United Nations General Assembly
Special Session on Children, 8-10 May 2002
Ad Hoc Committee of the Whole
New York 9 May 2002
by Mr. Helmut Sax, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, Vienna and Mrs. Claudia Stangl-Taller, Representative of the Conference of Children and Youth Ombudspersons of Austria
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This United Nations Special Session is a special one, indeed, distinct from many previous United Nations conferences, and for good reasons. It is not just a Special Session on Children, but, with children. Much too often, young people are just objects of adults' discussions and decisions, not actively involved subjects - they are talked about, but not talked to.
This meeting is different, and despite certain limitations in an UN setting, the participatory approach adopted here reflects one of the most fundamental principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the right to participation: the right to have a say, the right to be listened to, the right to have an impact as a young person.
Protecting children's rights means, first of all, to respect the child as a competent, curious, sometimes noisy, love-seeking individual; and it places each and every girl and boy, kid and teenager, into the centre of our attention: of parents, of teachers and of society at large, not to tolerate any more corporal punishment, discrimination of girl children, sex tourism, economic exploitation.
But attention for children is not enough. We are speaking of rights, human rights of children and adolescents, rooted in their personal dignity as equal human beings. The street child being arbitrarily arrested and tortured, the girl being raped by her own father - no child has to earn" her or his human rights first, behave well first, and be awarded" rights afterwards.
The essence of human rights, of children's rights lies in empowerment - to claim these rights and to enforce them. States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have voluntarily entered into binding legal obligations to implement, to realise those commonly agreed standards already 13 years ago for all children and adolescents. It is no longer a charity matter only to care for children, to support them, to enable them - it requires States to fully assume their legal responsibilities. The Convention on the Rights of the Child might be the most widely ratified treaty in the world, but it could also be argued to be the most widely under-estimated treaty in the world, in terms of the comprehensive challenge these obligations create for any society, in the northern and southern hemisphere alike.
Now, the Plan of Action we are going to adopt here at this UN Special Session will create fresh momentum and provide additional guidance on how to realise the Convention's standards for all young people: by setting clear priority objectives and by listing detailed measures for implementation. Therefore, it is important to stress that this Plan of Action must be integrated into any country's process of realisation of the rights of the child.
In this context I would like to highlight one specific requirement for meaningful implementation: to ensure adequate, sufficiently funded child-focused infrastructure and mechanisms. Central to this is the establishment of an institutionalised "children's lobby", in particular the establishment of ombudspersons for children and adolescents in every country. Together with non-governmental organisations, academic institutions and other actors of civil society, they independently monitor the situation of young people and provide individual support, information and counselling to them.
In Austria, we are proud of being among the first countries in the world to have established a comprehensive system of ombudspersons in every Austrian province - my colleague here, she has worked as a child and youth ombudsperson for years already in our country.
Before passing on to her, I would like to address one more important, but often neglected aspect of implementation: research and training on children's rights. Personally, I am a child rights researcher at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, an academic human rights and training institute in Austria. From my experience, I may state that there is a strong need for further child-focused research and academic co-operation. This includes empirical studies, multidisciplinary child impact analysis and legal research, particularly in the field of economic and social rights, which are of utmost relevance to children. Even the right to play, as guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is more than just a nice provision about children having fun. Indeed, it is a legal right of its own, with broad corresponding obligations by the state in terms of availability, quality and accessibility of leisure, sports or cultural activities.
And in order to raise the level of awareness of these rights, training is fundamental for all professionals working with children and adolescents, and for young people themselves. Therefore, child rights education should form an integral part of school curricula, based on concepts of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, such as respect for the individuals' identity, non-discrimination, participation and peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Coming from a European country, we, finally, would like to draw your attention to one of the most serious child rights challenges we are facing in our region - the treatment of refugee children. Representing the Austrian Conference of Children and Youth Ombudspersons I would like to refer to our principal Position Paper on the issue of refugee children.
First of all, and in line with all refugee organisations, there was consensus that there should be no detention pending deportation for any unaccompanied minor refugee! It is simply unacceptable to take into custody children or adolescents seeking refuge and help, whose only "offence" is fleeing to a European country.
On the contrary, they should be provided any assistance needed, as guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For this purpose - and this is another priority issue, not only in Austria - there is an urgent need for setting up and maintaining Refugee Clearing-Centres adequate for children and adolescents. Particularly, unaccompanied minor refugees shall receive adequate first assistance and support until further whereabouts are cleared up.
In Austria, we finally succeeded in establishing six Clearing-Centres since 2001. Child refugees receive intensive social and medical care, legal assistance and access to German-language-courses and education. However, currently these centres are still pilot projects; so, it is essential to establish them on a permanent and adequately funded basis. Yet, the continuity of the support is also of prime importance, and appropriate follow-up programmes have to be developed for refugee children after the initial three-month clearing period.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Refugee children need "protective islands", yet all children need our hands cupping around them!
Thank you for your attention.