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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan     

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Part I: A turning point in history, a source of Canada’s pride

What prompted me back to this topic was the news my granddaughter, Kailani, shared at a recent family gathering. She was elected as representative of her Grade 7 Class to her school’s Human Rights Team. Not only was it pleasing to hear of her extra-curricular participation in this venue, but also it was exciting to learn of the existence of such special team on their campus.

I would be remiss if I did not write to share my three reasons why adults should applaud such a school program for children:

First, it would give young students the educational forum to consciously think of human rights as the essence of our collective humanity and to be engaged in respectful dialogues and conversations on the issue. Second, it would help instil in them during their developmental years that adults at home and in the school community have confidence in their talents, insights and capacities for public good. Third, it could only inspire them to network and partner with peers within and outside their campus, knowing that their viewpoints on diagnosing breaches of human rights involving children and insights on solutions would be valued and, thereby empower them to be vigilant.

Inspiration and historic path to UN Convention

The 20th of November is celebrated as National Child Day in Canada and Universal Children’s Day worldwide to help sustain awareness of two United Nations’ initiatives adopted on that day and month 30 years apart: (1) the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1959 and (2) the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on November 20, 1989.

The historic path to the adoption of today’s UNCRC started in 1923 when Eglantyne Jebb – a school teacher and lifelong social activist who was deeply touched by the horrifying effects of war on children – stood at the forefront and “asserted the rights of children and the duty of the international community to put children’s rights in the forefront of planning.” She drafted the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which reads (formatting and minor editing mine): “The child must be:

  1. given the means requisite for her/his normal development, both materially and spiritually;
  2. fed when hungry;
  3. nursed when sick;
  4. helped when backward;
  5. reclaimed when delinquent;
  6. sheltered when orphaned and abandoned;
  7. the first to receive relief in times of distress;
  8. put in a position to earn a livelihood;
  9. protected against every form of exploitation; and
  10. brought up in the consciousness that her/his talents must be devoted to the service of her/his fellow citizens.”

Jebb’s ideas and criteria “were adopted in Geneva by the International Save the Children Union on February 23, 1923; endorsed by the League of Nations on November 26, 1924; subsequently adopted by the United Nations soon after its founding; and expanded as its own UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child on November 20, 1959.” It played a pivotal role during the adoption three decades later on November 20, 1989 of the present-day UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Deservingly, we can identify Eglantyne Jebb as the inspirational Founder of the UN Convention.

Twin inspiring messages from father and daughter

Here I recall one paperback book on human rights, Human Rights Centered Development: Theory and Practice by Maria Socorro I. Diokno, 2004, and, in particular, the author’s inspiring message in her preface: “Sixteen years ago, my father passed away. He taught me much about human rights, instilled in me a deep and abiding faith in our people’s talents, capacities and strengths. He urged me always to ‘bring my talents to full flower, not to make a perfect world, just a better one’.” The author graduated with honours from the University of the Philippines with the degree Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Communication.

And I would also like to share this equally inspiring quote from the author’s late father, Jose W. Diokno, Senator and Founding Chairman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights: “No cause is more worthy than the cause of human rights. Human rights are more than legal concepts: they are the essence of man. They are what make man human. That is why they are called human rights: deny them, and you deny man’s humanity.”

Children’s humanity denied

Imagine the boys and girls lured into prostitution, used for pornography, and up for sale as though only mere possessions at one’s disposal.

Imagine the boys and girls subjected “to systematic arrest, detention and torture; to recruitment into the armed forces, civil militia and a variety of other armed groups; to life imprisonment without parole; and to the death penalty.”

Imagine the boys and girls thirsting for knowledge yet unable to get schooling, hungry for food yet find none, and looking for shelter yet find no home.

You would say in horror and great disbelief ‘These simply cannot be true!’

Sadly, these circumstances are worldwide realities, not mere figments of imagination. Yes, there are countries in the world where these cruel practices are pursued; where the children’s helplessness and age-dependent maturity are not considered; and where their resiliency for rehabilitation is not taken into account. And yes, there are areas even in Canada and in the Philippines where lack of educational opportunities and poverty – removable barriers to human aspiration and existence – still prevail.

Fortunately, hope continues to breathe life. There are a good number of philanthropists and benefactors and countless volunteers who give of their wealth, talents, effort and time – in their own unique ways – to help alleviate and improve the sad state of affairs for many of the world’s children. The Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children (CCRC), “a network of Canadian organizations and individuals who promote respect for the rights of children,” is Canada’s key non-governmental organization committed to such a cause and plays a vital role by providing educational materials about the UNCRC, monitoring compliance and engaging “in dialogue with government officials on child rights issues.”

Global leaders, if true to their office, need visit their conscience and pay dutiful attention to the well being of their nation’s children – the future of any nation’s survival – with the end in view of creating policies and programs to help promote and protect children’s rights and thereby affirm the humanity of our children.

A historic point and source of national pride

In a sense, world leaders through their respective ambassadors to the United Nations had recognized the plight of children and chosen to protect their rights on November 20, 1989. That historic date saw the birth of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as an international human rights treaty when the UN General Assembly stamped its unanimous approval. This was a turning point in history – six decades and six years after Eglantyne Jebb stood at the forefront – and a source of deep national pride for all Canadians since Canada played a key role in drafting and championing the UN Convention, which defines a child “as any human being under the age of eighteen, unless the age of majority is attained earlier under a state’s own domestic legislation.” Most member countries of the UN, except for one or two, have since ratified the document, which came into force on September 2, 1990.

Next issue: Part II: Principles, spectrum, achievements and Canada’s standing today.

Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan is a retired Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health and former cabinet minister and Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Rights. He has been the recipient of awards and honours including the honorary Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science, the Philippine Presidential Citation Pamana ng Pilipino Award, and the Governor-General Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.

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