“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Mark 10.15
Children are a precious gift from God, to be loved, guided and taught, cared and provided for materially and disciplined within a context of unconditional love. As Mark and the other Gospel writers remind us, Jesus loved children. He affirmed their special place in God’s purposes.
As the international community through the United Nations continues to strengthen its Human Rights instruments and mechanisms, it is an encouragement that God’s intentions for God’s people are enhanced and protected by best practice use of those instruments. Just as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights reflected the Judaeo-Christian heritage, the ongoing work of the UN Human Rights mechanisms are at the service of all who seek to follow Christ in work and witness in God’s world as partners in God’s mission.
The global community recognised the special needs of, and responsibility to, children by the almost universal endorsement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services. It was children who were the focus of global concern in the first of the UN Global Summits at the Children’s Summit in New York in 1990.
As Governments, UN and NGOs sought to give practical expression to their commitment to children during the 1990s, and listened to children and those who worked with them, new standards were developed by which the needs of most vulnerable could be addressed. During that period the obligation to protect and promote those Children’s Rights elaborated in the Convention gave practical support and direction to those seeking to enhance the place of children as of central concern to Governments and agencies, to the global family.
One significant and ongoing issue is the right to education , given expression in the rights of children to free and compulsory primary education, progressively extended to secondary and tertiary education. The late Professor Katerina Tomasevski as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education 1998 – 2004 advocated strongly to defend education as a human right, the realisation of which might be judged by the 4 A test which Governments and Advocates might use to assess the extent of its realisation. Professor Tomasevski suggested that the realisation be judged as available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. She later added a fifth test – is education affordable, in the face of increasing levying of fees and redefinition of education as a service, not a human right. As a service for the formation of human capital the test is limited to access, not to the 4 or 5 A test which reflects more appropriately the right as defined in the Convention.
During the 1990s, Christian relief agencies recognised the practical importance and value of the Children’s Convention and its elaboration through the derivative instruments, known as Optional Protocols, on Children in Armed Conflict and on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. These instruments enhanced the capacity of national governments, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society organisations to exercise responsibilities to children who without choice are recruited as child soldiers, to exploitative, degrading work as child labourers, or are victims of slavery, child prostitution, trafficking and child pornography.
The instruments provide Governments with standards for the development of appropriate services, legislation and indicators for success in exercising their responsibility to children. At the same time children and those who support and advocate for them are empowered by the provisions of the Convention as they work to hold governments, companies and agencies accountable to their obligations.
But national governments who are parties to these instruments are also accountable to the international community. When children and those who advocate for them fail to persuade their own governments of their obligations to children, particularly in face of the most extreme practices, there can be recourse to international mechanisms including the Committee on the Right of the Child and the UN Human Rights Council where practices and policies contrary to the Convention and its instruments can be exposed and governments persuaded to act to protect and enhance the development of children.
When national voices fail to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable the UN has further mechanisms and officers who have the power to investigate and report to the UN Committees and Councils on any enduring violations to our obligations to the least powerful, the children.
As individual Christians and in our Churches these instruments guide our prayers and actions in following Jesus by reflecting God’s special concern for the children in our midst. It is by no means accidental that William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery has contemporary expression in work by Churches and Christian agencies on issues of human trafficking and slavery. Those campaigns are strengthened and informed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its associated instruments.