Reduced opportunities for bringing State parties to account on their implementation of the UNCRC
Civil society reporting is critical to informing the work of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee), the UN treaty body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and its Optional Protocols (OPs). The participation of civil society organisations (CSOs) and children ensures that diverse voices and perspectives are reflected in the review of the implementation by States parties of their obligations under the UNCRC and its OPs and plays an important role in grounding recommendations of the CRC Committee in the daily realities of children. This allows the adoption by the CRC Committee of targeted recommendations for States to improve the situation of children’s rights on the ground, focusing on the most pressing issues.
“Impact assessments have shown that recommendations made by civil society were generally included in the Committee’s concluding observations. A series of case studies on follow-up activities conducted by NGOs provide examples on the cyclical approach to engaging in the reporting process of the Committee and the use the Committee’s recommendations in national level advocacy work.” (Global Study on the Status of Engagement in Reporting to CRC Committee, Child Rights Connect, 2019).
Yet, as documented in this Global Study, the lack of mobilization, capacity and coordination through stable national coalitions of children’s rights defenders, including children, hampers the effective engagement of civil society with the CRC Committee. This challenge is particularly acute in certain regions of the world, such as the Caribbean and the Pacific, characterized by weak or fragmented civil society, and/or restricted, obstructed or narrowed civic space. The limited engagement of CSOs and children undermines the quality of monitoring and recommendation-making by the CRC Committee, which ultimately means reduced influence on States to effect change towards the realization of children’s rights.
In 2021, the situation has been more critical than ever. In a context of unprecedented pushback, compounded by decreased attention by States and the UN to children, the UN financial crisis, and overall reduced faith in international accountability mechanisms, the pandemic and an ever-degrading environmental situation have exacerbated child rights violations.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected children in countless ways, including through school closures and limited access to essential services. […] The Committee is also deeply concerned about the growing body of alarming evidence on the adverse effects of climate change, pollution, environmental harm and the loss of biodiversity, on the life trajectory of children as well as on their full and effective enjoyment of human rights.” (Chair of the CRC Committee, 76th session of the UN General Assembly, October 2021).
At the same time, the online environment has reduced opportunities for bringing States parties to account through the reporting cycle of the CRC Committee, aggravating the gap in the monitoring of States’ obligations under the UNCRC and its OPs. Overall, the Committee held three pre-sessions with CSOs in 2021, but with a reduced number of countries compared to previous years. In total, six States were reviewed in 2021. A large and increasing backlog of State reviews remains, which has had a pervasive impact on the work of CSOs as well as on the overall monitoring of the situation of child rights and States’ accountability in the concerned countries. A national CSO explained how “The reporting cycle with its constructive dialogue at the pre-session is an indispensable tool for [them] in [their] efforts to implement children’s rights” and how “any further delay would be an impediment for the initiated process and the increased public awareness of children’s rights”.
How children and other children’s rights defenders were supported
To respond to these challenges, and despite difficulties posed by a fully online environment, Child Rights Connect has boosted its longstanding mandate of strengthening the capacity of children’s rights defenders, including children, to use the CRC reporting process as an advocacy tool (in line with its Strategic Priority 2). CSOs have relied on Child Rights Connect more than ever before, in a context where the level of uncertainty around session schedules has never been so high. In 2021, Child Rights Connect continued to mobilize civil society with a focus on regions and countries which are under-represented in engagement with the CRC Committee, in line with findings from the Global Study. For instance, Child Rights Connect co-organised an online high-level conference in December on advancing children’s rights in the Caribbean by using the international and regional human rights systems to support national efforts.1 This was the first event in many years to bring together relevant actors in the Caribbean, including child human rights defenders, representatives from different States, CSOs, UN agencies, academics and international experts, to identify how accountability mechanisms, including the CRC Committee, can foster child rights promotion in the region. As a result, participants identified the need to support the establishment of national CSO coalitions along with a regional network of national coalitions. Also, while progress in the region has been affected by the pandemic and cyclone, in follow-up to the 2020 CRC Committee extraordinary session in the Pacific (another under-represented region), Child Rights Connect has: (i) convened a webinar for members and partners (including the Ombudsperson Office in Samoa) to mobilize and foster collaboration amongst key stakeholders ahead of the forthcoming UN reporting cycles targeting countries in the region; (ii) supported the Ombudsperson Office in Samoa with reporting as part of the UPR (a Children’s Forum will be organized in 2022 as part of their engagement in CRC reporting); (iii) and supported Save the Children Fiji in preparing a CSOs submission to the Committee under the Simplified Reporting Procedure (SRP).
