Governments first began recognizing that young people need special protection and rights in the 1800s.
This was the start of the industrial age, when children worked long days running massive and lethal machinery in airless factories. Their suffering, the frequent accidents, and the aftermath of maimed, dying and dead children caused distress to witnesses, embarrassment to the factory owners, and led to social activism and the start of child-labour laws in some jurisdictions.
But it wasn’t until after World War I that major advances were made in child rights internationally, largely due to the efforts of Eglantyne Jebb [1876-1928].
She was a dedicated humanitarian and social reformer from Great Britain, and an unmarried woman who did not enjoy the company of children. She took up the cause of children’s rights after seeing the devastation to civilian populations in Europe during the war years from 1914 to 1918 and after.
Quotes from Eglantyne Jebb
“It’s impossible only if we make it so. It’s impossible only if we refuse to attempt it.”
“All wars are waged against children.”
In 1923 she drafted a Declaration on the Rights of the Child and presented it to delegates attending the 4th annual assembly for the International Save the Children Union, an organization she helped to establish in 1919 with her sister Dorothy Buxton [now operating as Save the Children].
The delegates adopted the Declaration and the Union published it. Eglantyne Jebb then took the Declaration to the League of Nations in Geneva where it was ratified in 1924.
This was the first human rights treaty signed by an international organization.
The 5 principles of the Declaration were later expanded to 7 in 1948, when the newly organized United Nations adopted the document in the course of taking over international duties from the disbanded League of Nations.
On November 20th, 1959, the UN adopted a further revised Declaration of the Rights of the Child with 10 principles. Universal Children’s Day on November 20th celebrates this date. Twenty years later the UN assembly recognized the anniversary of the revised Declaration by designating 1979 as the ‘Year of the Child’ [UN 31st Session, 31/169 .pdf – 2 pages] and by setting to work writing a new and updated international treaty on child rights.
Ten years later and 65 years after the League of Nations ratified the 5 principles drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the 54 articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. On November 20th the Convention, known as the UNCRC, was opened for signatures.
The UNCRC in still in force today with 140 signatories. It has been signed by all eligible UN parties except the USA. Twenty nation-states have ratified the Convention which binds them to the terms by international law. Governments of these nations must report to and appear before a UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to be questioned on matters of concern. Government reports and Committee responses are posted on the UN website.
Canada signed the UNCRC in 1989 and ratified the treaty in 1991. [Gov’t of Canada > Dept of Justice > Overview: The Convention on the Rights of the Child]
Twenty-six years later, the country is receiving a good international grade on reviews of child rights practices, but with significant and persistent gaps.
These chronic problems prompted the Canadian Bar Association to write a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau in May 2016 regarding Canada’s compliance with the Convention, to ask the government “to create a detailed action plan to effectively implement the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN Committee) offer a road map that could prove transformational in improving the lives of Canadian children.”
A few months later, an article in the December 2016 edition of the CBA National newsletter reiterates these concerns, starting with the question: “Rights of the child: Have we really come such a long way?“
International monitoring groups are also noting gaps in protections for the kids in Canada. A review from child rights organization Humanium lists specific points, such as issues over Canadian legislation related to children:
A report adopted by the Canadian Senate in June 2007 has revealed that the country has been doing little on the national scale to ensure the application and respect of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The basic legislative and constitutional structures are not sufficient to respect these rights. The majority of Canadian laws do not take into consideration the superior interests of the child; thus, few legal resorts are available to this end.
Moreover, these laws vary from province to province. For example, the mandatory school age or the age at which certain protections are given to children vary from province to province. Finally, Canada allots only a minimum budget for the evaluation of children’s conditions in the country, thus hindering improvement in the protection of their rights.
Even if Canada does not deploy children under 18 to war zones, it authorizes the recruitment of children as young as 16 for military training (with mandatory parental consent).
And while this EU-based humanitarian agency gives Canada a generally high rating for child rights, their global info-graphic map paints the country as yellow for a “satisfactory” situation, not green for “good,” as life could be and should be for all kids in Canada.