Peace and Unity Conference speech

Given by Nick Hobbs, Head of Advice and Investigations.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank the organisers for their kind invitation to be here this evening representing Bruce Adamson the Commissioner for Children and Young People Scotland. I have been asked to say a few words about the work of our office and about children’s rights in Scotland.

The role of the Commissioner is to promote and safeguard the rights of children and young people in Scotland. We often refer to it in terms of “making sure promises are kept.” At the heart of the Commissioner’s role is the 1989  United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child .

The Convention is the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. It changed the way children are viewed and treated in international legal terms. It proclaims children’s status as human beings with a distinct set of rights, not just as passive objects of care and charity.

We can understand these rights as a set of promises, made by our government, on our behalf, that we should do certain things to make life better for children and young people. Those promises are made internationally, but it was recognised that there was a need for domestic actors to ensure those promises were given life and meaning at a national level.

And at its heart, that is the Commissioner’s job— to ensure that those promises are kept: by reminding people of what they are; by exploring what they mean; by monitoring how they are translated into practice; and by holding people accountable when implementation falls short of what is required.

My own role is to make sure the Commissioner’s investigative powers are used to best effect, which is one of the ways in which we exercise that accountability function.

The Commissioner’s remit extends to all children, from birth to 18, and up to 21 for those who have been in the care system. He also has a duty to consult children and young people about his work and involve them in it. We are currently in the process of consulting on our Strategic Plan, empowering children and young people to help set the Commissioner’s priorities for the next two years.

The first  Declaration of the Rights of the Child, made in 1924, emphasised that:

  • Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give; and
  • The child must be first to receive relief in times of distress.

This, and subsequent declarations, including the UN Charter in 1945 and the  Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, which made clear that “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance”, laid the groundwork for the UNCRC. Their sentiments are especially relevant in terms of the subject matter of this conference and what they say about a world that children tell us they often find chaotic and frightening.

We’re going to hear later about issues such as trafficking, radicalisation and the effects of armed conflict. It can be too easy to fall into despair when faced with these apparently huge, seemingly insurmountable, problems and levels of need.

Should you find yourself feeling that way, perhaps it’s worth considering the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

So perhaps it’s easier to start with something more manageable, with an example of how children’s rights can be protected closer to home.

Within the preamble to the UNCRC, setting the context for what follows, is the recognition that children should grow up “in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. The Convention goes on to proclaim that:

“The best interests of children should be a primary consideration in all matters that affect them – including decisions taken by legislative bodies.

We know that the rights set out in the UN Convention are all interconnected. This means that if we want to understand what is in the child’s best interests, we must look to the other Convention rights, and indeed to that preamble. Particularly as we know that there are interconnections in real life between rights to health and poverty, education and recreation, safety and development.

When I received the invitation to attend this event, I looked up the meaning of Ahl Al Bait (and please forgive my pronunciation). I understand that it refers to family, and specifically to the family of the Prophet Muhammad.

We sometimes see children’s rights presented as if they are drawn in opposition to the rights of parents, and particularly to the right to family life as set out in the  European Convention on Human Rights .

But when parents and family members call our office to seek advice, for example in relation to education, additional support needs or mental health, they often do so because they regard themselves as defenders of their children’s human rights. And they are correct to do so.

In fact, the UNCRC recognises the important role the family can play in protecting children’s rights. It understands that families of all kinds can create an environment in which respect for children’s rights thrives. They can create “an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” where children’s best interests are promoted.

You may be aware that Scotland has the potential to be the first country in the UK to bring about the legal change necessary to provide children with equal protection from assault. John Finnie MSP intends to introduce a Bill to the Scottish Parliament before the end of the year.

Some people have presented this as an attack on family life and on the rights of parents. After what I’ve just said, you won’t be surprised to hear that is not a view that I share. The family is an environment in which we protect and nurture children’s rights. Many of the duties owed by the state to parents are intended to ensure support for children. And children’s rights to enjoy family life and their right to protection from violence are interconnected.

So I was interested and delighted to hear Shaykh Rehan Raza Al-Azhari on the BBC at the weekend explain that the proposed change in the law was entirely consistent with an Islamic view on what constitutes good parenting. I think that’s a really helpful perspective and I hope that Scotland’s communities of faith can continue to contribute to this discussion as it moves into the Parliament.

If we pride ourselves on being a progressive country, a country which values children and is committed to offering them the best outcomes in life, then we need to make sure that this legislative change happens at the very earliest opportunity. It is in the best interests of children, and I commend the Scottish Government for agreeing to support it.

The First Minister said that we’ve a lot to be proud of in Scotland in terms of children’s rights and I agree with her about that. My own background is in the children’s hearings system and I am an unashamed advocate for how that system places children’s rights and best interests at the centre of its guiding principles.

However, there is more we can do and one of the challenges we face in making children’s rights real here in Scotland is that the UNCRC is not directly incorporated in domestic law. That means that although it is increasingly influential in discussions around policy, practice and legislation, it is not directly justiciable in our domestic courts. I welcome the Scottish Government’s recent commitment to examine further the possibility of incorporation – it is something our office has been calling for, for a very long time. Again, I hope that is a debate everyone here will contribute to.

This event today is impressive in the numbers that have turned out to express in concrete terms, in the midst of your no doubt crowded and pressurised professional lives, your commitment to the rights of children and young people. That level of commitment and care must surely provide a strong basis for faith in our ability to succeed. I wish you well in that endeavour, and I promise that the Commissioner and his staff will do all that we can to join with you in it.

I’d like to end with another quote, this one from Kofi Annan:

“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace.”

Thank you.

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