Why do some people find child rights a turn-off?

Maggie Atkinson
Monday, July 7, 2014

England's children's commissioner Maggie Atkinson on the importance of children's rights.

Our work to promote and protect children's rights is done increasingly in partnerships. Representatives from the Office of the Children's Commissioner and I meet officials and ministers from across government, local government and its partners, the police, NHS and other public services. We know from what they say that we influence how they think. Such exchange of knowledge and expertise is mutual. Everybody gains, including children and young people whose rights we are all championing.

As well as leading our own work on behalf of children, we input into that of others such as thinktanks, task forces, forums and roundtables. Throughout this activity, there are many points of clear, solid consensus about what we all ought to be saying and doing in our own spheres of influence to get children's issues noticed and properly taken into account. Then there are moments when our response is, to enter the vernacular for a moment, "Yer WHAT? Did I hear you right a moment ago? Just run that one past me again!"

We have had a few of these moments of incredulity lately. There is a general mood in politics and society, and the services and organisations working for the good of children and young people. Heads have started to turn towards the general election in May next year. At the Commissioner's office, we are steered by our remit. We must be politically neutral and address the issue, not the philosophy or ideology that informs thinking. We speak to anybody with a potential or actual role in influencing policy.

Because the UK must have meant it when it signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, and because it's what the Convention explicitly says, we remind everybody of the duty of adults to secure, promote, protect and ensure the rights of the child.

Of late, we have had interesting conversations with people who we know understand that children hold rights under the Convention and that adults working with them are the bestowers of those rights.

Adult choice

Bestowing or withholding their rights – the latter being an active denial that children have them – is a deliberate, adult choice. It is a choice informed by limited resources. I understand it is a choice influenced by the fact that some quite important people and commentators are rather turned off by the very notion that children have rights.

Some find the notion deeply unpalatable that children have rights that cannot be removed and should not be denied and are guaranteed by a binding international treaty. I am delighted that I speak to others in the sector who are incredulous that there is even a quiet conversation going on that would turn the picture on children's rights both sepia and virtually silent, when we have come so far.

The current government has also committed to using the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as a lens through which policy will be judged. We remind them of that regularly, using hard evidence and informed by the voice of the child.

Growing numbers of people I meet, in politics and services, and those I see of all ages on my official travels as commissioner, accept the direct practical relevance of the UNCRC. We are waiting for a date for the State Party to be called to Geneva to defend progress since 2008 against the Convention.

There is nothing in it, or in taking a rights-based approach, that criticises or contradicts ANY political ideology or philosophy, or would contradict the potential content of any party's manifesto. Rather, how any future government ensures the rights of a quarter of the population will be key to the dignity and delivery of policy for years to come.

So we have to go on mentioning the UNCRC, raising the issues it raises, reminding people why it was written in the first place and why the UK signed and ratified it. Doing that, however uncomfortable it might be, is an active, deliberate, adult choice.

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