Children: A Priority

Rene Wadlow

The way in which a society treats its children reflects not only its qualities of compassion and protective caring but also its sense of justice, its commitment to the future and its urge to better the human condition for coming generations.

As the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children proclaimed at the United Nations in New York, 30 September 1990, “There can be no task nobler than giving every child a better future… The children of the world are innocent, vulnerable and dependent. They are also curious, active and full of hope. Their time should be one of joy and peace, of playing, learning and growing. Their future should be shaped in harmony and co-operation. Their lives should mature and broaden their perspectives and gain new experiences.”

Thus the Association of World Citizens worked hard for the creation of the UN-sponsored International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.  1999 had been the International Year for a Culture of Peace with UNESCO as the lead UN  agency for the Year.  David Adams of the UNESCO Secretariat was the motor of the Culture of Peace concept.  We had worked closely together, as all UN Years depend for their impact more on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) than on governments who are willing to vote at the General Assembly for a special theme as a UN Year but then do rather little else.

As has happened with other UN theme Years, such as the 1975 Year of Women, as little can be done in a year, the UN Year is transformed into a Decade.  Thus it was thought that the Culture of Peace Year could be transformed into a Culture of Peace Decade. Some of us involved thought that  “Culture of Peace” as a title was not very specific and did not set out the method nor the people who were the prime agents.  Thus the idea of adding the term “Non-violence” as the method and “children of the world” as the prime agents.  The UNESCO staff person in New York and a world citizen colleague started contacting diplomats at the UN in New York to get the Decade proposed.

We ran into sharp opposition at the start from the representatives of the USA and the UK who said “We already donate money to UNICEF; we don’t need an additional decade for the children of the world.”  Fortunately, we had the diplomatic skill of the Ambassador of Bangladesh with us who took the lead in convincing other government. Moreover, it is difficult for governments to oppose doing good  for children – at least in theory.  Some governments thought that the title was too long, especially for publicity purposes and wanted to shorten it.  “Non-violence” could easily have been dropped.  In the middle of the discussions on the name, my colleague in New York called me in Geneva to ask about the name change. I replied that I thought also the name too long, but it was not up to NGO representatives to suggest what words should be cut, that was up to government diplomats. As the governments could not agree, the too long title remained.  The governments did little, but there was strong non-government efforts of which the world citizenship emphasis on harmonious education was an important contribution.

There has been a constant international effort to create a legal basis for the rights of the child. The legal framework for the welfare of the child began early in the League of Nations efforts with the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child  of 1924 largely influenced by the Polish educator and writer Janusz Korezak (1878-1942). He promoted the idea of the rights of the child within the broader framework of progressive, child-centered education. Child welfare has always been a prime example of cooperative efforts among  governments, scholars highlighting the conditions of children, and NGOs working actively in the field.

The efforts continued after the Second World War.  The Geneva Declaration  served as the basis for the UN General Assembly resolution on the Declaration of the Rights of the Child  of 1959.  The 1959 Declaration was followed with more specific provisions: the Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict.

In 1978, some representatives of both governments and NGOs in the UN human rights circles in Geneva felt that it was time to bring together these different declarations and provisions into a single text which would have the legal force of a UN convention.  The Polish delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights took the lead in this effort, but some governments felt that the different declarations needed to be closely reviewed and measured against changing realities.  Thus a Special Working Group on the Rights of the Child was created in 1979 under the chairmanship of the Polish representative, the legal specialist Adam Lopatka. Government and NGO representatives worked together from 1979 to 1988 for a week each year.  There was a core group, including the Association of World Citizens, which worked steadily and which represented a wide range of different beliefs, values and traditions, as well as a wide range of socio-economic realities.

The Working Group managed to come to a consensus on the final version in time for the General Assembly to adopt it on 20 November 1989, the anniversary of the  Geneva Declaration.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child   is meant to provide guidance for governments to review national legislation and policies in their child-related initiatives.  The Convention also provides a framework of goals for the vital activities of NGOs.  NGO work on two lines simultaneously: to remind governments of their obligations through approaches to ministries, elected officials, and the media, and to undertake their own operational efforts.  

By creating a common legal framework of world law, the  Convention on the Rights of the Child has increased levels of government accountability, bringing about legislative and institutional reforms, and increasing international cooperation.  As James P. Grant, then UNICEF Executive Director said “Transcending the detailed provisions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child embodies the fundamental principle that the lives and the normal development of children should have first call on society’s concerns and capacities and that children should be able to depend upon the commitment in good times and in bad, in normal times and in times of emergency, in times of peace and in times of war, in times of prosperity and in times of recession.”

The introduction of the concept of harmony has been an important addition to the discussion of child welfare, building on concepts of harmony in both Asian and Western societies.

More recently the welfare of children has somewhat fallen off the “world agenda” of governments with financial issues, trade, and sustainable development becoming the negotiating focus.  However, children as a priority remains a constant concern of non-governmental organizations and we need to continue our  cooperative efforts.


Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow

is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.




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