COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD HOLDS A DAY OF GENERAL DISCUSSION ON PROTECTING AND EMPOWERING CHILDREN AS HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS

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28 September 2018

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today held a Day of General Discussion on the theme of “Protecting and Empowering Children as Human Rights Defenders”, in which 50 children human rights defenders, members of the Children’s Advisory Team, from all over the world participated.

Opening the Day of General Discussion, Renate Winter, Committee Chairperson, was very pleased that this was the Committee’s first ever meeting in which the children participated.  Recalling that human rights defenders were facing unprecedented attacks intended to undermine their legitimacy, credibility, and the sincerity of their commitment, the Chair stressed that this Day of General Discussion was the Committee’s effort to counter this worrying situation, and to remind that children had the right to have an opinion, to express it freely, and to be listened to.  “Two keywords need to be taken into account at all times, empowerment and protection”, stressed Ms. Winter, noting that, with children and young person’s representing more than half the population in many countries, excluding them from participation and decision-making was not only unfair but unintelligent as well.

Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her remarks, said that it should not be unusual and exceptional to have children and young people speaking at the United Nations, and yet it was.  Adults, she said, failed the children, in so many places, and in so many ways; adults of confidence – teachers, coaches, priests and even family members – hurt children physical and sexually; adults running governments chose to spend more money on their armies than on education – only eight days of military spending around the world could give all children in the world access to school for a period of twelve years.  The first thing owed to children and young people was a deep apology from adults, she said, noting that young age did not protect against the worst consequences of adult decisions, so young age should not be an excuse to silence them either.

Michael Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, said that the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was one of the best-kept secrets in the world – many were not aware of it and it could be invoked in demanding better protection.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had established inalienable rights of children and youth, and it was human rights defenders who gave flesh and blood to those rights, and who, for their work, were often threatened and harassed. 

Keita, 20 years-old defender from Liberia, Winner of the International Children’s Peace Prize 2015, said that a child was violently killed every five minutes, but behind the statistics, were real lives.  Children should not have to be human rights defenders if the adults did their work.  Despite the 20-year existence of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the children were still being victims of violence and were killed around the world, and that was why the struggle must continue no matter the cost.

The Committee had chosen a very important and ground-breaking theme, said Beatrice Schulter of Child Rights Connect, who moderated the plenary session on the Protection and empowerment of children as human rights defenders.  There was an often-prevailing perception that children were merely objects for protection, rather than holders of human rights, and the theme of the Day of General Discussion challenged that perception.  Participating in the discussion were Mikiko Otani, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and three members of the Children’s Advisory Team: Akanksha (15) from Canada who spoke of the role of the social media in empowering children human rights defenders; Kurt (16) from Argentina who drew attention to the lack of equality of children around the world, particularly in crisis areas, and Mazidath (17) from Benin who highlighted the role of the school in protecting and supporting children human rights defenders.

The participants continued the discussions in three working groups, on Online Space, on State Actors, and on Non-State Actors, which covered various topics, including civil society space for children human rights defenders, empowerment through digital media, empowerment and protection of human rights defenders-victims of sexual exploitation, children human rights defenders with disabilities, and national protection and measures for child human rights defenders.  As a result of this work, recommendations had been made for measures that could be taken to protect children as human rights defenders.

With regard to the role of social media as a means of disseminating messages between children and to enable children to associate in the defense of their rights, it was recommended, among other things, to promote initiatives enabling children to use their own platforms and services.  This was particularly important for children with disabilities.  As part of the work on State actors, participants emphasized the importance of children’s participation in public action, including through a children’s parliament; the children also emphasized the role of education in strengthening their work as human rights defenders. Finally, on the issue of non-State actors, attention has been focused on the activities of businesses exploiting children and nature, as well as transitional justice issues and the reintegration of child soldiers.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage, and the webcast of the Committee’s public meetings are available here.

The Committee’s next public meeting will be on Monday, 1 October at 10 a.m., when it is scheduled to review the initial report of Saudi Arabia under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (CRC/C/OPSC/SAU/1) and its initial report under the Optional on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC/C/OPAC/SAU/1).

