11/20/2009 02:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Marking UNCRC Anniversary by Honoring Commitment to Children

It speaks to the values of our society when we can't protect our most vulnerable citizens - our children.

Twenty years ago today, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Since then, it has been ratified by 193 countries including every U.N. Member State but the United States and Somalia. This was the first document to enshrine children's rights not as someone's daughter or son, but as distinct members of our society requiring special protection and rights.

The document itself was revolutionary. The support was unprecedented - the most widely ratified convention in history. The UNCRC laid out the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights for children. Around the world, it was hailed for the solemn promise it made for protecting children and the hope it represented for our future.

We came together. We promised. Twenty years later, it's clear we failed.

There's a tendency to look at UN legislation as simply a piece of paper. But the UNCRC represents much more. Each article lays out a challenge facing a child somewhere in the world. Each article also lays out the potential for real change in that child's life.

The rights in the document were laid out in three categories known as the three P's - provision, protection and participation.

Provision is embodied by Mirian, who lives in San Miguel, Ecuador. The rights under this section of the convention were supposed to guarantee her basic needs in life including a standard of living, education and health care. But Mirian has not been able to attend school as her family cannot afford the cost.

Protection represents the kids who find their way to the Children of War Rehabilitation Center in Gulu, Uganda. Under this section of the convention, these kids were supposed to be kept safe from harm including kidnapping, child labour, sexual exploitation and war. Yet, over 15,000 of these kids have made their way through the rehabilitation centre after being used as soldiers, sex slaves and servants in the country's ongoing conflict.

Participation is Surmal of Lai village in India. He is supposed to be guaranteed a say in the matters affecting his life. But, despite the fact that the 12-year-old became the male head of his household after his father died, Surmal has little say regarding his country's issues with water supply. Right now, he can't pursue his education because he spends his day walking long distances to collect water for his family.

But, with the twentieth anniversary of the UNCRC before us, we can put these children at the forefront.

U.S. President Barack Obama has already acknowledged the embarrassment of finding his country alongside a virtually ungoverned Somalia in holding out on ratification.
The convention was signed by former-President Bill Clinton in 1995. But, it has yet to be approved by congress as many assert it infringes on domestic policymaking, particularly with military recruitment and treatment of minors by courts.

The current policy of sentencing people to life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed as juveniles violates the UNCRC. But one obstacle was removed in 2005 when the Supreme Court ruled these prisoners could not receive the death penalty. Now, further measures must be taken to address these issues and move forward with ratification.

Canada also has significant shortcomings. After criticism from the UN on inaction related to domestic child poverty, the government ceased filing reports for review. It has failed to submit a five-year annual document since 2001.

The 20th anniversary of the UNCRC is the perfect time for Canada and the world to renew our commitment to children. Canada can start by submitting to a review, learning from the criticism and actually implementing the policies.

Any good parent teaches their children not to lie. It's time that adults acted by example and lived up to our promise.