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Unsatisfying results

Twenty years ago, on 20 November 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its 54 articles and two Optional Protocols regard children as independent human beings, who are not simply subject to their parents’ control, but rather have fundamental rights of their own. According to the Convention, families, governments and society must consider the interests of children in all decision-making. Reality, depressingly, often tells a different story.

[ By Albert Recknagel ]

With the exception of the USA and Somalia, all members of the UN have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. No other human-rights agreement has so many signatories. Every five years, the parties to the Convention must account to the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child in Geneva. In many cases, a national coalition of civil-society organisations is monitoring governments’ compliance with the obligations spelled out in the Convention. The shadow reports of such coalitions often expand and comment on official data.

There has been significant progress since the Convention was adopted: child mortality has decreased by 28 % worldwide since 1990, and the proportion of boys and girls enrolled in primary school has risen from 81 % in 1999 to 85 % in 2006. Between 2001 and 2006, more than 95,000 former child soldiers were demobilised. Female genital mutilation is prohibited by law almost everywhere, and approximately half
of the countries have banned corporal ­punishment in schools.

Nonetheless, much remains to be done. Every day, some 25,000 children below the age of five die. Most of them fall victim to illnesses which are preventable or easy to treat, such as diarrhoea, pneumonia or measles. This year, moreover, some 1.8 million children and adolescents under the age of 18 are likely to be sexually exploited for prostitution and pornography. Approximately a million people under 18 are being held in custody throughout the world. Despite bans on genital mutilation, 8000 girls are circumcised every day, a practice still carried out in many African countries and in Yemen. There are shortcomings in Germany too. Around 300,000 child refugees live in unacceptable conditions and in constant fear of being deported, for example.

Climate change and the global financial crisis cause additional worries. Their impact is likely to ruin much of what has been achieved. Because of hugely expensive programmes to rescue banks and stimulate economies, the national budgets of many rich countries will afford less money for social tasks and development aid, and this will be so at a time when many developing countries need more financial assistance. No doubt, establishing and enforcing the right to a clean, healthy environment is just as urgent.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that, after almost 20 years of governments’ regular reporting on Convention obligations, children themselves are still hardly involved. The Convention stipulates that they be included in all matters affecting them, and there are some well-established best practices. In South Africa, for example, young people check the allocation of government funds for programmes that target children (Child Budget Monitoring). In Nepal, children take part in meetings of the village development committees and related networks and associations as a matter of course. These models should be copied internationally.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has improved many young people’s chances of survival and development, so there is reason to celebrate. But we must not rest, the requirements of the Convention are still far from being a reality for all.

The reporting obligations of the signatory states are inadequate. There need to be sanctions for non-observance of rights, and that will require effective, independent monitoring everywhere. Of course, children and young persons have to be involved in such monitoring. Moreover, it would make sense to allow children to turn to some kind of international tribunal should their rights be violated.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.