Opening Plenary

RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson and discussion moderator, in her introductory remarks highlighted that this was the first ever meeting of the Committee in which the children participated.  The Chair expressed gratitude to the Children’s Advisory Team for their immense contribution in the preparation of this event, and stressed that it was composed of hundreds of children from all over the world and that its delegation that was present in the room.  This year marked the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – those documents evoked the right of all human beings to defend their rights, unfortunately, there was a tendency today not to make human rights a priority and to set them aside, the Chair lamented.  Human rights defenders were facing unprecedented attacks intended to undermine their legitimacy, credibility, and the sincerity of their commitment, and there were some Member States which said that the Committee on the Rights of the Child should not listen to children.

This Day of General Discussion, Ms. Winter stressed, was the Committee’s effort to counter this worrying situation.  Recognizing that everyone had the right individually or collectively to promote the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels, the Chair insisted that the children too were human rights defenders.  The Day of General Discussion was based on article 12 of Convention on the Rights of the Child, continued the Chair, which defined the obligation of States parties to guarantee to children the right to have an opinion, to express it freely, and to be listened to.  That was why the programme today was very encompassing and covered various topics, including civil society space for children human rights defenders, empowerment through digital media, empowerment and protection of defenders victims of sexual exploitation, children human rights defenders with disabilities, and national protection and measures for child human rights defenders.  “Two keywords need to be taken into account at all times, empowerment and protection”, stressed Ms. Winter, concluding that, with children and young person’s representing more than half the population in many countries, excluding them from participation and decision-making was not only unfair but unintelligent as well. 

KATE GILMORE, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her remarks, said she was delighted to be a part of the Day, along with young people and children from the Child Advisory Team, and noting that this was a very special moment for everyone working to protect and promote human rights.  To the children, she said that today, everyone gathered would talk to them and about them, listen to them, thank them and encourage them for their leadership as children human rights defenders.  It should not be unusual and rare and exceptional to have children and young people speaking at the United Nations, have their voices heard and directly influence the decision-making, the Deputy High Commissioner noted, and yet it was.

“To begin with, some hard facts should be put on the table – adults failed the children, in so many places, in so many ways, and we are still failing them”, said Ms. Gilmore, mentioning specifically cases where adults – people of confidence such as teachers, coaches, priests and even family members – hurt children physical and sexually.  Adults were running governments and chose to spend more money on their armies than on education: millions of children were denied education even though it was their right to be educated, even at times of conflict.  Only eight days of military spending around the world could give all children in the world access to school for a period of twelve years.  Adults were very quick to recruit children into their militia or armed group but very slow to turn children into peace actors, they were making decisions about the future of the children, without even thinking to stop and ask what they thought and wanted.

The first thing owed to children and young people was a deep apology from adults for the many times they failed them, said the Deputy High Commissioner, and noting that adults were very slow to understand that they had a lot to learn from children, urged not to wait until children completed secondary school to hear their wise opinion and respect their right to make decisions about their own lives.  Young age did not protect against the worst consequences of adult decisions, so young age should not be an excuse to silence children, stressed Ms. Gillmore and urging for a change in power relations between different generations, adults and children, for more respect for children, for more listening and more promises kept, and for better conditions to grow up and build a better world.

MICHAEL FORST, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, said that the most important part of his mandate was meeting human rights defenders, to hear their testimonies, threats, and experiences, and so become the voice in front of the United Nations and States, calling for their greater safety and better protection.  The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, he continued, was one of the best-kept secrets in the world because many human rights defenders were not aware of it, and who could invoke it to ask for better protection.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had established inalienable rights of children and youth, and it was human rights defenders who gave flesh and blood to those rights, and who, for their work, were often threatened and harassed. 

