2.4 Session on “Children’s Rights: From Protection to Self-Determination”

Scott Forbes, Kathy Vandergrift

Twenty years ago every country except two enthusiastically adopted a Convention on the Rights of the Child.  In Canada a recent Senate study found that children's rights have not become part of our culture or public life.  Why not?  Is change possible and desirable?  In many parts of the world children's rights are violated with impunity.  This session will explore conceptual tensions in the field of children's rights that create barriers for implementation and practical experiences that improve the situation of children.  Presenters will be Kathy Vandergrift, Chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children and instructor in Public Ethics, and Jamie McIntosh, Executive Director of International Justice Mission Canada, an international organization that defends the rights of children caught in child labour, sexual exploitation, and oppressive regimes.

Kathy Vandergrift, chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, opened the session on children’s rights and posed the question—why are faith-based groups often opposed to children’s rights? This is a question that doesn’t have a satisfactory answer, but is partly due to a misunderstanding that children’s rights compete against parent’s rights, and can make it difficult to raise children—that “parents won’t be able to parent.” But this does not have to be so. Vandergrift noted that it is now more than 20 years after the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet a recent Senate review concluded that children’s rights are not embedded in Canadian law, policy, or the national psyche. This is unacceptable. One roadblock may be in a conception that we should be talking about children’s welfare and not children’s rights. Also there has been language around “more children are better off today…” and a sense of complacency, whereas the Convention looked at “all children” not “most children.” Additionally, talking primarily of “most children” and of “welfare” does not treat children as agents and persons, which is problematic. Vandergrift proceeded to outline some basic principles of children’s rights: children must not be discriminated against, actions taken on their behalf must be in the best interest of the child, children should have priority, children have a right to survival and full development and to be heard/participate. She noted that the way such rights are worked out in concrete situations varies greatly with the age of the child in question: a sixteen year-old child will be able to participate in ways a two-year old cannot, etc. This, however, was not worked out in detail in the Convention, and should be addressed. Vandergrift ended by bringing up three tensions immediately raised when one begins to talk about children's rights. First, are children’s rights about protecting children or enabling their self-realization or both? Second, there is the issue of claims to universal norms and cultural diversity—how can these two be reconciled? Lastly, there is the ambiguity surrounding the phrase “best interests of the child” that is used by the Convention. How does one define what is in the “best interests” of the child? This same language of “best interests” was, for example, the language employed when putting together the residential schools.

Next Scott Forbes from International Justice Mission spoke. He opened with an image of a “Canadian stop sign” that read “Just kinda stop” and we all laughed. He admitted this was funny, and made the point that while this might (or might not) work for traffic, it doesn't work at all when it comes to rights violations. They must be stopped entirely. He spoke of the need for hope instead of despair when it came to dealing with rights violations, however, because the work of fighting them can seem never-ending, and is very emotionally difficult. If one succumbs to despair, nothing can be done. We need to prevent injustice before it happens, even while we try to deal with instances of injustice that are already here. The question for International Justice Mission in particular is how do we do this, especially across cultures? Their work takes place in many different countries that have extremely varied cultures and societal norms/expectations.  He noted that in trying to address injustice, there is a vital need for finding experts within each society, each culture, so that work for justice is done well, within the context of that culture, and has a better chance of taking hold and flourishing. He made a link between justice and “faith-in-action”, saying that in cases of injustice, “to be a bystander is to disobey God.” Injustice is not something that it's okay to “let someone else handle.” He argued that justice can and should be secured by legal casework (prosecuting the “bad guys”) and laid out a four-fold model of intervention: 1. victim rescue 2. predator accountability 3. victim aftercare 4. change in society. He showed a film detailing some of this work in motion and closed by highlighting the need to fight lies with truth and violence with power, describing the latter as putting bodies of people who have power between victims and perpetrators, using application of the rule of law to enforce human rights.

Then he opened the floor for a few questions on either his or Vandergrift's presentation.

One person asked about corruption in the police or court groups where International Justice Mission works—how prevalent is corruption, and what does one do when it is encountered? Forbes responded that yes, they had ran into a great deal of corruption, but through research and local work one can always eventually find someone local to the area who cares. You begin working with that person(s) and eventually things start to happen.

The question was raised: can you (Forbes) briefly describe how this works “on the ground”? Forbes responded with three words: Partnerships! Educate! Train! Elaborating on those, he re-emphasized the need for local involvement and training, in order to change the ways things have gone, where injustice may have benefited some people, even aside from the direct perpetrators.

The last question was raised for either of the presenters. One attendee noted the lack of mention of social justice work regarding violence based on sexual orientation. He asked whether the presenters had ever encountered such violence or discrimination toward the children they were trying to rescue or help, and how they had dealt with it. He further asked whether faith-based groups are willing or able to see discrimination or violence based on one's sexual orientation as an injustice. Vandergrift responded to this question, saying that it is an injustice happening around the world, and that some faith-based groups work against it while others have difficulty responding to it. She said that there are people working to change negative attitudes about homosexuality that some faith-based groups hold, but that it will take time. In the meantime, one works to stop violence against people, since the violence itself is wrong whatever one's stance on particular sexual orientations, while still trying to change the attitudes motivating it and the attitudes making it difficult to address.

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