Children's rights at the United Nations 120

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11 March 2014 subscribe | subscribe | submit information
  • CRINmail 120
    Children's Rights at the United Nations

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    Today’s events at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council concluded the discussion of the rights to housing and food, and moved onto a discussion of human rights and the environment and foreign debt, as well as the promotion and protection of civil society. It also featured a number of side events concerning children’s rights, including intersex rights, child sexual exploitation at sports events, children in the Syrian conflict, albinism and more.

    Housing and food - concluding remarks

    The Human Rights Council picked up where they left off yesterday as the Special Rapporteur on the right to food and the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing made their concluding remarks. You can read yesterday’s CRINmail for more coverage on what was discussed during their dialogue with States.

    Human rights, the environment and foreign debt

    The Council session continued with the presentation of the report by the Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, and the report by the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights, Cephas Lumina.

    Mr Knox began by stating that environmental degradation interferes with the rights to life, health, food and water. He emphasised that States must protect groups particularly vulnerable to environmental harm, and specifically “should, in the words of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, take measures to address the dangers and risks that environmental pollution poses to children’s health”. Guatemala picked up on this issue during its statement calling for environmental protection for vulnerable groups including women and children. Mr Knox said that States must ensure the right to effective remedies for environmental harm.

    On the effects of foreign debt, Mr Lumina observed from his country visit to Greece that spending cuts there have resulted in increased poverty amongst young people, and reduced access to healthcare and education. The impact has been most significant on vulnerable groups including children, women and immigrants. He emphasised that economic, social and cultural rights should to the maximum extent possible be factored into programmes and policies, including austerity policies.

    Intersex rights

    This morning also saw a first at the HRC in the form of a side event on the rights of intersex people. Rights violations of intersex people, in particular of children, have been slowly making their way onto the agenda at the HRC - the Special Rapporteur on torture addressed the issue during his 2013 annual report on abuses in healthcare settings - but it has yet to make it onto the mainstream agenda. To date, no UPR recommendation has been made on the human rights of intersex people.

    The event itself looked at the long-term consequences for children subjected to irreversible surgery to “normalise” their genitals before they are old enough to give consent. Panellists combined looking at this issue from a rights-based perspective with frank stories of how they had been personally affected by medical interventions which continue to be imposed on young children today. Speaking about the fear that families deal with when their children are born with “ambiguous” genitalia, Holly Greenberry - who delivered a statement on intersex rights during yesterday’s dialogue with the SR on torture - called for a focus on the child when addressing medical interventions, noting that the comfort level of parents is less important than the decision of the child to be what they want to be.

    You can read the statement and coverage of the event through Intersex Australia.

    Child sexual exploitation during major sports events

    Looking ahead to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, this side event, led by Najat Maalla M’jid, the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, explored the risks to children associated with major sports events, as well as ways to protect children in the context of such events. Sport events increase the risks of exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, child prostitution, child trafficking and child pornography, however little data exists concerning these risks. Nevertheless, as observed by Florence Bruce of the Oak Foundation who presented the findings of the recent report by Brunel University on child exploitation and the FIFA World Cup, we should not assume that the lack of data means that no problems exist. While child trafficking and exploitation have received the most attention, issues such as displacement, construction and labour issues require a greater focus. There are good practices emerging, including in Poland, as well as practical initiatives such as smartphone apps, hotlines and public facilities aimed at providing information on potential violations, and directing children and others to relevant authorities and services.

    The panel members highlighted the role of all those involved - including the host country, sending countries, sports actors including sports organisations and sponsors, tourism actors, and the media - in either the protection of children or awareness-raising of the risks to children in the context of major sports events. There was some discussion of the possibility of institutionalising child impact assessments or child-focused criteria in the bidding process for major events like the FIFA World Cup. Events such as this year’s football tournament present an opportunity for advocacy on child protection. That said, the panel members, including Ms Maalla M’jid, emphasised the need for long-term campaigning on this issue.

    Children and the conflict in Syria

    Defence for Children International hosted a side event looking at the extent of the child protection emergency in Syria. According to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, the situation in Syria has deteriorated, disproportionately affecting civilians, including children. There have been more than 10,000 deaths of children in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011; over three million children are internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the conflict has created 2.5 million refugees. Violations of human rights in Syria, including children’s rights, are rife, with children facing rape, mutilation, arbitrary detention, and torture, as well as being recruited as soldiers and used as human shields.

    In particular, the rights of children to education and healthcare have been heavily affected. Ms Zerrougui observed that civilians continue to live through shelling and heavy aerial bombardment of schools and hospitals. This was reinforced by Bede Sheppard of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack who spoke of continuing attacks on, and the military use of, schools. Half of the 4.8 million children of school age in Syria are out of school; and one in five schools in Syria are no longer in use because they have been damaged in the conflict or are sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs). War Child in Lebanon reported poor access to education and medical care, and interference by Islamic groups with education programmes in opposition-controlled areas; schools used as shelters for IDPs in regime-controlled areas; and a lack of food and medicine in besieged areas, with many children suffering malnutrition. Ms Zerrougui stated that “depriving the children of Syria of their right to education is not only depriving them of a basic right, but also jeopardising their future, and the future of Syria”.

