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The Rights of the Child Part One: What are children's rights?

Illustration by Kim Rosen

By Katherine Covell, PhD

This is the first article in a continuing series exploring the rights of the child. Dr. Covell is a professor of psychology at Cape Breton University, and the executive director of the Children’s Rights Centre.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is often touted as the most quickly and widely ratified Convention in world history. Yet here in Canada, few are aware of it, or what it means for children. This series centres on the implications of the Convention for the health and well being of Canada’s children. This first installment introduces the Convention and this series on children's rights.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989. It was eagerly ratified through the next decade by almost every country of the world. By 2000, all but two countries of the world had ratified the Convention. The exceptions are Somalia, whose ongoing civil war has made ratification impossible, and the United States. The US signed the Convention in 1995; it has not ratified it due to the political complexities of so doing, and due to concerns about loss of state and family autonomy. However, by signing the Convention, the US is at least obligated to ensure its national policies and practices do not contradict it. In fact, the Convention is an important guide for much child advocacy and professional practice in the US. Canada ratified the Convention in 1991. Ratification means a country must implement the rights of the Convention systematically. And it is noteworthy that the obligations are of a legal nature rather than strictly moral concerns; the Convention is much more than a wish-list.

A Declaration, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which Canada signed in 1959, is a statement of broad moral principles, ideals and aspirations. A Convention is different. A Convention is not only a moral agreement, but also a legal one. The Convention obligates its signatories to an official policy of recognizing and implementing the rights of the child. The status of the child is elevated to that of full rights-bearing citizen. This is a new and important status for Canada’s children. No previous agreement has provided such standards for children’s rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, often understood to apply to children, has very limited applicability. The Charter is limited to rights that protect against government action, and it does not cover many rights of relevance to childhood. The Convention, however, is of direct importance for children and is a landmark document in the history of childhood. The Convention systematically and specifically articulates the rights of children. Children are defined as everyone under the age of 18 years. The rights are indivisible and inalienable — a child can neither give up nor lose his or her rights, regardless of behaviour, family context, or parental wishes. These rights, in essence, reflect a global consensus on what childhood should be.

Protect, Provide, Participate

The substantive rights in the Convention fall into three categories, protection, provision, and participation, sometimes called the 3Ps. There are rights of protection, for example against:

  • abuse and neglect (article 19),
  • economic and sexual exploitation (articles 32 & 34) and
  • harmful substances (article 33).

There are rights of provision. For example, children have the right to:

  • education (article 28)
  • health care (article 24) and
  • basic economic welfare (article 27).

And there are rights of participation. These articles define children’s rights to:

  • freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (article 14) and
  • a voice in matters that affect the child (article 12).

Especially vulnerable populations of children have additional rights:

  • Children with disabilities and those without parents have a right to special care (articles 23 & 20).
  • Children of minority and indigenous populations have the right to enjoy their own culture, to practice their own religion and use their own language (article 30), and refugee children have rights to special protections and assistance (article 22).

Family autonomy

Some have expressed concern that UN agencies may seek to use the Convention to reduce the role of the parents in a child’s life. However, the Convention emphasizes the importance of a family environment for children. In the preamble, the Convention refers to the family as "the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well being of all its members and particularly children”, and states that “the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” The document specifies the obligations of parents to provide guidance in the child’s exercise of rights (article 13) and the obligations to nations to assist parents, where necessary, with their child-rearing duties  (e.g., articles 7, 9 & 18).

The Convention is far from the anti-family document that some critics describe it as. For example, one critic and school trustee in British Columbia said that “[the Convention] undermines the integrity of the family and involves children in a political undertaking. There is a gradual erosion of parental authority and this is one more step in that direction.” Such myths undermine progress toward the full implementation of the Convention.

Participation: Children’s voices heard

Three general principles help to interpret and apply the Convention: participation, non-discrimination, and best interests.

The principle of participation (article 12) reflects a radical departure from previous international agreements on children’s rights. It requires that children be provided opportunities to have their opinions heard on all matters that affect them, and that adults give due weight to their opinions, taking into account their age and evolving capacities, and providing guidance when needed. The Convention does not provide for a child’s self-determination — although its critics sometimes misinterpret it this way.

Sociologist Roger Hart uses the analogy of a ladder to describe progressive levels of participation in society. The lower rungs reflect symbolic or token participation. The highest rung of the ladder is true participation, which Hart describes as child-initiated activities in which the role of adults is to provide support. The Convention does not, however, call for this full self-determination. Instead, the Convention requires age-appropriate participation. Such participation assists the psychosocial development of the child, promoting effective and responsible decision-making, the child’s sense of self-worth, and the feeling of belonging to their family and community.

Age-appropriate participation is characterized by democratic styles of parenting. Democratic parents are nurturing, set clear and developmentally appropriate standards for behaviour, give children age-appropriate input into decision-making, and use reasoning and explanation as socialization tools. Unfortunately, it is the least common type of parenting, according to a long-term study by Statistics Canada.

All equal: Non-discrimination

The principle of non-discrimination (article 2) states that the rights must apply to all children without exception. This principle has proven a problem for Canada. With powers shared among federal, provincial, and local governments, there are widespread variations among and within provinces and territories in policies and practices. This results in inequalities that affect education, early learning and child care, child protection services, custody and adoption decision-making, and health care. For example, in its status report on public policy affecting children and youth, the Canadian Paediatric Society described a patchwork of child-related legislation across Canada. Laws and policies of key importance to child health and well-being, such as the availability of immunizations, bicycle helmet legislation, car seat legislation, age for operating an all-terrain vehicle (an astonishing age 10 in Prince Edward Island), and school food and activity policies, all vary widely across provinces and territories. And there is significant diversity in the well-being of Canada’s children, with indigenous children suffering much higher rates of family poverty, developmental disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.

Policy in the best interests of children

The overarching principle of the Convention (article 3) is that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies.” Moreover, with reference to the joint responsibility of parents in child–rearing, article 18 states that “The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.”  How do we determine what actions are in the best interests of the child? In large part, this judgement is based on social science and health data. This is the principle that provides a fit between the developmental needs of the child and the rights of the child under the Convention.

Prevention policy

The Convention has two major implications for child-related laws, policies and practices. First, it requires that we take a preventive, proactive approach to ensuring conditions for healthy child development, rather than reacting to problems after they occur. Given the rapidity of early brain development, it is particularly important that we do not wait until key developmental stages pass before intervening in an unhealthy situation. Our services for children must be more, to borrow a phrase from Richard Gelles, than “an expensive ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.”

Evidence is the guide

Second, interventions of all kinds must be evidence-based. This means there must be a body of scientific evidence, based in research, that indicates an intervention will help children. There is a real tendency to try to solve problems quickly and with an “intervention of the month” approach. This is particularly evident in schools. School administrations offer programs to prevent student drug abuse, bullying and irresponsible sexual behaviour, but rarely are they evidence-based. Sometimes these programs even have the opposite effect of what was intended.

This series will discuss the issues for which there is very compelling evidence showing what is in the best interests of the child, and for which proactive measures are possible. We shall be looking at Canadian laws, policies and practices in child disciplinary practices, sexual activity involving children, street-involved children, and children in conflict with the law. The last of this series will revisit children’s participation rights. The rights of the child will be the framework for discussion in each. As we will see, it is time for us to take children’s rights seriously and to promote the health and well-being of each and every child in Canada.


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