Why child rights mainstreaming is critical to realizing child rights
While the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most ratified human rights treaty, this near universal set of obligations and commitments has not yet translated into transformative change for children as rights holders. To the contrary, it is increasingly challenged by States based on traditional values, patriarchal societal norms, lack of resources, competing agendas, as well as anti-human rights ideologies. Despite international standards and resolutions, many States increasingly question the very basic fact that children hold human rights, especially civil and political rights, and that a child rights approach must be applied systematically across all sectors. The COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing backlash against child rights, and violations of all children’s rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – have exponentially increased everywhere in the past year. The UN Secretary General alerted that “children risk being the biggest victims and the impact of the pandemic on them risks being catastrophic and amongst the most lasting consequences for societies as a whole”. The pandemic has taken the focus away from certain child rights even further, creating additional challenges to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For example, children’s civil and political rights, which have been historically overlooked, have been further deprioritized and often restricted due to the extreme pressure on the provision of basic services. Without child rights mainstreaming – or the effective integration of child rights through the systematic application of a child rights approach – some rights end up being overlooked, partially realized or even violated. An emblematic example is the lack of child participation when decisions affecting children’s lives are taken without their views. Whether intentional or not, the lack of child rights mainstreaming in decision-making processes results in the violation of Article 12 of the UNCRC on the right to be heard.
The UN Secretary General alerted that “children risk being the biggest victims and the impact of the pandemic on them risks being catastrophic and amongst the most lasting consequences for societies as a whole”.
More than ever, it is urgent to further advocate for the holistic implementation of the UNCRC and child rights mainstreaming, at all levels, including within the UN system. Although they account for more than a quarter of the world’s population, children remain the only category of rights-holders who have a specific human rights treaty but no dedicated UN strategy to ensure policy coherence within and across the UN system. This lack of prioritization within the UN system has been nurtured by a lack of coordinated, sustained pressure from civil society at all levels. Recent years have brought opportunities to remedy this situation. In September 2021, the UN Secretary General (SG) presented his report on Our Common Agenda: Responding to Current and Future Challenges. Together with the SG Call to Action for Human Rights, the Common Agenda constitutes a stepping stone for the strengthening of the UN system and a unique opportunity to advance child rights mainstreaming. To ensure a “renewed social contract anchored in a comprehensive approach to human rights”, the SG stated that more needs to be done by the UN and States to support “the political participation of a diverse range of young people”. The Call to Action has also fostered inter-agency coordination and collaboration with human rights mechanisms. The SG also recognized the significance of child participation in the UN in his guidance note on civic space. In the context of mainstreaming child rights, however, both the Common Agenda report and the Call to Action expressly refer to children only in relation to certain rights and situations, instead of integrating a holistic child rights perspective. Children are only mentioned in relation to future generations (omitting their status as present rights holders), the digital environment and their rights to health and education.
To ensure a “renewed social contract anchored in a comprehensive approach to human rights”, the SG stated that more needs to be done by the UN and States to support “the political participation of a diverse range of young people”.
What did CRCnct do to address this crucial gap
CRCnct’s engagement on promoting child rights mainstreaming dates back to 2004, when the organisation’s Strategic Plan referred to the need for “mainstreaming child rights throughout the UN system so that child rights are not just a matter for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child but also for all other treaty bodies and special mechanisms”. Past activities have included research on the role of NGOs in pushing for child rights mainstreaming in the UN system (2005), capacity-building of NGOs on advocating holistically for child rights through the monitoring and reporting cycle of the CRC Committee, and advocacy within the UN through a Network member-led Working Group on child rights mainstreaming. More recently, prompted by the EU and Uruguay in the context of the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC in 2019, a resolution was adopted by the Human Rights Council (HRC) requesting the OHCHR to convene a high-level panel on child rights mainstreaming at the February-March 2020 session of the HRC. In response, CRCnct mobilized its members to identify key messages and deliver several statements at the High-Level Panel; engaged with the High Commissioner for Human Rights to foster her leadership and support on this issue; developed jointly with the Joining Forces Initiative a paper including key recommendations for the High Commissioner; pushed for the application of a child rights approach to respond and recover from COVID–19 through direct advocacy with States; participated in the consultations around the SG’s Call to Action for human rights and his report, Our Common Agenda, advocating for the inclusion of children in these initiatives; and supported the OHCHR in its initiative to ask Uruguay and the EU to include language on child rights mainstreaming in the 2021 child rights resolution of the UN General Assembly.
In September 2021, CRCnct prepared, through a position paper, a child rights response to Our Common Agenda, voicing a strong call for the UN to put child rights at the core of all its actions. Following wide mobilization not only of child rights organisations (including through a dedicated member webinar in September) but also broader human rights organisations, the position paper was endorsed by 100 organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Service for Human Rights, and many CRCnct members from around the world. By showing that civil society was mobilized and united, this widely endorsed position paper helped create pressure on the UN and member States to follow up to the 2020 High-Level Panel of the HRC and act for mainstreaming child rights. It also provided civil society with a tool to raise awareness amongst States, UN agencies, civil society, national human rights institutions, and children, and to call on the UN to put child rights at the core of its action in a way to further progress the holistic implementation of the UNCRC by States.
