Global Climate Strike in London on Friday 15th March 2019. By Garry Knight / Flickr
On Monday world leaders gathered at the United Nations for the Climate Action Summit were roundly chastised by a 16-year-old girl, the now famous Greta Thunberg. The Swedish teenager later led a group of 15 other youth climate activists in filing a formal complaint against the UN for failing to protect the world’s children from the effects of global warming.
Today (Wednesday) the UN General Assembly will spend an hour marking the 30th anniversary of the treaty that the young people invoked in their complaint – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose observance is overseen by UNICEF.
Climate change, in fact, heads a list of worries that UNICEF’s Executive Director, Henrietta H. Fore, has concerning “the children of today and tomorrow,” whom she addressed directly in “An open letter to the world’s children” this week. “There is perhaps no greater threat facing the rights of the next generation of children,” she wrote.
Miss Fore’s other concerns are: the disruption of children’s lives in areas of conflict; the mental health of adolescents; treatment of migrant children; undocumented children; children who are missing out on the skills needed for life in the 21st century; privacy in the digital age; and a growing mistrust of social institutions because of “fake news”.
Some of these apply more to the developing world than others, but they are all obviously important issues for an organisation with global oversight of the most vulnerable members of the human family. It is important to add that Miss Fore has countervailing hopes for each of these issues, based on efforts already in hand.
UN sceptics may dismiss this as a piece of dutiful window dressing, but it is worthwhile to remind the world of the trends that seriously affect children, and what can be done about them.
The odd thing though, is that this reminder is addressed to children, 99 percent of whom are unlikely to read it, even if they could understand it. Would it not have been better to write to the mothers and fathers of the children? As their immediate protectors and educators, parents are in the best position to take on board legitimate concerns and hopes about young people.
And there are some serious omissions from the worry list. For example, around a third of children in the UK and North America do not live with both parents, and in South Africa only a third of children do live with both biological parents (part of the cultural legacy of apartheid). In developed countries this usually means that a woman is struggling to raise children alone or has a shared parenting arrangement with the largely absent father – a situation that is often fraught.
The breakdown or non-formation of families with two resident biological parents causes unhappiness for many children and tends to hamper social mobility in the long run. And family instability is increasing through the increase in cohabitation at the expense of marriage. This is a serious issue affecting many of the world’s children – and likely to affect more – but there is no mention of it by the head of UNICEF.
This seems particularly odd since the Convention on the Rights of the Child – harking back to the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child and, before that, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – states in its Preamble the following principles or assumptions behind the articles of the treaty:
“Convinced that 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, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community,
“Recognizing 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,…”
But perhaps not so odd. While the Preamble sees the child as someone to be cared for and protected, the articles themselves tend to view children as independent agents: expressing their own views when they are capable, having freedom of expression and access to information, as well as freedom of thought, conscience and religion. (Articles 12-16) Greta Thunbergs, if you like, and all well and good when parents are given credit for being normally the best guides for their maturing children.
This seems to be acknowledged when Article 14 says that, “States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.” Or when Article 18 says that governments “shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child” and should help parents fulfil these responsibilities.
Yet a summary statement about the Convention from the UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner this week makes no mention of parents, or even families. Children “should be cared for, develop and be part of their communities,” it says. And,
“Children have human rights and they should be empowered to claim them. Thirty years ago the Convention recognised children as their own beings entitled to non-negotiable rights. Nearly all Governments – to the exclusion of one – have pledged to respect, protect and promote those rights. This makes the Convention one of the most visionary and universally accepted human rights agreement in history.”
Unfortunately, in the decades since 1989 many parents have come to distrust what governments see as children’s rights.
Even before that date it was clear that neither the UN administration nor the majority of “States Parties” are committed to another principle of the Preamble:
‘Bearing in mind that, as indicated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth“.’ (Emphasis added)
The Universal Declaration, which first enunciated that principle in 1948 after a war in which “unwanted people” were dehumanised and then murdered en masse, clearly did not envisage legalised abortion. Yet by 1989 a veritable war on the unborn child had spread across the West, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child had nothing to say about the most fundamental violation of a child's rights.
Neither, sadly, has Ms Fore. Sadly, but not surprisingly; after all, the child in the womb cannot speak into a television microphone or go marching on the streets, or take a lawsuit against the UN in pursuit of a popular cause. So what use is she?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.