Vice-President of the European Commission
Giving children a voice
Celebration of the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child
20 November, Stockholm
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for the invitation to address you at this important event of celebrating the 20 th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child.
20 years ago in New York, the international community achieved something unique for all children, in all countries and cultures, at all times and without exception. World leaders recognised that people under 18 years old often need special care and protection; and that children have human rights too. I was there personally during the signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, and I must say it was a big event to see the first legally binding instrument for the protection of children being adopted.
The then President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, spoke about how much evil has been committed in the name of children; how people have defended their servitude to a hated regime by arguing that "they were only doing it for their children". So that they could feed them. So that they could allow them to go to school. And even worse, he mentioned seeing dictators taking advantage of the innocence of children and driving their cause with the help of the fact that children are easily influenced and naturally want to please adults in order to be loved.
Whether it is Hitler waving in a friendly way to fanaticized little girls of Hitlerjugend; Stalin kissing a child wearing the red Communist youth organization scarf, or Saddam Hussein patting the children of his hostages on the head, hostages whom he was ready to have shot, Vaclav Havel was right in concluding that:
"It should be forbidden for all murderers and dictato rs to pat children on the head"
The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child changed our perspective by giving rights to the child, and putting the child at the forefront. Through this convention, we have agreed to change society in a way so that it helps children. This is not only good for children, but good for the whole society. Because I believe what is right for children is right for all of us .
The Convention sets out the rights of children in 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. Today, I would like to focus particularly on articles 12, 13 and 17, which spell out the child's right to have a say, its freedom of expression, and right to access information. I am a firm believer that the same goes for children as for any individual: we all have the right to easily accessible information, in a format that we can understand.
There are many good examples of empowering children and giving them a say, by for example UNICEF or Save the Children:
'The Youth Times' newspaper speaking up for Palestinian teenagers, reporting on news from the Occupied Palestinian Territory from a youth perspective (UNICEF)
'Children's clubs' in Nepal help young people know their rights (UNICEF)
UNICEF Radio Channel with Youth Digital Diarist Ms Chimba, 19, talking about behaviour change and AIDS prevention in Zambia
And one of the best ones I found (by Save the Children), is the Convention in Child friendly language! Apart from the bright colours and images of happy animals, which draw the attention of children better than black text on a white paper, the language used is very comprehensible, and takes into account the experience horizon of children.
For instance, article 12 reads:
"You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously" ,
Article 13 reads:
"You have the right to find out things and share what you think with others, by talking, drawing, writing or in any other way unless it harms or offends other people ",
and Article 17 reads:
"You have the right to get information that is important to your well-being, from radio, newspaper, books, computers and other sources. Adults should make sure that the information you are getting is not harmful, and help you find and understand the information you need."
Apart from using language that children will understand, we also need to use the channels that children use. This is of course where internet plays a crucial role. Statistics show that already 42 percent of Europe's six-year-olds are online and by the time they are seventeen that figure rises to 75 percent !
Increased interactivity and children online bring about new issues. The most common risks can be listed as the three 'Cs': content, contact and conduct.
Children can be exposed to violence and pornography. Privacy can be violated by unsolicited comments, possibly of a sexual nature, and children can be lured to meetings with strangers. Last, but by no means least, unwitting self-exposure such as giving out personal information or posting images can lead to harmful conduct such as cyber-bullying and grooming.
The potential problems are made more acute by the fact that children are using technology from an ever earlier age. Also, mobile technology makes the internet accessible pretty much everywhere. In Sweden, for example, 21 percent of youngsters have a mobile phone with internet access. This ease of access makes youngsters easy prey for those who would exploit their naivety and enthusiasm and thus gives rise to concerns about safety and security. It also raises the issue of parental control.
So what can we do to mitigate these risks?
Educating parents and teachers is an obvious means to protect children online. Unlike their children, parents are not 'digital natives', and need to be educated in the opportunities and genuine risks of internet use and how to deal with them. This could be achieved through specific online content targeted at parents, and forums where they could discuss their concerns and seek advice. Schools are well placed to teach children the skills needed to make the most of opportunities and minimise the risks in using online technologies. Schools can reach all children - including the most vulnerable ones who may not benefit from adequate parental supervision. Teachers should therefore be trained to advice children about online safety and equipped to discuss such issues as cyber-bullying and grooming.
Secondly, we should promote international cooperation and self-regulation, something the EU is committed to at the highest level. This is the main objective of the Safer Internet Programme, which the Commission launched ten years ago. The programme aims to give young people the tools and knowledge to protect themselves. It has been successful in bringing together industry, NGOs, public institutions and law enforcement bodies from all over Europe to develop joint projects for the protection and empowerment of children online.
However, we should not forget that a big share of the world's children have never accessed the internet, and don't even dare dreaming about owning their own computer. According to the Millennium Development Goals report, 72 million children of primary school age in the developing world were not in school in 2005; 57 per cent of them were girls. And these are regarded as optimistic numbers. According to the UNICEF report "State of the World's Children", every second child lives in poverty. One in three is without adequate shelter, one in five with no access to safe water, and one in seven without access to health services. 25,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Every year, 2.2 million children die because they are not immunized, and 15 million children are orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.
These alarming figures speak of an uncomfortable truth: the world still fails to respect the rights of its children; and even denies that children have rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child was a big milestone in our efforts, but many challenges remain. We cannot claim that the Convention has achieved what needs to be achieved. Rather, it has provided the foundation for change; the guideline spelling out what still needs to be changed.
Today, at the 20 th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of a Child, we should remind ourselves what we have left to do, namely placing children at the heart of human development. We must do this not only because this is a great investment for human kind, and because we will see the fruits of our efforts when our children grow up - although this is true. We should neither do this only out of compassion, because we associate childhood with vulnerability - although this should also be true. The fundamental reason we should protect and empower our children is the simplest but also the most important one: because it is their right .