Progress on children's rights reviewed
As the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child meets in Geneva, rights advocates have applauded progress made but say major challenges remain.
Eighteen years after the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) entered into international law, non-governmental organisations and the UN itself admit that in many countries children are trafficked, brutalised and used in combat.
Until October 3, the Geneva-based committee will hear from states including Bhutan, Djibouti and Uganda. The latter has engaged in an armed conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group led by a self-proclaimed Christian mystic known to have enlisted child soldiers.
The state of affairs in the East African country stands in sharp contrast to the principles outlined in the UN convention: "recognition of inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights for all".
Nevertheless, the CRC was a groundbreaking document, says Jean Zermatten, vice-chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
"It was only recently that we recognised that children have rights," Zermatten told swissinfo. "It was revolution. To recognise that a child has rights, you have to recognise him or her as a person. For a long time, children were only recognised as small people."
The committee meets usually three times a year in Geneva and at present comprises 18 experts, some of whom are also activists, and almost all of whom are lawyers.
The reporting system represents a year's work shuttling back and forth between governments, the committee and coalitions of NGOs and civil society groups.
"Our committee functions like a court," Zermatten said. "We get official reports from governments and unofficial ones from shadow organisations. We try to have the most balanced view, based on official or unofficial information."
"The process is quite long," said Nigel Cantwell, founder of Defence for Children International, a non-governmental organisation. He told swissinfo that when the committee first sat, nobody expected the important role NGOs would eventually play.
"The committee is looking for elements where the reality as reported by the NGOs is very different from that reported by the government. It is also looking for elements not covered in the governmental report, or insufficiently covered," he said.
"A clearer picture"
"It's for them to get a clearer picture of the situation of child rights in your country," said Ibrahim Bangura, an NGO representative for the West African state of Sierra Leone, who in 2007 presented a report complementary to his government's and returned to Geneva this year to accompany his government's delegation.
Despite the CRC's standing in international law, Zermatten admits enforcement through conventional means is impossible.
"There is no way of applying legal pressure. We rely on the media and public pressure to get action. We can't use methods like embargos because it would only harm children," he said.
"The hardest thing on the committee is the number of countries that come to us for help and adapting to the specific situation of each state. It is rewarding to see countries make changes though."
"Until 50 to 60 years ago, we didn't have anything, so I think the progress is amazing," said Nevena Vuckovic Sahovic, a committee member from Serbia and part of its Juvenile Justice Task Force.
"Now the biggest challenge at this point will be from having the legislation and the institutions to having good practices."
The overall picture may be less encouraging, or may at least require more patience. "So far we have generated a lot of paper, but there hasn't been much in the way of action," Zermatten said. Qualified personnel, he believes, are missing in many states. So is money.
When Sierra Leone, one of the convention's first signatories, presented its report to the committee in 2006, it admitted as much. The country packs men, women and children into a dilapidated and overcrowded Pademba Road prison in the capital Freetown and has one licensed psychiatrist nationally.
Many states simply lack the capacity to enforce the values they espouse, experts say. Local organisations can barely afford to send representatives to the committee sessions.
Even though Sierra Leone's report in 2006 had been organised by Unicef, it was the Swiss office of Ibrahim Bangura's employer, an NGO, which paid for the trip. When he returned in June as an observer for his government's appearance in front of the committee, a private donor paid.
All sides seem to recognise the glacial pace of the process. "You can't make governments do things that are absolutely impossible," Cantwell said. "What you want to see is that they are making an effort."
swissinfo, Justin Häne in Geneva
Convention on the Rights of the Child
An inherent right to live, survival and development
Freedom from discrimination based on race, religion, colour, sex or disability
Governments and courts must make the best interests of the child a primary consideration
Ensure the protection, safety and health of the child
Right to be registered immediately after birth, to have a name and a nationality and to be cared for by parents
Freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly
Protection from unlawful interference
Protection by the state from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse
A mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child's active participation in the community
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