    The international community has taken some measures to respond to these issues. In 2011, the Security Council adopted resolution 1998 to protect schools and hospitals during conflict. This year, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2139 strongly condemning the violations in Syria and demanding that all parties demilitarise medical facilities and schools. Guidelines on the implementation of the 2011 resolution will be issued in May this year.

    Children with albinism

    People with albinism face extreme levels of violence, discrimination and exclusion all over the world. Societies with entrenched beliefs laced with superstition and a lack of awareness about the condition mean that respect for the human rights of people with albinism remains elusive, despite growing exposure at the international level with the first resolution on the issue passed at the Human Rights Council last year.

    Horrific cases of killing, maiming and exclusion of children with albinism were just some of the rights abuses discussed at a side event run by the NGO, Under the Same Sun (UTSS).

    Ikponwosa Ero, International Advocacy Officer at UTSS, said in some countries people make “jokes” about how much her body parts must be worth (for witchcraft) as they walk past her in the street. She lamented the case of children abandoned by their families to live in institutions where they suffer further rights violations, including being subjected to corporal punishment outside in the sun - people with albinism are extremely sensitive to sun exposure, and many die early from skin cancer.

    A video presentation from Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was delivered, in which she mentioned that her office receives hundreds of complaints of violations of the human rights of children with albinism. The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan Mendez, pressed on the room the importance of access to justice for such victims. “Only a handful of cases have been successfully prosecuted. Access to justice for children with albinism is extremely limited. Governments must do more to ensure victims can obtain redress for the suffering they have endured,” he said.

    Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children (SRSG on VAC), closed her remarks by asking State delegates participating in the event, including those from Somalia and Nigeria, to raise the issue of access to justice for children with albinism during Thursday’s annual day on the rights of the child.

    Juvenile justice: violence against children

    The SRSG on VAC and the Governments of Indonesia and Norway co-hosted a side event to promote and discuss the the SRSG’s report on restorative justice for children, released last year. Restorative justice is an approach that focuses on peaceful conflict resolution and healing, rather than simply punishment of children in conflict with the law.

    The report details some of the progress made in preventing violence against children as well as the challenges, including banning corporal punishment in all settings.

    Counter-terrorism and freedom of religion

    In the afternoon, the HRC turned its attention to the issues of counter terrorism and religion. The Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, presented his annual report to the Human Rights Council, this year focusing on the use of armed drones and its impact on civilians. Mr Emmerson laid out the three objectives of his report: to address the disproportionate levels of civilian casualties as a result of armed drones, to make recommendations on the duty of States to impartially investigate fatalities, and to identify and clarify contested issues of international law.

    Discussion had barely begun when the session was postponed until the following day. We will cover the debate on this and on the presentation of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief on Wednesday.

    Promotion and protection of civil society space

    The final session of the day was dedicated to a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of civil society space. The debate was wide-reaching, addressing everything from the trend in foreign funding restrictions on NGOs to the NGO Committee of ECOSOC, which determines which NGOs can access the United Nations (see ISHR’s statement and coverage).

    Highlighting the importance of children’s rights in this area, Save the Children International delivered a statement which noted that “without access to timely, appropriate and child-friendly public information, children cannot express informed opinions, meaningfully take part in decision-making and claim their rights”. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression picked up on this in his summing up, as he noted the importance of protecting human rights from the earliest age.

    The day came to a slightly ironic end, as the President of the Human Rights Council declined a request from one of the panelists to give her remaining speaking time to an NGO who had not been given the opportunity to speak. He explained at length why, unfortunately, there was not time. 

    Coming up on Wednesday

    Plenary sessions:

    • Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief;

    • Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights and the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children; and

    • Interactive Dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict.

    Side events:

    • “Africa and the International Criminal Court”
      Comité International pour le Respect et l'Application de la Charte Africaine des Droits de l'Homme et des Peuples
      Time: 10:00 - 12:00
      Venue: XXI

    • “Drones and human rights”
      Amnesty International
      Time: 12:00 - 14:00
      Venue: XXI


    Get shown through the maze


    Legal systems are a maze to most people. Children often lack experience of the law, don’t know their rights, and have little money. This makes them more vulnerable to getting lost in the legal system. But that’s not all - in most cases children are barred from accessing legal systems.

    To make accessing justice a reality, legal assistance and representation should be afforded to the child, as well as to their advocate where applicable, in any proceeding concerning the child. This should be extended to all proceedings and settings, including criminal, civil, administrative, family, customary law and informal legal proceedings.

    To help direct children through the access to justice maze, States should:

    • Establish free or subsidised legal aid services for children and their advocates in all legal proceedings;

    • Ensure children and their advocates can access and choose lawyers trained and experienced in working with children;

    • Guarantee that anyone who acts on behalf of a child does so in the child’s best interest, without any conflicts of interest.

    Read our editorial on why States need to help direct children through the access to justice maze.

    For more visit:

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