This blog post was contributed by Dr Ursula Kilkelly, Co-Director of the CCJHR.
On 20 November 1989 the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention thus reached its 20th anniversary last month with reviews as to its impact taking place around the world. In Ireland, a party to the Convention since 1992, the Conventionâ€™s birthday has also been celebrated. Much progress has been achieved in the implementation of Convention provisions since ratification and many of the reforms can be traced back to the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has reviewed Irelandâ€™s progress in this regard on two occasions â€“ in 1998 and 2006. After a slow start, Ireland adopted the National Childrenâ€™s Strategy in 2000, established the Office of Ombudsman for Children in 2002 and put in place a longitudinal study on children to better understand childrenâ€™s lives. Structural reform has seen the appointment of a super-junior Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, with a seat at the cabinet table, and the establishment of a government department dedicated to childrenâ€™s issues â€“ the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Additional strides in the advancement of childrenâ€™s issues include the adoption of the National Play Strategy and in youth justice, the adoption of the Children Act 2001, the National Youth Justice Strategy and the establishment of the Irish Youth Justice Service. Many of the advances in the reduction of child poverty, the improvement of special needs education and the modernisation of the youth justice system were possible due to the allocation of increased resources to these areas. The severe economic conditions will undoubtedly see many of these investments rolled back. This is when the legal commitments in the Convention to take all measures to secure all rights to children become especially important.
On the negative side of the balance sheet, there are still many outstanding areas where the Convention has clearly had no or little impact. There is no 24 hour social work service for children at risk and no strategy to combat violence against children; children struggle to access any mental health services; they are rarely heard when the courts decide matters that affect them in family law and criminal proceedings, and there are many especially vulnerable groups of children â€“ separated children, Traveller children and children who are homeless â€“ who struggle to enjoy even the most basic of human rights. These barriers include a lack of investment, a failure to provide dedicated supports and services for children and a general invisibility of children in the making of law and policy. As research for the Ombudsman for Children showed in 2007, there are still many significant barriers in the way of children realising their Convention rights in Irish law, policy and practice.
More generally, the question still remains as to whether the Government and indeed Irish society have really engaged with the idea that individual children are autonomous rights-holders. Given that two decades have passed since the Convention was adopted, can we say with confidence that we take childrenâ€™s rights seriously? In this regard, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recently reiterated its criticism that Irish law and policy does not reflect the rights-based approach set out in the Convention; nor are children heard in decisions that affect them. Critical to the development of a childrenâ€™s rights culture is the integration into law and policy of the Conventionâ€™s guiding principles â€“ the best interests principle, non-discrimination and the childâ€™s right to be heard. Yet, notwithstanding the recommendations of numerous bodies, and the commitment of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern over two years ago to put the child at the heart of the Irish Constitution, proposals for meaningful constitutional reform are still outstanding. This, above all else, is a very worrying sign that regardless of our international commitments and daily reminders of the appalling treatment that children received in our name, the Government is not willing to take the ultimate step to ensure that childrenâ€™s rights will no longer be ignored or underplayed.