20th November is the United Nations’ Universal Children’s Day. It is celebrated each year to promote awareness of children’s rights and improving children’s welfare. This year, Universal Children’s Day had particular significance, as 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the UN General Assembly adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989.
In this anniversary year, Doughty Street Chambers’ Children’s Rights Group launched its annual Children’s Rights Lecture, delivered by Professor Geraldine Van Bueren QC.
The lecture was followed by a panel discussion in response, chaired by Lord Kerr, Justice of the Supreme Court, and featuring Doughty Street's Aswini Weereratne QC and Jamie Burton, as well as Solange Valdez-Symonds, Director of the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens.
On its 30th Anniversary, Van Bueren asked "What are the new challenges for the Convention on the Rights of the Child?”
Climate change and eradicating child poverty were the two biggest challenges, according to Van Bueren, who helped to draft the UNCRC 30 years ago. As a junior barrister, she was one of the youngest drafters, but "positively ancient" compared to Greta Thunberg and the 15 other children who recently filed a landmark official complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to protest lack of government action on the climate crisis.
The complaint was filed through the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention, a voluntary mechanism which allows children or adults on their behalf to appeal directly to the United Nations for help if a country that has ratified the Protocol fails to provide a remedy for a rights violation. "An essential legal tool in child protection", the Third Protocol provides a "valuable safety net" for children, enabling them to bring complaints to ensure that their rights are guaranteed, said Van Bueren. Notably, the UK has refused to ratify the Third Protocol, despite having ratified the Convention itself in 1991.
So, can the UNCRC be effectively used to help combat climate change? "This was not something that was discussed when drafting it," said Van Bueren. "The Convention does not include the words 'climate change' or 'global warming' or even 'biodiversity'."
But the UNCRC is still applicable, she argued. International treaties are designed to be sufficiently flexible; they are "living instruments". What is required to meet the rights of children, said Van Bueren, is more imaginative and positive reading of the UNCRC: "Losing the benefits of a healthy eco-system affects a child's rights to food and clean drinking water", for example.
On how the UNCRC can be used to tackle child poverty and address the "growing inequality between poorer and wealthier children living in the UK", Van Bueren queried why the UK had not yet incorporated the UNCRC into domestic law, as this may help to address the "resistance to using international law to eradicate child poverty".
Van Bueren thought that the resistance from lawyers and judges to protecting the socio-economic rights of children is caused in part by such rights being "wrongly regarded as a radical departure from British traditional approaches".
To meet new challenges, we need to look backwards, argued Van Bueren, pointing out that children's socio-economic rights are not new and do not derive solely from "the global and foreign": they have been rooted in the history of England and Wales since the 13th century.
Carta de Foresta (or the Charter of the Forest) 1217 - Magna Carta's lesser known sister - established the right to wood, honey, herbs, flowers and access to basic healthcare. Carta de Foresta "laid the foundations for child and adult social entitlement the same way Magna Carta laid the foundations for civil and political entitlements", said Van Bueren.
With that in mind, "the socio-economic rights of children are not foreign," said Van Bueren. "They are English and Welsh", which enhances the case for incorporation of the UNCRC into domestic law, she argued.
"When we drafted the Convention 30 years ago, we thought it would be a vehicle for children to stand up for their rights; a vehicle for children to show all of us the way," concluded Van Bueren. "Children are now showing us the way. And it is up to us in consultation with them to provide them with the necessary legal tools."
Lord Kerr, who chaired the panel discussion after the first annual Children's Rights Lecture, described Van Bueren's words as "inspiring, enlightening and sometimes depressing".
"It is useful to have events like to this to remind ourselves of the need to invest in our children as the future inheritors of our planet," said Lord Kerr.
“Thirty years ago, world leaders made a historic commitment to the world’s children by adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Today, the world’s children are holding the world accountable to that commitment,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Charlotte Petri Gornitzka. “We fully support children exercising their rights and taking a stand. Climate change will impact every single one of them. It’s no wonder they are uniting to fight back.”