committee for UNICEF also has up-to-date information and education materials available. They are eager to work with you or your community on this issue. For further details or assistance, please contact the US Committee for UNICEF at 202-296-4242, and fax at 202-296-4060, [email protected].
Relevance Does all this have meaningful relevance for those of us who desire to leave the world a better place for our children? You bet it does. Please read the document and understand for yourself why so many politically, spiritually and economically diverse nations in the world have been able to agree upon one thing—a set of standards about how we wish to treat our children. After seeing how it is that children can be mistreated, abused, and sexually exploited in my own country, I am convinced that awareness and use of the treaty is one solution, one ray of light in the darkness which often seems to surround me. Ignorance can be overcome with knowledge. Effective and ethical use of knowledge has transformed our world and will continue to do so for those enlightened enough to take up the challenge. I have dedicated myself to sharing the knowledge of the Convention with all those whom I meet and I thank the editors of this publication for the invitation and opportunity this article presents.
Take care good neighbors and “Imagine all the people, living life in peace” —John Lennon, 1971.
Richard C. Mitchell lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is available by email.