On November 29th the World Health Assembly will meet to discuss an International Treaty on Pandemics. Drawing on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, the treaty (which will be legally binding under international law) will support international efforts to protect people’s health globally, in particular, in readiness for any future health emergencies. It is hoped the treaty will “enable countries around the world to strengthen national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics.”

The Covid-19 Pandemic

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, along with other UN treaty bodies, published a statement acknowledging that in times of crisis it may be necessary to restrict human rights in order to protect public health. However, the UN statement emphasises that any restrictions on human rights ‘must be imposed only when necessary, be proportionate and kept to an absolute minimum.’ The statement also warns of the grave physical, emotional, and psychological effect of the pandemic on children and called for all countries to protect their rights.

Research on Government Responses to the Pandemic in Europe

Research on Emergency Measures introduced by governments across Europe in response to the Covid-19 pandemic highlights how these measures failed to protect children’s rights. This research, carried out by the Observatory on the Human Rights of Children for the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC), also showed that Emergency Measures have had a negative impact on the full range of children’s rights.

The Observatory’s research found that across Europe school closures and severe restrictions on socialising with friends and extended family and limitations on opportunities for play, recreation and sport, all had a negative impacts on children’s mental health. At the same time, children’s access to vital health services was reduced as resources were allocated to deal with the pandemic. Children who were most vulnerable and at risk were confined to the home, and found themselves without school as a place of sanctuary, increasing the risk of violence or abuse.

Access to education was diminished for all children across Europe, but for those children living in poverty this was worse as they were unable to access technology that would have enabled them to participate in online education. Many parents/carers lost their jobs during the pandemic meaning that children and their families were forced into poverty and food insecurity.

The Observatory research found that many children already deprived of their liberty in institutions, (e.g. juvenile offenders, children with mental health issues, or asylum-seeking children), were further confined to their rooms for the majority of the day and did not having the same opportunities for education or recreation or contact with family, social workers or lawyers.

One of the reasons that Covid-19 Emergency Measures have had such a negative impact on children across Europe was, the research found, the lack of involvement of children (or their representatives) in the development of emergency legislation. In addition, only a minority of governments carried out a Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) to predict the impact of proposals for Emergency Measures on children’s rights. Application of CRIA would have given governments the opportunity to avoid or reduce any negative impacts of Emergency Legislation on children’s rights – but as CRIA was absent in most cases, this opportunity was lost (CRIA is recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as an essential tool for ensuring that legislation or policy is compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).

You can read more about the research here and in our blog.

Children’s Rights and the International Treaty

Any treaty to address the impact of a pandemic needs to acknowledge the impact on children. It should emphasise how governments must ensure pandemic response plans do not discriminate against children and should not have a disproportionate negative impact on children. Instead Emergency Measures should be designed to minimise any negative impact on children and wherever possible should respect and protect children’s rights.

When the World Health Assembly considers the development of an International Treaty on Pandemics on November 29th it will need to draw heavily on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. The priority must be to avoid, insofar as it is possible, governments responding to any future pandemic in ways which have a negative impact on children and children’s rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child needs to be fully taken into account when the International Treaty is discussed and finalised.

Drawing on the Observatory research on Emergency Measures, ENOC issued a Position Statement on a Children’s Rights Approach to Public Emergencies. The Children’s Rights Approach adopted by ENOC was developed by the Observatory as a mechanism to ensure that children’s rights are front and centre as governments or other public authorities develop legislation or policy. The World Health Assembly needs to adopt a Children’s Rights Approach to the development of the International Treaty on Pandemics.

Dr Rhian Croke, Independent Children’s Rights Adviser and Observatory on Human Rights of Children Affiliate

Simon Hoffman, Professor of International Human Rights Law and Joint Coordinator of the Observatory on Human Rights of Children