In 1989, member states of the United Nations signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has since been adopted by 194 countries; only the United States, Somalia and Southern Sudan have not endorsed the convention. The convention was the first official recognition that children have human rights; it established that children have to be protected against violence and different forms of exploitation, and that they are entitled to education, good healthcare and free time and play.
‘1989 seems like a long time ago, but this convention is relatively young,’ according to Ton Liefaard. ‘It’s now up to governments throughout the world to implement the convention in their own legislation and policies. It’s adults who have to be open to children’s rights. At the core of the convention is the principle that children have to be listened to and included in decision-making. But what you see is that adults are often only prepared to go so far in listening to children and giving them a say in decisions. Nor are they prepared to determine how much value they attach to the opinions of children in the decision-making process. This attitude seriously undermines the Convention on Children’s Rights.’ Unfortunately, violations of children’s rights seem to be an everyday occurrence, and we’re not just talking about such infringements as child labour, sexual abuse or involving children in armed conflicts, according to Liefaard. ‘Even wealthy countries like the Netherlands do not take children’s rights seriously enough. There are concerns about children who need special youth services, children who were not born here, but who have lived here for a long time and go to school here, or children who come into contact with criminal law.’
Liefaard and his colleagues from the Department of Child Law (Faculty of Law) study the effect of the UN Convention on Human Rights on legislation, policies and jurisprudence in countries, including the Netherlands, and its impact on the lives of children. They examine in particular the penetration of children’s rights into jurisprudence, the rights of children in child protection and childcare, the rights of children who are placed in institutions outside their family, children’s rights and juvenile justice, children’s rights and violence against children, for example at home or in secure institutions, and the right of children to be heard. ‘As a centre of expertise on children’s rights, Leiden opts for a legal perspective, and from this angle to connect with other disciplines. When considering the input of young people, we look, for example, in the first instance at the framework outlined by the UN Convention and what it means for the way that children are treated at national level. The legal framework is important because it stresses that care and respect for all children is not optional; it is an obligation. The international legal framework provided important guidance, by stating, for example, that parents bear the primary responsibility for how they raise their children. This implies that, in the first instance, the government has to be reticent in intervening in children’s upbringing. The interests of the child always have to be the prime consideration, however, and these may justify state intervention.’
On the basis of their research, Liefaard and his colleagues also provide advice on legislation, policies and jurisprudence to such bodies as the Dutch government and the Children’s Ombudsman and such international organisations as the Council of Europe.