The Special Rapporteur noted that many children human rights defenders he had met invoked the restriction to the freedom of assembly, there were treats and violence, even executions and disappearances, noting that this was why the Declaration – and the concept of human rights defenders – should be more and further disseminated.  Mr. Forst also mentioned that he had identified good practices in the work of human rights defenders, which the children could use to demand greater protection, and noted that this Day of General Discussion should help to find better ways to prevent attacks on the children human rights defenders, which was everyone duty, he insisted.

KEITA, 20 years-old defender from Liberia, Winner of the International Children’s Peace Prize 2015, in his reflection on the situation of children in the world, remarked that a child was violently killed every five minutes.  Behind the statistics were real lives, he stressed, therefore, repeating them was not important if there were no mechanisms to protect the children worldwide.  The path of children human rights defenders was taken by only a few, so they should tell everyone that they had the power to change the world, and that the world was indeed changing.  The world depended on them.  Children should not have to be human rights defenders if the adults did their work, he noted, adding with concern that children human rights defenders were being threatened all around the world and that was why empowering them was of crucial importance.  Keita talked about the treats on his security because he spoke on the events happening in his country.  It was not going to easy, but children human rights defenders should not give up but stand up for their rights since that was the only way to change their lives, internationally and locally.  Furthermore, he added that the words on paper did not reflect the reality.  Despite the 20-year existence of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the children were still being victims of violence and were killed around the world, and that was why the struggle must continue no matter the cost.  Dying for standing up for one’s rights was a happy death.

Plenary: Protection and empowerment of children as human rights defenders

Beatrice Schulter, Child Rights Connect and discussion moderator, welcomed more than 50 children present in Geneva for the Day of General Discussion.  The Committee had chosen a very important and ground-breaking theme, she said, since there was an often-prevailing perception that children were merely objects for protection, rather than holders of human rights.  The theme of today’s Day of General Discussion challenged that perception and made everyone think deeply of what it meant to be a rights holder.  Furthermore, the Committee had chosen to walk the talk and put children human rights defenders at the heart of the preparations, and the Day of General Discussion itself.  Child Rights Connect was convinced that children’s views, ideas, solutions and perspectives were invaluable resource for the realization of human rights for all.

Mikiko Otani, Member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in her remarks, stressed that recognizing children as human rights defenders was the key objective of the Day of General Discussion.  Children were already acting as human rights defenders, she said; it was the adults who did not pay attention to their activities, their experiences, their roles, contributions, voices, needs, and challenges, which explained the choice of the theme.  Children’s enthusiasm, positive response, active engagement, and presence in the room and online, was a proof that the choice of the theme was right. 

Children in all regions were acting and wanted to act as human rights defenders, Ms. Otani said; they had many ideas and their own views on a wide range of issues affecting their rights and wider human rights issues, and children human rights defenders were no longer invisible.  Children’s involvement and participation in the whole process of the Day of General Discussion would make a mark in the history of child rights that had begun three decades ago with the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Ms. Otani concluded.

Akanksha (15), Member of the Children’s Advisory Team from Canada, stressed that children around the world should be free from any kind of injustice regardless of their race, gender and religion, and regretted that, for many children, this was not true.  It was a task and responsibility of children human rights defenders and the society to work together to change that.  Social media made it easier to express opinion, get in contact with other children human rights defenders around the world, and find out about cases of violation of children’s rights around the world.  When children were given platforms to express their opinion, it made the children human rights defenders more empowered and important, Akanasha said, adding that the Day of General Discussion gave importance to children all around the world.  Children should continue to be empowered because they were the future of the world.

Kurt (16), Member of the Children’s Advisory Team from Argentina, in his statement, drew attention to the lack of equality of children around the world with their rights gravely violated in different crisis areas of the world, and said that this was why children’s participation should be promoted, despite treats including death threats, and being forced to change schools for defending the rights of their peers, as was the case with Kurt.  Many children did not have access to basic services, such as healthcare, food, water, education, or electricity, and even in the developed countries, the views of the children were not being listened to.  If the world were to see the problems with the eyes of the child, half of them would be solved and the other half would not exist at all.

