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RIGHTS: Despite Landmark Treaty, Children Still Under Siege

Thalif Deen

HIROSHIMA, May 26 2008 (IPS) - The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which came into force in September 1990, has been described as a landmark treaty ensuring the human rights of the world’s 2.2 billion children.

But despite the fact the treaty has been ratified by all of the world’s governments – with the exception of the United States and Somalia – about 218 million children still suffer the worst forms of child labour, while 250,000 to 300,000 have been forcibly pressed into military service as child soldiers.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF says that nearly half the estimated 3.6 million people killed in military conflicts since 1990 were children.

But the escalating violence against children has continued irrespective of the fact the UNCRC obligates states parties to protect children from all forms of violence.

Although the United States and Somalia have failed or refused to ratify the treaty for political or other reasons, 193 countries have pledged to protect the world’s mostly beleaguered children.

“Regrettably, the impressive endorsements given to these rights through nice statements or even legal instruments is insufficiently translated into reality by most governmental institutions,” says Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, commissioner and rapporteur on the rights of children at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Organisation of American States.

Despite all the commitments on paper, he pointed out, there are many who portray child rights as a “soft topic” in the human rights agenda, somehow not deserving the same attention given to more polemic issues.

“This truly constrains the effectiveness of any initiative tackling violence against children,” said Sergio Pinheiro, who also authored a comprehensive U.N. report on violence against children in October 2006.

In his study, he said that no violence against children is justifiable – and all violence against children is preventable.

Addressing the third forum of the Tokyo-based Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) in Hiroshima over the weekend, he pointed out that where violence is occurring, early detection mechanisms must be in place and victims must be provided with necessary assistance.

The Arigatou Foundation of Japan, the organisers of the Hiroshima Forum, is convinced the time has come for the world’s religious institutions, and all those who profess religious faith, to come forward and join hands in this global fight to alleviate the suffering of children and promote their well-being.

Since its founding in May 2000, GNRC has emerged as an important global alliance of religious organisations and people of faith committed to interfaith dialogue and action aimed at improving the lives of children.

One of the themes of the Hiroshima Forum, currently underway, is “the ethical imperative to end violence against children.”

A discussion paper released here says that violence is far too often justified in the name of religion. But religion is abused when it is made a reason for staging wars and armed conflicts.

In his study, described as the first global study on all forms of violence against children, Sergio Pinheiro says that violence against children is possibly one of the most invisible and prevalent forms of violence because it remains unregistered and unpunished, being sometimes even condoned by society under the guise of discipline or tradition.

The inadequacy of justice and security systems, and the pretexts of privacy or of an incontestable adult authority over children are used to shield perpetrators and keep violence against children insulated by walls of silence, he points out.

The study also asserts that violence against children takes a variety of forms and is influenced by a wide range of factors, from the personal characteristics of the victim and perpetrator to their social, cultural, and physical environments.

Sergio Pinheiro also says that economic development, social status, age and gender are among the many factors associated with the risk of violence.

Although the consequences of violence may vary according to its nature and severity, the short- and long-term repercussions are very often grave and damaging.

Based on these findings, the study makes 12 overarching recommendations to strengthen the protection of children from violence. These recommendations focus on government responsibility across the very wide range of sectors relevant to the various forms of violence and settings in which violence occurs, and encourage actions with other partners.

Many of the recommendations have been heard before, he said, but never before have the various sectors and issues been brought together in a unifying framework for action.

On the positive side, a number of countries have formulated new laws or amended existing laws to prohibit violence against children.

At least seven countries in eastern and southern Africa – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia – have passed or drafted new legislation with a specific focus on sexual violence.

And five countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – have reformed their juvenile justice laws to make detention a measure of last resort.

Only 19 states globally have legal instruments prohibiting all forms of corporal punishment, but many others have committed to improving their legislation.

At the grassroots level, GNRC Africa has succeeded in promoting non-violent values and awareness in Tanzania, Somalia, and in parts of northern Kenya. In several countries in the region, children and youth have been empowered to become “ambassadors of peace” under the auspices of a string of “peace clubs”.

Sergio Pinheiro says more than one year after his study was released, there were indications that this process was helping to raise global awareness of the plight of child victims of violence. Audiences in international, regional and national organisations acknowledge the prevalence of the problem and reaffirm the commitment to eliminate it.

“A central challenge ahead is to convert the different recommendations proposed by the study into practical strategies which are relevant to the diverse realities that exist around the world,” he added.

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