In follow-up to the position paper, in October 2021, CRCnct co-organised with Amnesty International an event on child rights mainstreaming in the context of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, and with the sponsorship of the CRC Committee, the EU and Uruguay, to further raise awareness and garner political support for this issue. The event was the first ever global discussion on child rights mainstreaming at the UN level involving civil society and child human rights defenders. It built on the 2020 high-level panel on human rights mainstreaming of the HRC where the UN and States discussed gaps and made recommendations that are yet to be followed up on. There were clear and strong calls for accountability of the UN and States on the full implementation of the UNCRC and for children to be central to forthcoming work on child rights mainstreaming across all three pillars of the UN system (development, human rights, and peace and security). “We need ensure that mainstreaming is more than just a buzzword. We will not be effective, unless we involve children and young people” (EU representative at the event). The Ambassador of Bangladesh to the UN in New York stated that “UN agencies should be guided by the UNCRC” and that “mainstreaming children’s rights in the UN system would require ownership by all the agencies”. The event was also an opportunity for CRCnct Children’s Advisory Team to launch the child-friendly Guide ‘Putting the Rights of Child Human Rights Defenders into Practice’, hosted on the organisation’s new website on child human rights defenders.
Child human rights defenders, who participated as co-moderators or panelists, highlighted how the lack of child rights mainstreaming, including at the UN, has consequences on their lives and called for children’s participation (and empowerment from adults) to address these challenges. “The solution involves children, representing them at every level of decision making, from the very high-level engagement to the actual on-the-ground work that’s being done in many nations”, stated Joshua, a CRCnct Child Advisor from Canada. The co-sponsors of the event, the EU and Uruguay, used it as an opportunity to invite everyone and the UN membership to support the proposal to include, in the resolution on the rights of the child then negotiated in the Third Committee of the General Assembly, to include language on child rights mainstreaming to call on all UN entities to take action.
“The solution involves children, representing them at every level of decision making, from the very high-level engagement to the actual on-the-ground work that’s being done in many nations” Joshua, CRCnct Advisor from Canada
What difference did this make: a milestone decision by the UN Secretary-General
As a result of this wide civil society mobilization, and after only four weeks after receiving CRCnct’s position paper, the UN Secretary-General (SG) took a milestone decision to develop a Guidance note on child rights mainstreaming in the framework of his Call to Action for Human Rights, as a first step towards addressing the system-wide approach to child rights in the UN. For the Executive Office of the SG, the Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination addressed a letter to CRCnct’s President, welcoming the position paper and expressing agreement with the analysis that “a holistic child rights perspective must be reinforced across the UN system at a global, regional and local level”. Through this letter, CRCnct was advised that the SG has decided to develop the Guidance note through an inter-agency process. “We are encouraged to read that our paper has triggered formal and constructive discussions at the highest level of the UN and amongst UN agencies” and “We believe this will send a strong signal from UN leadership and will act as a key tool to support a more systematic inclusion of child rights across the system”, stated CRCnct’s Executive Director. In response to this unprecedented step, CRCnct recommended to the Executive Office of the SG that the inter-agency process for developing the Guidance Note be undertaken in consultation with civil society, especially children, and offered to assist the inter-agency process, including by engaging its Network, partners and children worldwide so that the tool can have the greatest possible impact on the ground.
Beyond triggering action at the highest level of UN leadership, CRCnct’s call for civil society and child participation in the development of the Guidance Note has been heard. In early 2022, the inter-agency process led by a core group of four UN entities – the OHCHR, UNICEF and the two Special Representatives to the SG with a mandate focused on child rights – voiced their intention to reach out to as many actors as possible in the development of the Guidance Note, undertake wide consultations to that end, and asked CRCnct – as a strategic partner of the initiative – to take a leading role in coordinating consultations with civil society and children worldwide. This will be key to ensuring that the UN-wide strategy on children’s rights is grounded in the everyday realities of children. In terms of sustained impact, the concrete, early results of this work have inspired other actors to own and push for the same agenda. For instance, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) submitted its own letter to the UN SG in November 2021, explicitly supporting CRCnct’s position paper and offering support to “ensure that there is a UN-wide strategy on children’s rights in all UN decisions, policies, and practice”.
Significantly, the UN General Assembly (GA) adopted by consensus its resolution on the rights of the child in December 2021, which includes child rights mainstreaming language. The General Assembly resolution“requests all relevant organs, bodies, entities, organizations and mechanisms of the UN system to mainstream the promotion, respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of the child throughout their activities, in accordance with their respective mandates, as well as to ensure that their staff are trained in child rights matters, and take further steps to increase system-wide coordination and inter-agency cooperation for the promotion and protection of the rights of the child”. This language had been a standard recurring paragraph from previous GA resolutions that was lost over time. The fact that the States decided to re-introduce it reflects a renewed commitment to the issue and an intention to push the UN to do more.
What key lesson has been learned
While this is just the beginning of a multi-year process which will require long-term, multistakeholder engagement, these early results show how wide, coordinated, and sustained civil society advocacy, leveraging different entry points, can contribute to put key issues of concern on the agenda of the highest UN leadership, with potential spill-over effects on the prioritization of these issues by UN Member States. It also shows that coordination between advocacy in Geneva and New York is both possible and important, and should be strengthened at all levels, among civil society, States and UN agencies.