Building justice for children, with children


Children are thirty percent of the world’s population. In many countries, over half of the population is under the age of eighteen. If we don’t achieve justice for children, and if we are unable to involve them meaningfully in this process, then we will fail in our ambition of achieving justice for all by 2030.

By Kristen Hope, Research, Advocacy and Participation Advisor, Terre des hommes

(UN Photo / Manuel Elias)

On November 20th, people across the world marked the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is now the most widely-ratified international instrument on the planet. The final draft of the CRC consolidated what were considered at the time to be quite radical philosophical ideas: that children are not merely passive, dependent, immature beings that rely on the guidance, support and better judgment of adults to provide for them. Rather, childhood was understood as a phase of development that requires support and nurturing, but also as a moment of personhood, of agency. From then onwards, children were firmly positioned as subjects of rights.

Over the past three decades, considerable progress has been achieved in the area of children’s rights, from education and health to protection and participation. Nevertheless, major challenges remain, particularly when it comes to access to justice for children. It is estimated that one billion children worldwide are victims of violence. Another seven million children are deprived of liberty. In Syria alone, over 29,000 children of foreign fighters are stranded in a conflict zone with countries of their nationality refusing to accept them. Across so many areas, children not only pay the highest costs, they also remain the most voiceless.

The vision set out in the Sustainable Development Agenda, makes timely commitments to address these pressing concerns and the Justice for All report sets out an agenda for implementation. In this context, academic, civil society, and United Nations agencies launched in July 2019 a Call to Action on Justice for Children based around the ambition set forth in SDG16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

The Call to Action sets out a collective global commitment to ensure that all children live peaceful, just and inclusive lives, and are provided with the opportunity to live and flourish to their full potential. Across ten specific challenges on achieving justice for children as part and parcel of achieving justice for all, the Call to Action offers a new starting point to place children at the heart of an emerging global movement around justice for children, by:

  • articulating a new vision of justice as an enabler of children’s opportunities and development to their full potential.
  • Targeting critical decision makers
  • Building on the growing momentum of national commitments.
  • Sharply prioritising impact and better outcomes for children.

Following from this, the 30th anniversary of the CRC constituted an important opportunity to pause and reflect on how a rights-based approach can amplify and accelerate progress for children over the next decade. A key consideration of that process would be to answer questions about children’s right to be heard, as enshrined in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Namely: how can the practice of child participation remain a cornerstone of any agenda to achieving justice for all children?

It wasn’t enough to just talk the talk of child participation in achieving justice for children; we needed to start walking the participation walk.

That’s why in Geneva, as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a working session on justice for children; justice with children was organized by a number of prominent organizations working in the field of children’s rights. The workshop sought to bring together child and youth activists and adult professionals, all with experience in the field of justice for children, to take forward child participation in implementing the Call to Action. By adopting an interactive format that pitched children and young people as equals alongside adult State representatives and justice practitioners, the session poignantly highlighted a number of priority areas.

Justice for children: justice with children workshop (Photo: Kristen Hope)

Children need to be treated as children and not criminals.” — Ericka

Ericka, a 16 year old from the Philippines, shared with us her story of mobilizing young people to fight against lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility in her country. She spoke clearly and calmly about the need for governments to do more to keep children out of the justice system through prevention (dealing with social and economic inequalities), diversion to avoid children getting caught up in justice systems, and raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

Unfortunately, children are not given the chance to be part of solutions. Children being part of solutions is already a solution in itself” — Anas.

Meanwhile, Anas, a 21 year old from Morocco, shared his experience of being detained as he migrated across southern Europe as a teenager. In addition to the abuse he experienced, Anas was “treated like a terrorist”. Officials in the migrant centres did not provide him with the relevant information in a language he understood. Several years later, Anas is now living a working in the humanitarian sector in Greece. His experience of disempowerment in the justice system fundamentally affected how he sees the ways forward in terms of improving access to justice for children.

From left: Kristen Hope, Anas and Ericka (Photo: Kristen Hope)

The session resulted in two key recommendations, presented by Anas and Ericka during the concluding segment of the 30th Anniversary:

  • As part of their commitments to leave no one behind, States should ensure access to justice for all children.
  • States should do more to implement rights-compliant and child-friendly justice systems.

Although these two recommendations chime with existing guidance and are by no means ground-breaking, what is significant is the process by which children and young people’s lived experiences fed into a clear articulation of how child rights and the SDG agenda intersect on justice for children. In doing so, the insights shared by Anas and Ericka, as well as several other children and young people in the room, reaffirmed the crucial importance of involving children and young people in implementing the Call to Action on Justice for Children.

Moving forward, this entails systematically opening up avenues for children to access information–provided in a child-friendly manner–in order to enable them to engage in decision-making at all levels. Obviously, for particularly vulnerable children, such as victims of violence or those deprived of liberty in the criminal justice system, ethical concerns about do no harm need to be central to participation. In this regard, digital technologies and social media can be harnessed to enable more at-risk children to express their views while upholding their anonymity. This recent video made in the context of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty is a case in point.

The session in Geneva confirmed that we can no longer afford to leave children out of adult conversations about achieving justice for all. It is our collective responsibility to move forward by building justice for children, with children; where children themselves are empowered and supported to play key roles in creating change. This is why we have committed, with partners the International Association of Family and Youth Judges and Magistrates and Penal Reform International to frame the next World Congress on Justice for Children, scheduled in Mexico in 2021, as a Congress on Justice with Children.

So as we move toward the next big milestone on the UN calendar, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in September 2020, let’s continue to build the momentum generated by the Call to Action and the events in Geneva. Let’s to never forget that, if we are truly committed to ensuring that no child is left behind, sustained efforts are required in order to involve children meaningfully as agents of change in realizing the global ambition of achieving justice for all.

Kristen Hope is Terre des homme’s Research, Advocacy and Participation Advisor.

The Justice for Children Call to Action is an international, multi-agency project led by CELCIS — Inspiring Children’s Futures at the University of Strathclyde; and developed and written with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children; and the Child Justice Advocacy Group, coordinated by Terre des hommes and Defence for Children International. It has been commissioned by Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, with the Task Force on Justice.