Rights of the child

By Brian Low

Last Sunday marked the 10 year anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The fact it promotes basic human rights for children may explain why the vast majority of states signed it. It fails to explain, however, why so many do little to implement it.

The convention is an international treaty designed to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. It includes measures that ban the recruitment of soldiers under the age of 15, for example, and governments have an obligation to provide free and compulsory primary education.

Some of the signatories to the treaty appear to pay only lip service to the idea of protecting children. Sierra Leone, for example, continues to recruit child soldiers for its "Civilian Defence Forces." The Democratic Republic of Congo has recruited and used soldiers as young as seven in the civil war it has fought for the last few years. Its armed forces apparently contain several thousand "Kadogo,"–the term used for the child soldiers. Man, you know you’ve got a problem when you invent special terms to refer to the minors in your army. And you’ve got to wonder about the legitimacy of any government that thinks it’s okay to give seven-year-olds guns and send them to kill the enemy. In this case, the "enemy" is other Congolese.

One of the key ways Western governments ignore their convention commitments is through the arms trade. Statistically speaking, over 45 per cent of the casualties of modern warfare are children. This is up from some 3-5 percent 50 years ago. Any country that seriously takes its responsibility to protect a child’s right to a secure, nurturing environment and protection against physical harm has to look at the impact of its arms sales. Simply put, some countries fight dirtier wars than others and, as a result, kill more children. When the West sells arms to places like Sierra Leone or Congo and do not keep track of what happens to them, it violates the basic principles of the convention and act as virtual accomplices to the wholesale slaughter of innocents. Action needs to be taken.

Countries recruiting and arming children, or selling large quantities of arms need to get it together. So do we. Even within Canada, there are problems when it comes to children’s rights. Canadian legislation allows parents, teachers and persons "standing in the place of a parent" to use corporal punishment against children, even though physical punishment was strongly linked to physical abuse.

Section 43 of the Criminal Code allows "reasonable force" to be used against children. This provision was used to justify one child being punched in the face, and another being pushed down a flight of stairs by adults. Heaven knows how many useful things a child can learn while falling down stairs. Children are the only category of persons in Canada who can be subject to physical assault without due process. Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

Ten years ago we created the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ten years later, it’s about time that we did something about it.

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