Significantly, Child Rights Connect also boosted its capacity-building support to Network members and other CSOs, with a record number of training events led or co-facilitated by it in 2021 on reporting to the CRC Committee (focusing mostly on child participation in CRC reporting, the SRP, and how to follow-up on the implementation of the Committee’s Concluding Observations). Overall, through more than 20 online workshops, Child Rights Connect equipped several hundred children’s rights defenders (including Network members and other CSOs), children, academics, representatives from National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), and representatives from UN agencies (particularly UNICEF), from Latin America and the Caribbean (including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay), Asia-Pacific (including Bhutan, Fiji and Thailand), Europe (including Turkey and Spain), and MENA (including the State of Palestine). Importantly, to address a weakness identified in the Global Study (“There is still limited engagement at national level on the follow-up to the concluding observations”, Child Rights Connect), Child Rights Connect equipped around 25 representatives from CSOs, the NHRI and authorities in the State of Palestine with knowledge and tools on how to follow-up on Concluding Observations for practical implementation at the national level (see the related case study under Strategic Priority 4 for details).
20 online workshops in 2021 which equipped several hundred children’s rights defenders.
Further, building on CSOs’ good practices, Child Rights Connect has refined its guidance in support of effective CSO and child engagement in reporting to the CRC Committee. In November 2021, Child Rights Connect launched two complementary publications, the updated “My Pocket Guide to CRC reporting”, a companion guide for children willing to engage in CRC reporting, and updated “Together with Children, for Children”, a guide for CSOs empowering children to engage in CRC reporting, both available in English, French and Spanish.
Through technical assistance, Child Rights Connect has supported 206 children’s right defenders, including 54 children (of whom 38 were girls) from varied countries on all continents2 to effectively report to the Committee under different procedures and engage in online pre-sessions, which is more than in 2018, 2019 and 20203 respectively. All the children’s rights defenders who took part in Child Rights Connect’s surveys reported that Child Rights Connect’s technical assistance had been useful to prepare for the pre-session and/or children’s meeting with the Committee, with 68% reporting it as “extremely useful”. “The support given was really to the expectations” (male defender from South Sudan). “[The preparation call provided children] with clarity of what the dialogue with the committee was like, knowing the other organizations that would participate” (female defender from Chile). “Child Rights Connect team was of great help, both during the pre-sessions and with written guides. All replies to questions per mail were very quick, efficient, and extremely helpful!” (female defender from Luxemburg).
“[The preparation call provided children] with clarity of what the dialogue with the committee was like, knowing the other organizations that would participate” (female defender from Chile).
