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Human Rights Review

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Follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, New York 1998

VII. Rights of the child

48. Millions of victims of human rights violations are children. Although the importance of protecting children is a matter of global consensus, children continue to be the most vulnerable sector of society, particularly in situations of conflict or other emergencies. Recognizing the enormous challenges in the protection of children's rights, the World Conference encouraged States to renew their commitment and dedication to safeguarding the dignity of all children, and to undertake measures for ensuring the survival, protection, development and participation of children. It also recommended that national and international mechanisms and programmes be strengthened to that end (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. I, para. 21; sect. II, paras. 45-53).

49. In response to the World Conference's call for its universal ratification by the year 1995, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has nearly achieved this goal (191 ratifications). This quasi-universal ratification of the Convention succeeded in reversing the traditional "invisibility" of children on the international agenda. Today, increased attention is paid in many countries to children and their status as human beings with full rights. Inter alia, this development has found its formal expression in legal reforms carried out by States Parties in conformity with the principles and norms of the Convention, which include the establishment of extraterritorial laws designed to punish those who engage in the sexual exploitation of children abroad, the prohibition of practices that harm the girl child, changes in the treatment of child refugee claimants and changes in family law such that the child's welfare is protected in situations of divorce. Such changes have an important impact on family attitudes, education policy, professionals working with and for children, the media and decision makers. The Convention on the Rights of the Child also served as an important guide for the adoption, by the Hague Conference on Private International Law, of new standards for the protection of children.

50. Achievements at the national level also include the creation of institutions set up specifically for the protection of children, such as ombudspersons for children; civil liberties commissions for the rights of the child; national programmes on the rights of the child, as well as child welfare societies; and the establishment of municipal youth councils. Improvements have been made in expanding access to health care and education. Steps have been taken to cut infant and maternal mortality. Since 1985, 2.5 million young lives have been saved through low-cost health programmes. There has also been a great increase in the proportion of girls enrolled in schools in developing countries. Seemingly simple initiatives can produce important results, as in the cases of placing children's libraries in local communities or organizing school lunch programmes.

51. In developing a system-wide approach to the rights of the child, OHCHR is cooperating closely with UNICEF, which has based its entire programme of activities on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In this framework, a plan of action to strengthen the implementation of the Convention is being implemented. The purpose of this plan, for which contributions from States parties to the Convention have been received, is to provide substantive support to the work of the Committee on the Rights of the Child with the States parties' reporting process, and to assist, where necessary, in transforming recommendations into reality through the provision of adequate resources, coordination with partners within the United Nations system and non-governmental organizations, as well as other follow-up.

52. In spite of the efforts already made, movement from commitment to action remains crucial for improving the lives of the world's two billion children. Negative effects of poverty and structural adjustment; high infant mortality rates; malnutrition; child trafficking, sexual exploitation and bonded labour; inadequate health services and poor school attendance; persistent discrimination and cultural practices that harm the girl child; insufficient supplies, access to or services for children in war zones; and a lack of recourse for the complaints of children: these are only some of the obstacles to be removed if the human rights of children are to be effectively protected.

53. Slavery continues to mark its scourge in the form of millions of child labourers, who are often themselves trafficked and sold into the most deplorable conditions. Lingering poverty and a lack of political will has forced millions of children into an existence marred by sexual slavery or ceaseless toils in unspeakable conditions. Children in these circumstances are abused and victimized, with little hope of a better future. The international community must do more to ban the most hazardous forms of child labour and guarantee universal primary education to all children. The Working Group of the Commission on Human Rights is continuing to draft an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. Reinforcement of existing efforts to prevent and combat the trafficking of women and children has become one of the main objectives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery was launched in 1991 to provide financial assistance to organizations that work in this area. However, only US$ 18,000 were available as of 31 August 1998. An estimated amount of US$ 130,000 per year is needed for the Fund to fulfil its mandate.

54. An intolerable status quo remains for children living in war-torn societies. In the past decade, some 2 million children have been killed, 4 to 5 million disabled, 1 million orphaned and 12 million left homeless (see UNICEF, 1997 Progress of Nations). Addressing this terrible legacy of violence for the child survivors of war zones should include the implementation of programmes that focus on the physical and mental rehabilitation of children who have suffered the consequences of war. Prevention demands the universal ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction. The practice of recruiting child soldiers into armies and militias must also be condemned. Finally, it is crucial that States seriously consider diverting military spending in favour of programmes that will improve the welfare of children. Special mention should be made of the study on the impact of armed conflict on children, undertaken at the request of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The study process and follow-up activities by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children in Armed Conflict have illustrated the effective interaction between international intergovernmental, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions in the area of children in especially difficult circumstances. After four sessions, the Working Group established by the Commission on Human Rights to draft an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict with a view to raising the minimum age of recruitment continues its work.

55. From the experience gathered by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its dialogue with Governments, a wide range of measures have been identified that would improve national implementation of the rights of the child. These include advice and assistance to Governments in respect of law reform, the establishment or strengthening of coordinating and monitoring mechanisms, awareness-raising and information campaigns on the Convention, education and training programmes, efforts to combat child exploitive labour and sexual exploitation, improving access to and the contents of education, and the administration of juvenile justice. A concerted effort is required among States, civil society and intergovernmental institutions in order to further initiatives that focus attention on children's issues. Ensuring the effective implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and maintaining the pledges made since the 1990 World Summit for Children and the Vienna Conference are global tasks. Children themselves should also be included in these efforts since they are the ones who must seize, nourish, defend and realize their rights for their generation and those to follow.

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