In Europe we believe our children are privileged and well protected, unlike those in developing countries. In reality we have much to do to make that true. Brian Milne discusses.
I have never before introduced my specialist professional field here on Europa United pages, but I have good reason. Wednesday, 20 November was what is known as Universal Children’s Day. It should not be confused with what is known as Children’s Day. That began on the second Sunday of June 1857 by a pastor, Charles Leonard, in Chelsea, Massachusetts held a special service devoted to and for the children. To confuse matters further there is also International Children’s Day that began in Turkey on 23 April 1920 that was adopted by in the World Conference for the Well-being of Children in Geneva in 1925. Children’s Day was first celebrated worldwide in October 1955, sponsored by the International Union for Child Welfare in Geneva and celebrated on 1 June in about 50 countries. Universal Children’s Day is, as said, celebrated annually on 20 November. It is now observed to promote the objectives outlined in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child that was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN on 20 November 1959. To celebrate 20 years of the Declaration it was suggested a binding convention be drawn up; drafting of which began in 1979. Ten years later the UN unanimously adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 20 November 1989, the celebration of 30 years of the Declaration. It was then opened for signatures and ratifications, with the condition that in accordance with article 49(1) CRC it would enter into force immediately after the twentieth ratification, which was on 2 September 1990.
Since 20 November 1989 196 UN member states have ratified to become states party to the CRC, thus adopting it into their legal systems. The web page (https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx) that provides full details of accessions also shows that 140 states are signatories. In fact, 55 of the 196 states proceeded directly to ratification, however one member state of the UN still remains to ratify and is one of the most unlikely to do so, the USA.
Here it is necessary to be autobiographical to explain how I became involved. In the 1980s I was already well aware of the progress of drafting. I knew some of the UK people in the drafting committee and the NGO Group rapporteur was a friend. My own work had started with child and youth migration in South America that drew me into specialising in the area of street children. I am an anthropologist, not a lawyer, so by instinct international legislation should always have been of far less interest. However, I spent time living on the streets and in some of the poorest shanty settlements. I saw far more rights issues around me than simply the need for those for children. My partner at that time specialised in the study of working children, most often called ‘child labour’, and with street children mainly working in one sense or another I became involved in that to a point. Through that I came into contact with working children’s organisations that were run by them or with but not by adults. I was also beginning to travel more widely in the world and came into such organisations elsewhere. One of their greatest concerns has always been their rights. So there I was.
My partner and I co-wrote a book in 1988 whilst the CRC drafting was still ongoing. It was published just ahead of the completion and then adoption of the CRC, therefore sold well and became successful. As time went on I gradually left fieldwork, becoming more widely involved with other forms of work that included advocacy. I already knew that it was part of the wider human rights field; therefore personally use the expression children’s human rights unlike most people who pigeonhole it as ‘children’s rights’. It also drew me into the wider human rights arena. The CRC is overseen by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, something that provided some of us with hope that the CRC would work. Over time I have known several members of that committee, including two of the chairpersons, very well. Each of the 196 states party is required to report to the committee periodically. I used to receive Swiss Post sacks of paper versions of the reports, comments to the countries and further exchanges. After a few years I had a ‘mountain’ of paper but flagging optimism. The committee has at times worked hard to persuade countries to do better, indeed to comply with what they had adopted into their own legal systems. There is, however, no enforcement body of any kind that can do more to see countries respond and act on what the committee recommends.
So my partner and I discussed writing a reprise to our 1989 book to measure progress after 20 years up until 2009, that then became the 25 years, but she died before we could start working to put our notes and ideas together. I wrote that book alone, using her notes and ideas of course. I was not unduly hard on the world, but I was not gentle either. I used many things from her work, but also from my own observations. It was not the only critical thing I wrote, there were chapters in other books and articles. At first I was always met with silence, but some years on I find I have something of a following that still raises interesting questions. By that time I was already researching citizenship, of course mainly children but because of the issue broadly into all ages and issues. Part of that enquiry stemmed back to my involvement with children’s organisations that gave me insights into their participation in civil society, something that is included in the CRC although all but hijacked into a limited meaning that was organised and overseen by adults who showed children how to participate.
All of that has what to do with Europa United’s remit, which is broadly speaking Europe and matters that affect our continent? I have a simple answer. If I was to reprise the two books referred to, I would go back to the format of the first. It included cases studies of 12 developing countries, what we called the Third World back then. Now I would replace those 12 case studies with an examination of a sample of European, specifically EU, nations. Why?
When one looks at children in Europe on the surface it looks idyllic. It is not. We must look at poverty that is on the increase. The UK (still in the EU at present) has over four million and is increasing according to a number of very reliable NGO sources, at least two thirds of them are in working families, thus telling us how poverty is not just a question that we raise in reference to unemployed and sometimes homeless families. There are homeless children, a very few are occasionally on the streets with family members and a few go out alone to live and survive without shelter and a protected environment. There is still a greater degree of abuse than seems apparent, simpler things like corporal punishment that are outlawed legally are still practiced by parents, other carers and teachers with only consequences when the outcome is extreme or tragic. There is, of course, much more, with sexual abuse being the line at which the vast majority of people stop to think and are shocked. Children are trafficked, they are effectively slaves who may be bought and sold for any number of uses and abuses, and some are adopted abroad then trafficked in to EU member states. There are refugee and asylum seeking children, some of them unaccompanied, many irretrievably separated from family or even orphaned. Beyond the prejudice those children suffer there is racial, religious and cultural prejudice – for instance, children from Roma communities are still as reviled as they were centuries ago although their once travelling families may have been settled for many years and had perhaps by then not crossed national borders for long. Children still work, often illegally and unseen and may be exploited in other ways. There is also bullying that is dismissed as children doing what they have always done, there is neglect that often goes unnoticed, all in all the list is long.
What I have seen in my time in poor countries where such things are ‘expected’ is present in Europe and there I doubt any country is entirely guilt free. At least some of those, and many other, things may happen to them. So, yes it is a topic for us too. As with all human rights, what is done to our fellow human beings that is wrong is unjust, because Europe looks generally more affluent than other parts of the world does not mean that that is any more than superfluous. Therefore, when 20 November comes round each time I reflect on what it means and what it really celebrates, thus finding the word celebrate entirely inappropriate. If what I say shocks, then that is my intention. What we see around us on our continent is not that which we may seek, but having found it we must act to change.