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Twenty Countries Join Forces to Strengthen Children’s Rights

Twenty countries have signed a new measure designed as a last resort for children when legal systems fail to protect their rights. The measure is the third optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), opened by the United Nations to signatures on February 28. It will go into effect once 10 of the signatories ratify it.

The protocol joins the CRC and two other protocols. Among the rights that these documents put forth are free primary education, adequate nutrition and freedom from violence.

Children from states that have ratified the CRC and the third optional protocol can present complaints to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, an international body of experts, if their rights under the CRC are violated. The protocol could have significant effects on Native children in Central and South America, where Peru, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica are signatories. There are around 10 million indigenous people in Peru, more than 600,000 in Brazil and 700,000 in Chile.

The other 15 signatories are Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Maldives, Mali, Montenegro, Morocco, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. These states must now ratify the convention by an internal process that is defined by each country. “This convention [the CRC] is the most widely ratified of all the human rights treaties, a powerful signal indeed of states’ commitment to the rights of their children,” said Lisa Myers, director of the NGO (non-governmental organization) Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, at a February 28 ceremony. “But for rights to have meaning, they must be supported by effective remedies when violations occur. States are already required to provide such remedies at [the] domestic level, but when these remedies fail, it is crucial that some method of international redress is available. This, above all else, is the key purpose of the new optional protocol.”

The United States ratified the first and second optional protocols, which address children in military conflicts and commercial and sexual exploitation of children. However, the U.S., Somalia and the new country of South Sudan are the only U.N. member nations that have not ratified the CRC. The U.S. participated in drafting the third optional protocol, but it has not yet signed. Anita Goh, advocacy officer at the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, who coordinated the international campaign for the third protocol, offered an example of how the protocol might function:

Suppose a country has ratified the third optional protocol and the CRC, but a national law forbids the use of certain minority languages in public places. According to the CRC, an indigenous child cannot be denied the right to use his or her own language. The child is thus in a position to bring a complaint to the country’s courts. If the courts decide to apply the national law prohibiting use of the language over the CRC, the child can now bring his case to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.

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So what can the committee do?

It can “provide very solid ground for civil society advocacy,” said Nicolette Moodie, liaison officer for the UNICEF global gender and human rights unit. Although the committee’s decisions are not legally binding, the group can refer cases back to national courts.

The notion of a child’s capacity to complain to an international group was fiercely debated, the U.N. said. Jean Zermatten, chair of the CRC, said that in theory children can complain directly to the committee.

“[But] in practice, the vast majority of the complaints are likely to be submitted by representatives of the child, by lawyers, parents and others.”

Moodie said that the complaint process would be conducted in writing, and that the CRC will be at work over the next year to develop procedures that are child-friendly and respectful of their rights.

“For the first time, when children are denied any of their rights, they will have the opportunity to seek a remedy before an international body,” Myers said. “When children are denied the right to a nationality, or even a name, when they are denied the right to freedom of expression, or when they are denied the right to protection from abuse, they will have an opportunity to seek redress.”