Finally, and crucially, through constant monitoring and information sharing, Child Rights Connect has continued to play a critical role in bridging the communication gap between civil society and the CRC Committee (as well as other UN mechanisms). This gap has been particularly severe since the beginning of the pandemic and the shift to online working methods, characterized by uncertainty around the holding of pre-session meetings, lack of visibility regarding the calendar of the CRC Committee, change of plans sometimes on short notice, and tight timeframes between submission deadlines and the pre-sessions (at times, less than four weeks, thereby frustrating CSOs preparation and coordination, and consultation with children). 55 per cent of the children’s rights defenders who took part in Child Rights Connect’s surveys after the pre-sessions reported that their biggest challenges were the “lack of clarity and uncertainty regarding the holding of the pre-session” and “short timeframe between the invitation and pre-session meeting”. It took considerable resources and time for Child Rights Connect to keep abreast of the CRC Committee’s plans, provide timely information to CSOs and children, manage their expectations (and sometimes disappointment), and act as a “buffer” between Child Rights Connect Network members and the CRC Committee. “In the light of Covid, I have a question concerning the postponement of sessions, as I know some colleagues are a little concerned if children get discouraged from participating when sessions are postponed, so I wanted to raise this concern and ask how we can speed up the “recovery” after the postponements, so we continue to engage children.” (a female colleague from Save the Children).
“Child Rights Connect team was of great help, both during the pre-sessions and with written guides. All replies to questions per mail were very quick, efficient, and extremely helpful!” (female defender from Luxemburg).
What difference did this make
As a result of this work, children, children’s rights defenders (including Network members and other CSOs), other non-State actors (NHRIs, Ombudspersons) and representatives from International Organisations have been resourced with new or improved knowledge, know-how, confidence and connections to effectively use CRC reporting as a mechanism to push for the realisation of child rights in dozens of countries across the world. The results from pre- and post-training surveys show a measurable, significant increase in the knowledge of children’s rights defenders on the topics of child participation in CRC reporting, and engagement in the SRP. “I was very confused [with the SRP] and I feel that several aspects are now clear to me” (a female defender from Venezuela). “The possibility of an exchange made it possible to understand the new procedure globally, its stages and calendar. Sharing problems and advice with other coalitions and networks was very important” (male defender from Uruguay). Feedback from a female colleague from Save the Children, following a training workshop on the SRP for Save the Children staff and their CSO partners from around the world4 highlights how “this good and concrete example of how [Child Rights Connect] empowers [its members]” was then used for briefing other stakeholders, showing replication and continuity of the training gains: “I have used your presentation content for a human rights course led by Save the Children Italy at Padua University in March on the SRP and intro to the Universal Periodic Review”.
Significantly, adult defenders have been empowered to ensure safe, empowering and sustained child participation in reporting for better informed, more inclusive reporting to the CRC Committee, which in turn can influence States to effect change at the national level. For instance, through Child Rights Connect’s support, selected UNICEF Country Offices, particularly in Bhutan, have improved their process for child participation in CRC reporting. Emblematic of this is the example of the use of My pocket Guide to CRC reporting by Luigi, a young adult from Guatemala who had engaged in CRC reporting as a child and now empowers Guatemalan children to do so, showing the replication effect and sustainability of Child Rights Connect’s resources. Luigi reported, during the Guide launch event:5 “We used the guide that Child Rights Connect shared with us to learn about other countries’ examples in using methodologies of consultation with children and adolescents and thus be able to create our own methodologies. Subsequently, [we used the guide] to understand the simplified reporting process with a facilitating group composed of children and adolescents that participated in the reporting process in the past, for whom it was important to understand the simplified [reporting] process in a simple way. In the third place, [we used the guide] to explain the reporting process to the children who were participating in it, so they could understand the destination of their opinions and evaluations regarding the fulfillment of their rights. Moreover, [we used the guide] to multiply the debate about the reporting cycle. Another benefit that we also obtained thanks to the Child Rights Connect guide was to identify our allies to have greater contact with the UN Child Rights Committee. It is difficult for some countries or organized groups of children and adolescents to understand how to send reports to the Committee. Thanks to that guide, it was much easier to get in touch with Child Rights Connect and make that liaison to share our documents, ideas, and contributions.” A female colleague of Save the Children also stated: “Thank you for hosting this important launch of the updated and excellent guides for child participation in CRC reporting and engagement with the Committee. In Save the Children we rely heavily on these tools when working with partners and children.”
