The UNCRC – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – is 30 today. 30 years of standing as a charter for the human rights of children, not just here in Wales, but across the world. It’s the most signed international convention ever – but 30 years ago, the world was a different place: there was no internet, no social media, no smart phones, no climate emergency, no Brexit. Can the UNCRC still stand as a powerful and relevant charter for children’s rights, faced with the challenges of the 21st Century?

The birth of human rights of children

The UNCRC isn’t the first international document setting out the human rights of children. A British woman, Eglantyne Jebb, wrote the first declaration of children’s rights in 1923. She had lived through the First World War. Pictures she saw in newspapers of how children were living in places like Germany and Austria horrified her. One of the tactics Britain and her Allies used against these ‘enemy’ countries was to try to cut off their supplies. This left children starving and without medicines. She felt passionately that war or not, children should not be allowed to suffer like this, wherever they lived. Once she had written her declaration, setting out what she believed were the rights of all children, she presented it to the League of Nations’ Convention in Geneva. The League of Nations adopted the declaration in 1925, and in 1959, the United Nations adopted an extended version of the declaration.

Why the need for children’s rights today

The concept of ‘children’s rights’ was already alive by the time the United Nations decided that it needed to draw up an international convention – what would become the UNCRC. Other declarations and conventions sometimes referred to children and gave them special protection in certain circumstances, but the UNCRC was – and is – specifically aimed at children and young people, and their rights.

It’s true that in some parts of the world, the situation for children has improved hugely since the early 20th Century. Sadly, turn on the news and it’s very clear that in other parts of the world, there are children are living in poverty and danger just as horrifying as the children that inspired Eglantyne. Even here in Wales, where we live in relative comfort, many children suffer neglect and abuse, or live in poverty without a proper home; other children are denied access to education because their needs are not being properly met. Children are not always listened to in decisions that affect them – the Brexit Referendum ignored the views of children and young people. Even in day to day life, children find they aren’t listened to. Our recent work with the National Adoption Service on contact between brothers and sisters in adoption and care demonstrated how often children are not given a real voice in what happens to them.

Can the UNCRC stand up to the challenges of the 21st Century?

We were lucky enough to hear top international human rights lawyer Professor Geraldine van Bueren speak at the recent annual lecture of the Observatory on Human Rights of Children. Professor van Bueren was one of the people involved in drafting the UNCRC. She acknowledged that many of the challenges of today’s world were not – and could not – have been imagined when the UNCRC was being drafted. On the other hand, she thought that the UNCRC was still powerful enough to meet those challenges, even if they weren’t specifically mentioned. Even more, she explained in her lecture that she didn’t think the UNCRC had been used to its full capacity so there’s plenty more that the Convention can achieve.

Even though climate change and global warming wasn’t as high up on the political agenda as it is now, the UNCRC talks about governments considering the dangers and risks of environmental pollution. Greta Thunberg has been able to use the Convention to highlight her campaign to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. She has argued that the failure of governments to meet the challenges of climate change violate children’s rights to life, to health, and to culture, and goes against the ‘best interests’ principle which says that adults must always act in the best interests of children.

This is a great example of how the UNCRC can be used today to meet the challenges of the world we live in, and not just the big issues like climate change. Professor Van Bueren talked about many examples of action by small groups or individuals, using the UNCRC to achieve real change.

Celebrate the UNCRC today – and tomorrow!

We’re going to be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC along with other organisations and individuals in Wales who work with children and young people, along with children and young people themselves. Children in Wales are hosting the event in Cardiff and we’re excited to be going along to run a marketplace stall showcasing the work of the Children’s Legal Centre Wales at the event. Once all the excitement has died down, there continues to be real work to do in Wales to ensure that children’s rights are, and continue to be, respected in every aspect of life. We hope to be at the forefront of this – and we can’t wait!