Mazidath (17), Member of the Children’s Advisory Team from Benin, said that, from an early age, she had known she was different from other children, and that her difficult childhood had made her take interest in the rights of children.  Mazidath stressed the important role of schools in protecting and supporting children human rights defenders and emphasized the critical importance of including the rights of the child in school curricula, to educate school children, out-of-school children, and parents on children’s rights.  For children, she continued, schools were the second home, and they played a crucial role in the promotion and protection of the rights of the child; they should be open for outside institutions that advocated children’s rights, and should be creating such institutions on their own.  If it were not for the support of her school, Mazidath would not be here, participating in the Day of General Discussion.

The Day of General Discussion then continued in three working groups and hubs on a range of topics.

Concluding Plenary: Sharing the key learning and recommendations

At the beginning of the plenary, the participants heard from Rapporteurs of the three working groups, who provided overview of discussions, conclusions and recommendations.

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Member and Rapporteur for the Online Space Working Group, said that the group had addressed technology issues in the context of political decision-making, and as a tool to break down the barriers of communication, as well as the intergenerational gap on this issue.  Technology created possibilities that were not present before, enabling geographically isolated people to connect to others, and States should learn from best practices of other States, for example the empowerment through digital media in Brazil, where it was used to inform, engender debate, and provide feedback to the Government, or the Council of Europe new guidelines on the right of the child in the digital environment.  Further, children should be allowed to reach out to decision-makers and make them listen, which was often more powerful.  The Conventions and guidelines on the rights of the child must be accessible to children, and social media was a great way to spread messages.  Children must be able to carry out their own initiatives and create their own platform to avoid less reliable ones, the participants noted, raising concern about the respect of children’s privacy online.  Children must learn to empower themselves for their own protection and must be able to use their own judgment in this regard. 

The group also discussed the role of information and communication technologies for the rights of indigenous children, who used online space to keep their language and culture, for example by creating apps in their native tongue.  Many ideas had been expressed on online space and children with disabilities: the use of the Internet brought solutions to promote their rights, to communicate and to associate – the right to form online groups was extremely important for them because it was sometimes the only way to organize.  All information must be accessible in the different online formats, recommended the Working Group and all children with disabilities must be able to communicate with each other, regardless of their disability.  Finally, online spaces were an opportunity to meet face to face with Heads of State, for example.  Therefore, time spent online should be used more productively, with safeguards always in place to protect children from online bullying.

BENYAM DAWIT MEZMUR, Committee Member and Rapporteur for the State Actors Working Group, stated that the inputs received from delegates were both powerful and brave.  Delegates discussed a range of issues, including the participation of child human rights defenders, the role of legislators in ensuring children’s rights, and the role of ombudspersons for national human rights.  Participants discussed what was not working, but also what worked well and what could be further built on.  They noted that only a few countries that were signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child had specific laws in place on protecting child human rights defenders.  The discussion showed that the participation of children in public affairs was rich, and included participation in child parliaments, school councils, as well as drama groups, which were all powerful forces in promoting these rights.

Child human right defenders in armed conflicts, both in full-fledged wars, but also in wars on drugs, faced dangers that were often not recognized, and sometimes faced multiple forms of discrimination. And i was important that those different layers of discrimination were understood.  The mantra “nothing about us without us” should be applied to children’s rights as well.  Some of the testimonies were very emotional; many children around the world did not enjoy their rights.  Education was paramount in correcting that problem.  In addition, there was a need to empower children with disabilities who could fall between the cracks.  Another strong theme in the discussions was that voting was a powerful force.  In that vein, speakers underlined the need to connect regional, national and international dots.  Most importantly, they reiterated the emphasis on children as agents of change.  The children who spoke during the session left one message:  they would continue defending their rights, not only from the point of view of disabilities, but also from the point of view of children’s rights.