“We used the guide that Child Rights Connect shared with us to learn about other countries’ examples in using methodologies of consultation with children and adolescents and thus be able to create our own methodologies. Subsequently, [we used the guide] to understand the simplified reporting process with a facilitating group composed of children and adolescents that participated in the reporting process in the past, for whom it was important to understand the simplified [reporting] process in a simple way. In the third place, [we used the guide] to explain the reporting process to the children who were participating in it, so they could understand the destination of their opinions and evaluations regarding the fulfillment of their rights. Moreover, [we used the guide] to multiply the debate about the reporting cycle. Another benefit that we also obtained thanks to the Child Rights Connect guide was to identify our allies to have greater contact with the UN Child Rights Committee.” (Luigi, defender from Guatemala)
In parallel, after years of advocacy by and continuous technical guidance from Child Rights Connect, the CRC Committee has improved its child participation practices, which shows increased understanding within the Committee of the requirements for safe, empowering and sustained child participation, and could inspire other UN mechanisms as well as CSOs. Children now receive a certificate for their participation in pre-sessions. Also, for the first time in 2021, the CRC Committee has published a video addressed to children to encourage them to take part in reporting (while previously such videos were restricted to calling for children’s inputs in the development of General Comments by the Committee).
Reflections on impact: partly mitigating the adverse impact of the online environment
Reflecting on engagement in CRC reporting in 2021, Child Rights Connect realized once again that, sometimes, impact is about preventing a situation from further backsliding. Given the exceptionally challenging context, this came down to existential issues: the very participation of children’s rights defenders and children in CRC reporting, and the actual conduct of State reviews by the Committee. Through its persistent engagement to foster adequate conditions for civil society engagement, Child Rights Connect has been able to partly prevent, or redress, the adverse impact of the online environment on the level and quality of engagement of Child Rights Connect members, other CSOs and children. Child Rights Connect has contributed to maintaining a space for CSOs to continue to provide reliable, comprehensive, transparent information to CRC Committee and, where State reviews where possible, influence targeted recommendations to States for realizing child rights on the ground. In 2021, there were 189 civil society submissions6 in respect of 32 countries7 for which pre-sessions or sessions were held during the year, which marks a significant increase compared to 2020 (the year most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic), and a rather stable civil society engagement in CRC reporting compared to 2019 as illustrated below.
Further, out of the 189 civil society submissions made in 2021, 39 reports emanated from children or were informed by children’s views. This represents an improvement from previous years, as shown below, particularly as the overall number of civil society submissions slightly decreased in 2021 compared to 2019.
Though difficult to prove, if Child Rights Connect had not fulfilled its critical role of connecting civil society and children with the CRC Committee, and empowering them to report to the Committee, the quality of the monitoring and recommendation-making work of the Committee would have likely been undermined. Though anecdotal, a concrete example comes from the Netherlands: in early 2022, in its Concluding Observations, the CRC Committee called on the Netherlands to “conduct independent and participatory impact assessments of its tax and financial policies to ensure that they do not contribute to tax abuse by national companies operating outside the State party that lead to a negative impact on the availability of resources for the realization of children’s rights in the countries in which they are operating”. An academic from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences had pushed for such a recommendation on this neglected issue, with technical advice from Child Rights Connect, which was eventually included in the Concluding Observations despite not being initially listed by the Committee in the List of Issues Prior to Reporting. She said: “I am so happy about this, as it will help raise the argument in other contexts as well (including Switzerland in 2026). Thank you so much for your advice, as I would simply not know how to do this without you”.
“I am so happy about this, as it will help raise the argument in other contexts as well (including Switzerland in 2026). Thank you so much for your advice, as I would simply not know how to do this without you”. (scholar from Zurich University of Applied Sciences)
What key lesson has been learned
The key lesson learned from this experience is that constant, open dialogue with the CRC Committee and its Secretariat within the OHCHR and the two-way information sharing process between civil society and the Committee were critical in partly overcoming, and preventing more severe consequences from, these exceptional challenges.