Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Geneva, Canada, and the Rights of Children

The following is a Guest Post by Kathy Vandergrift, Chair, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children:

While Canada’s Prime Minister was in China promoting trade and raising human rights issues in China, I was in Geneva to inform the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about major gaps in the implementation of children’s rights in Canada.  Is Canada a violator of children’s rights?  Most people think of less developed countries as places where children’s rights are violated – not in Canada.  Surely not as bad as China  – not bad enough to go to the UN.  

Human rights treaties apply to all countries alike.  That is one of their benefits.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, incorporates the principle of progressive realization.  Nations who ratify the treaty are obligated to improve the conditions for children, based on available resources – and not slip backward.  In several areas, conditions for children are not progressing in Canada.  Evidence of inequitable treatment of children is a concern in Canada as much as in China.

Human rights means paying attention to all children, not just averages.  Too many children fall through the cracks of fragmented support systems in Canada, even though average children do well, and some children have every opportunity to develop their potential.  Developing the full potential of every child in Canada is right in principle; it is also smart practice, in light of our aging population.  We need to improve, even though we are not China.

Rights-based approaches to public policy provide mechanisms such as regular reporting, reviews by independent bodies, and complaints mechanisms to give the people affected by government decisions a voice in the assessment of how well their rights are being respected and fulfilled.  In this case, six aboriginal children went to Geneva to tell the committee about lack of access to education and the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children presented a comprehensive assessment of how well children’s rights are fulfilled in Canada.   In September the government will appear before the committee and then Canada will receive recommendations for improvement.

The major problem is that human rights treaties are not taken seriously in Canada.  Precisely because we think we are better than every other country.   That does not help the Canadian child shunted from foster home to group home to the street to juvenile detention center without ever having someone who puts her best interests first.  If we take children’s rights seriously, we would not let that happen – not in Canada.

--Kathy Vandergrift


  1. One of the things your essay brings to the fore, Kathy, is that what was a consensus in one generation ceases to be a censensus in the next. That is we might still be committed to progress in fighting child poverty and might even put that comfortably in terms of child rights and hence societal responsibility but that does not mean we are committed anymore to the role of government in the engineering of that progress. As a result, the criteria we use to measure progress might become part of the present political dissensus. If one identified "progress" as "sustainable progress" and "sustainable" with "non-governmentally engineered" we might be able to claim progress over the last decade or two even though we are falling backward when viewed by older government centred criteria. If this little musing is at all descriptive it speaks to the de facto relativization of "rights" talk in our political culture. The sort of consensus around the importance of "rights talk" in the formation of the U.N. and in our liberal political cultures has been relativized by the evolution of neo-liberal politics in the last two decades at least. "Rights talk" comes then to seem increasingly the parrochial vocabulary of one of the streams of political discourse within the Western and/or democratic world. In such a context, the appeal to rights has less catholicity than once-upon-a-time, no? So how do we begin to talk about the ends that rights talk was an instrument toward in a political context in which rights talk itself has been consigned to one and only one of the political parishes?

  2. I think you raise a great question, Bob when you ask how we can begin to talk about the ends that rights talk was an instrument toward. Again, I'd like to hold on to some "rights talk" in general, but I think that needs to be done alongside building a greater vocabulary that can deal with the dissensus you've identified. So what are the ends of rights talk? It seems to me that the short answer is human flourishing, but that there is a longer answer too that somewhat complicates the terms of the "short answer".

    My understanding of rights talk is twofold: that it is aimed at ensuring the availability of and access to resources that support a healthy, happy life (both for individuals and societies at large) and also that it is aimed at removing or limiting the power of external threats that are encroaching on the health and happiness of those same individuals and societies.

    With this twofold understanding, I wonder whether the vocabulary we need to be developing about the "ends" of rights talk is along the lines of (1) what kinds of supports make for happy and healthy lives, (2) what kinds of threats encroach on those supports and (3) why social human flourishing (not just of individuals, but of people linked together) is a good to be pursued. It's this third point where I think the most development is needed. There's been a lot of conversation on the first two, though it is still ongoing, but making a case for the third point that is able to reach critical mass consensus... that's where more work still needs to be done.

    And then there's the larger question complicating the shorter answer: should this be about human flourishing, or about world flourishing, and what is the difference?