Blog: Children’s human rights in the “small places, close to home”
Today is International Human Rights Day when people and organisations around the world remember and celebrate the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, the driving force behind this blueprint for human rights, famously recognised that human rights begin:
in small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends….Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.
This year, Human Rights Day has an added significance for children as it coincides with the 25th Anniversary year of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). And next year, UK government’s track record on children’s rights will be scrutinised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Human rights matter for children because they are a powerful tool. They set out legal entitlements for children to the basic things they need for a good start in life. When the UK signed up to the UNCRC, it took on an obligation, under the law, to treat children in accordance with these minimum standards. This matters because when a policy or law breaches children’s human rights, we don’t need to persuade the Government to treat children better, or change its policy – we can demand it. These standards are not negotiable. That might be why successive Governments have not been keen on human rights standards, but why we should all be shouting about them.
Some of the UK’s biggest defenders of children’s human rights – NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Save the Children, NCB, The Children’s Society, Just for Kids Law and others – are using Human Rights Day to highlight some of the human rights issues still affecting children in England - from abuse and exploitation, the impact of poverty, inequalities in health and educational chances and outcomes, to experiences in the criminal justice and immigration systems. They are shining a light on where government policies, laws, cuts to vital services or just the wrong attitude, are having a significant and potentially lasting impact on the human rights of children:
- The NSPCC highlights the harrowing experiences faced by children who, having experienced abuse in the past, are re-traumatised by the court proceedings which are still ill-adapted to meet their needs, despite a number of moves in the right direction.
- Barnardo’s focuses on the impact poverty and inequality are having on children’s education and long term life chances. Children who are living in poverty are twice as likely to leave primary school without the minimum level of expected literacy and numeracy skills, and of these children only 7% go on to achieve the basic minimum level of success expected at GCSE.
- Save the Children describes the impact of rising child poverty – including for those children living in working families - on children’s every day lives.
- NCB discusses shocking child mortality rates in this country, the need to make sure newborn babies and their families get the support they need, and the inadequate access to mental health services for children.
- The Children’s Society highlights the impact cuts to legal aid and new immigration rules are having on the particularly vulnerable children they work with, who are in the immigration system. Changes to legal aid mean children who could have fled domestic abuse, or are at risk of homelessness, will be unable to challenge decisions leaving them without proper care. Plans to charge for NHS treatment could leave around 120,000 undocumented migrant children without access to healthcare.
- Shauneen Lambe from Just for Kids Law reflects with dismay on the fact that, at 10, her son has reached the age of criminal responsibility in England with “everychildish mistake”- forgetting your penknife is in your pocket, tripping someone up in the playground, carving your name in the desk - potentially leading to criminalisation.
- Steve Broach, leading barrister on disabled children’s human rights, highlights the plight of disabled children in residential institutions far from home, the experiences of families with disabled children living in poverty, and the failure of the Government to come up with a comprehensive strategy to ensure the inclusion of disabled children in society.
- Our latest State of Children’s Rights report highlights a whole range of further issues – cuts to play, youth, early intervention and family support services – affecting children in every aspect of their lives.
These are all important human rights issues – children have a human right to be kept safe and be well cared for, to a safe warm home and enough to eat, to an equal chance to be healthy and achieve their potential and to be protected from harm when in difficult situations. The blogs underline how far we are from achieving Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision of making human rights meaningful in homes, schools, hospitals and “small places, close to home” across England. But when these issues are debated, there is a notable absence of discussion about children’s human rights standards – the standards which say the state must tackle these issues – not should, but must. People tend to shy away from the idea of “rights” and “entitlements”. But maybe Human Rights Day, 25 years after the promises in the UNCRC were made, is the time to reclaim children’s human rights, when children need them.
There are reasons to be positive. First, the fact that civil society and children’s organisations are speaking out and calling for better protection of children’s human rights, as rights. This is important because, as Eleanor Roosevelt believed, for human rights to become a reality we need “concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home”. Second, we do, at the moment, have laws protecting children’s human rights and tools allowing us to use human rights to improve children’s lives. In the UK the legal protections in the UNCRC have been bolstered by the Human Rights Act, which can and does make a difference everyday to protecting children’s human rights at home. For example, Just for Kids Law used the Act to make sure that, when 17 year-old children are picked up by the police, their parents are contacted and they don’t spend the night in police cells. Next year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will be examining and holding the UK to account for its record on children’s human rights. Defenders of children’s human rights have the chance to tell the Committee what is happening to children here in the UK.
Over the next year, we will be focussed on protecting what we have in the Human Rights Act, making sure people shout about the importance of human rights for children, and using the UN reporting process to make sure children’s human rights are protected where they matter most - “in small places, close to home.”