ANN MARIE SKELTON, Committee Member and Rapporteur for the Non-State Actors Working Group, explained that the working group discussed the freedom of speech and violence in schools.  Community was a place where children could have a good impact.  Children human rights defenders could help others by holdings street protests or parades, or through theatre in their local communities.  On businesses and donors, it was noted that there were bad and good examples of businesses in relation to children – not all businesses set out to harm children and children had enormous power as buyers of goods and could refuse buying from businesses that violated children’s human rights.  The Working Group also discussed the empowerment through the Committee on the Rights of the Child monitoring and reporting, as well as empowerment through transitional justice and the four pillars of truth, justice, reparation and non-recurrence; girls as human rights defenders, where some issues were tough to talk about, but they were never too young to lead and never too old to learn; and environmental children human rights defenders. 

BERNAD GASTAUD, Committee Expert, noted that the best way of defending children and their defenders boiled down to implementing what was in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and specifically what was set out in article 12.  That meant holding discussions on the topic regionally, nationally and internationally.  The commitment as human rights defenders should incorporate three elements.  First, it should be a free choice for those taking part.  Secondly, children needed to defend their rights in a safe environment, which was not the case in many countries.  Finally, children’s rights defenders needed to receive specific and comprehensive information in order to take part in decision-making in the full knowledge of the facts.  The role of adults was also important, given their knowledge, and they could help facilitate those discussions, as long as children selected the themes.  However, adults must be creative in their approach to that work.

MICHAEL FORST, United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders, reminded States of all the provisions contained in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and that it applied to children human rights defenders as well, and said that his upcoming report would include a specific chapter would be devoted to young human rights defenders.  Recommendations for young human rights defenders was to be gender sensitive and attentive to those working in sex and reproductive rights, and other sensitive topics.  It was not an individual work; it was a joint effort of various stakeholders, such as media, business sector and academia.  It would be a start of the process and they would surely meet to see how today’s recommendations became tomorrow’s reality.  Lastly, the issue of reprisals was an important issue.  If children human rights defenders were ever threatened, they should turn to the United Secretary-General who would use all the means necessary to protect them.

LUIS ERNESTO PEDERNERA REYNA, Committee Expert, thanked the participating children for their contribution and their concerns, which included violence, discrimination, and various education issues, and stressed that children human rights defenders did not want to simply be protagonists in those stories – they cared about the struggle for a decent life for others.  For some time now, the Committee had been listening to what children said, and that approach had made a massive impression on the Committee.  Taking the words from a former director of the United Nations Children’s Fund – “Democracy is good for children, but children are better for democracy” it could be said that the Committee on the Rights of the Child was good for children, and that children were better for the Committee.

ARIADNA (15), Member of the Children’s Advisory Team from the Republic of Moldova, said that children human rights defenders in the Republic of Moldova believed in healthy and happy childhood for all children, with the proactive work on part of the police, families and the Government.  They were proud and not afraid to speak and address something that they did not agree with.  They were not willing to wait until they turned 18.  The Day of General Discussion was a perfect opportunity to express the power of their voice in front of important people.

DIANA (15), Member of the Children’s Advisory Team from El Salvador, noted that sometimes, children who had gone through difficult situations and had survived them emerged stronger and more empowered.  Therefore, children should be listened to and not dismissed because they were children.  All children should be aware of their rights, it empowered them.  The role of child human rights defender was important because people were listening to what children were saying.  In school, in the community, and across the world, people often did not know the rights of children, which meant that they also did not know about broader human rights.

SAMEER (13), Member of the Children’s Advisory Team from Pakistan, said that the Day of General Discussion was an opportunity to urge State parties to seriously consider developing plans and strategies to empower children so they would be able to act as informed children human rights defenders.  There was also a dire need to push State parties to take affirmative actions to create safe spaces for children where they could express their views wilfully and without fear or hesitation about matters related to their lives.

HANS BRATTSKAR, Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations Office at Geneva and discussion moderator, said in concluding remarks that participants’ comments made it clear that the Day of General Discussion had been a very productive.  For Norway, the protection of human rights defenders of all ages was an important priority.  All the participants had given the Committee a lot to reflect on in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. And had provided many good ideas on how to better protect and empower children as human rights defenders.

For use of the information media; not an official record 

CRC18.028E