When the Charter of the U.N. was signed in San Francisco in June 1945, it promised equal rights for all, but made no specific mention of children. Thirty years ago, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted, recognizing for the first time that children have their own rights, distinct from adults. The distinction is vital to the millions of children who still live with conflict, poverty, violence and abuse. Professor Geraldine Van Bueren was one of the drafters of the convention. I asked her if it has lived up to its promise, and what her message is to children fighting to be heard today.
Jolie: We’ve known each other for several years, but I’ve never actually heard how you became involved in drafting the convention.
Van Bueren: I was invited by Amnesty International to represent them at the United Nations in the drafting process. I was only in my 20s.
What compelled you to say yes?
When I was young, we lived with my grandparents, who were refugees. My grandmother was a young child, one of 13 siblings, when she walked across Europe from Lithuania to the English Channel. It was in the days before aid agencies, mobile phones or instant food. I never heard her talk about how hard this must have been. Most of my Eastern European and Dutch family, including young cousins, were murdered in the Holocaust. From the age of 11, I wanted to be a human-rights lawyer to prevent the same thing happening to other people.
When we first met, I told you my children had a summary of the convention on the wall of their schoolroom, but that I had explained to them that so far, the U.S. hasn’t ratified it.
America’s refusal to ratify is puzzling as the country was one of the leading drafters. It protects children’s right to free speech and religious freedom, the founding principles of the Bill of Rights. It’s based upon the best interests of the child, which has been a fundamental principle of American law since at least the 19th century. But it does a lot more. The convention tells us to look at the child’s right to participate in decisions affecting them through a child’s eyes, and to provide information in a format appropriate to a child. So it also helps build an educated citizenship.
What difference does the lack of ratification make to children in the U.S.?
Because childhood was invisible to the Founding Fathers, the Constitution makes no provision for children. America was not alone in this, but other countries have added legal protection for the rights of children by accepting the convention. It also provides a safety net, which all children need to have in case their government fails them. Incongruously, the leading United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, has always had an American as its head, but UNICEF’s work is based around a treaty which America hasn’t ratified.
Two American children, Carl Smith and Alexandria Villaseñor, have joined Greta Thunberg and children from 10 other countries in filing a complaint arguing that carbon pollution violates their rights. Is this an example of the convention at work?
Their petition concerns all children, and generations yet unborn, so it is generous and compassionate. Under what is known as the Third Protocol, a treaty additional to the main convention, children can petition the U.N. Committee, but only after they have exhausted all possible national remedies. In other words, if America were party to it, state and federal legislators and state and federal courts would have opportunities first to remedy the violation.This is just common sense.
Could children apply the convention to other areas?
Absolutely. It’s a Bill of Rights for children. The main aim of the convention is to act as an early warning system, so that children and adults can point out that any particular policy or law, or lack of policy or law, has a detrimental impact on children—for instance, social media and the right to privacy.
We’ve discussed the importance of children’s being made aware of their rights. What is your message to them?
The convention is for the children of the world. Children participated in the drafting. American schoolchildren lobbied governments to persuade them to include the abolition of the death penalty, and Canadian First Nation children successfully called for the protection of indigenous children’s rights. Children can use the provisions in the Convention to call for their rights to be protected. Children can help other children and prevent their rights being violated. But to do this, children need to know their rights and be supported in how to use them.
There is a disconnect between what the U.N. Convention says are fundamental rights for children and the way governments pick and choose which ones they will or will not uphold. How do we get to the point that upholding children’s rights is seen as an absolute responsibility?
You are right that there is often a disconnect between what children are entitled to and what is happening to them, particularly to child refugees and children caught up in armed conflicts; situations for which they are not responsible. What the Convention does is to provide an avenue for children not to be targeted. But it requires political will. The challenge is to make children the central plank of our policies. Childhood cannot wait.
Do you ever despair at the gap between the ideals of U.N. and the selective way they are applied?
It’s not helpful to children to be despairing when so much more still needs to be done. Despair is a paralyzing emotion. We do not focus enough on the Convention’s successes, whether it is reducing infant mortality, providing necessary healthcare or creating ways in which children can and have effectively participated in policy—from children’s parliaments to children contributing to the shaping of budgets. If we keep in mind the successes as well as what needs to be done, then it gives us the energy to do more and to do it better. The U.N. system is imperfect but it is the best we have, and better than its predecessor, the League of Nations. Children deserve the best we have to give, so we have to work with what we have, whilst simultaneously trying to improve it.