Harry Shier, Learning and Development Officer reports on our members’ ground-breaking work with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva. Read Harry’s blog below.
Empowering Children as Human Rights Defenders
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child is an international human rights body set up to monitor implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and, in doing so, to promote and defend children’s rights worldwide. It is made up of international experts elected by member governments, and holds its sessions at the UN office in Geneva, where it reviews and comments on the child rights progress reports that UN member states are required to submit every five years (all except the USA, that is, which is the only UN member state that is not a Party to the Children’s Rights Convention).
The United Nations is an organisation of States (i.e. governments), but the Committee on the Rights of the Child works in partnership with NGO Child Rights Connect (www.childrightsconnect.org) to ensure that NGOs and other civil society organisations have a strong presence and influence in its work.
Every two years the Committee holds what it calls a “Day of General Discussion” (DGD) in Geneva. This is a one-day international conference which aims to focus attention on a particular aspect of children’s rights that the Committee believes is not sufficiently understood and needs this spotlight to promote debate and action in the wider international Children’s Rights community.
In 2018 the topic chosen was “Protecting and empowering children as human rights defenders”.
As Child Rights Connect explains:
“Whilst the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified UN treaty and notable progress has been achieved in areas such as the right to health or the right to education, the reality is that children’s rights continue to be violated, especially those of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of children. Children all over the world are advocating for the realisation of their rights, their peers’ rights and the human rights of all, by acting as human rights defenders at local, national, regional and international levels. As individuals, or in a group, as part of an NGO, child-led forum or association, children are exercising their right to be heard and their civil rights and freedoms to advance and safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
For some people, the idea of children and adolescents standing up to defend their own rights – and human rights in general – is novel and unfamiliar; but many of Misean Cara’s member organisations have been supporting children as human rights defenders for years: The Columban Fathers in Peru, Edmund Rice Development in India, the Salesian Sisters in the Philippines to name just a few.
So, on behalf of Misean Cara, I went to Geneva to find out more…
Up to now, the Committee’s Days of General Discussion have been mainly an opportunity for adult “experts” to talk among themselves. However credit is due to the Committee and its staff for making a radical change. Recognising that children are every bit as much experts in defending their rights as we adult professionals, and that the Convention on the Rights of the Child gives them the right to speak out and be heard on all matters that affect them, the Committee resolved to plan a DGD that would be an authentic sharing of experience based on mutual respect and equality between young human rights defenders and the adults who support and protect them. To this end they worked with partners around the world to set up a DGD Children’s Advisory Team, and got the Centre for Children’s Rights at Queen’s University Belfast (note the Irish connection here) to undertake a worldwide consultation and produce a pre-conference report on “Children Human Rights Defenders: The views, perspectives and recommendations of children across the world” (available in English, Spanish and French and well worth a look: https://www.childrightsconnect.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DGD-REPORT_WEB_en_def_web.pdf).
I arrived in Geneva the day before the DGD and went to visit some Misean Cara members who were busy preparing for the big day. First I visited Edmund Rice International, a Geneva-based NGO linked to Edmund Rice Development in Ireland. Through the NineIsMine project they supported in India, 17-year-old Aishwarya had become a member of the Children’s Advisory Team and had come to Geneva to take the role of co-moderator of the next day’s debate on defending children’s rights in online spaces.
Then I met the team from the Istituto Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice, the Salesian Sisters’ international human rights NGO. There I met Zarah, a young woman who, with the backing of the Salesian VIDES programme in the Philippines, had come to Geneva to speak about her experience as a defender of environmental rights.
The next morning I arrived early at UN HQ to collect my entry badge and find my way to the huge conference hall which was already filling up. From the start I could see that the effort that had gone into planning this event was paying off. Young human rights defenders shared the platform at every session, and also acted as co-moderators of the three thematic working groups (state, civil society and the digital world). This was not stage-dressing or a token gesture as it has so often seemed in the past; it was a significant group of genuine experts with important ideas and experiences to share, well-briefed, well-prepared, and making themselves quite at home in the grandiose setting of a UN conference hall.
Over the years I have worked on many initiatives to bring adults and children together to share ideas, listen and learn from one another; and I know how hard it can be to get the conditions right. It needs openness to hear and understand, and genuine respect for the equal value of different experiences and the ‘expertise’ that grows from these. After years of preparation, I saw these things coming together at the DGD in Geneva.
It wasn’t perfect. Mistakes were made, but interestingly it was the worldly-wise adult experts who made the worst mistakes; for example rudely interrupting the young speakers, or in one case even forgetting they were there. But it was also notable that when the adult “experts” realised what they had done, they were willing to apologise respectfully, so that these unfortunate incidents became experiences we could all learn from (I’d be surprised if they happen again next time).
Above all respect is due to the young human rights defenders. The day was filled with memorable and moving testimony, inspiring calls to action, stories of battles fought and won, and others barely begun.
Here is a taste of just one of them, the amazing Mellicentia (17) from Sierra Leone speaking on girls’ empowerment:
“We work on ‘sex for grades’ and bullies in school. This has been so rampant in Sierra Leone. Teachers sleep with girls, get to bed with girls just for them to have good grades in school. As children human rights defenders one of the key things I believe in is awareness-raising, because you cannot speak for someone without involving that person herself or himself. So what we do is raise awareness, even in our schools in little groups, to tell those girls, ‘No, you are better than that. No, that is not you. You cannot allow someone just for a grade to degrade you and to reduce your esteem and your self-confidence’. So we talk to them; we tell them who they really are; to raise their awareness of what their rights are, so that if ever anyone wants to try to get into sexual activities with them they will know the right people to channel these cases to.”
“I want to leave a key message to every child human rights defender here – whether you are a girl or a boy – and I want to take this saying from Kofi Annan: That WE are never too young to lead, and THEY are never too old to learn.”
(The whole day was recorded for UN Web TV, and you can see Mellicentia in action here: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-treaty-bodies/watch/day-of-general-discussion-part-two-2330th-meeting-79th-session-committee-on-the-rights-of-the-child/5841862652001/?term=#t=37m23s).
Photo caption: Meeting the IIMA team In Geneva: Sr Sarah Garcia, Harry Shier, Maria D’Onofrio and Zarah, a young environmental rights activist from the Philippines.