Commissioner’s speech to UN Human Rights Council: The Rights of the Child and the Sustainable Development Goals

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Today – Monday March 1 – is the Annual day on the Rights of the Child within the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Marking the occasion, Commissioner Bruce Adamson gave this speech:

Building back and accelerating Sustainable Development Goal implementation through a child rights-based approach: lessons from country experience

Madame Vice-President, excellencies, fellow panellists, children, young people, and other distinguished delegates, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be here today. 

We are still in a global pandemic which has disproportionally affected children whose rights were already most at risk, including disabled children, care-experienced children, young carers, and children impacted by poverty.  

Before the pandemic, poverty, food insecurity, and mental health were the biggest human rights issues in Scotland and Covid-19 has made things worse. 

In April last year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child warned of the grave physical and psychological effects of the pandemic on children. We are seeing that come to pass. The Committee called on States to take a rights-based approach, which did not just focus on the public health crisis, but on the broader human rights framework – including economic, social, and cultural rights.  

But there has been a lack of those human rights principles such as children’s participation in decision-making, the use of Impact Assessments, and the use of rights-based budgeting.  

This pandemic has shown just how vulnerable rights protections can be.  

The children and young people I speak to every day realise how important their role has been in protecting public health. I see daily their resilience, their creativity, and their self-sacrifice.   

But the negative impacts are profound. Alongside the severe educational impact of children being away from school in Scotland, we are seeing effects on their mental and physical health, their right to be kept safe, their right to development through lost opportunities to socialise with friends and family and engage in cultural activities and play. 

Fortunately, the international human rights framework provides us the tools to ensure that children are not overlooked or left behind. 

In July 2015, Scotland became one of the first countries to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs sit at the heart of our National Performance Framework. The clear links between children’s rights and the SDGs must translate into concrete, joined-up action domestically as we work towards 2030.  

Excitingly, following decades of campaigning from children, civil society, and my office, the Scottish Parliament will, in the next few weeks, fully and directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into our domestic Scots law. This will make the Convention directly enforceable at all levels of decision-making and bring a new level of accountability against human rights standards. 

As Maria, one of my young advisers, has said: “This will give power to young people. Now our rights will be in our laws. And that gives us power.” 

Or as another child put: “My rights are my armour to me.” 

The link between the Convention being in national law, and the SDGs being in the National Performance Framework creates huge potential for human rights in Scotland. 

I’d like to highlight the important role of tools such as Children’s Rights Impact Assessments. Last year, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children developed a Common Framework of Reference for Impact Assessments and Impact Evaluation.  

Impact Assessments are a government responsibility. Before Covid-19, the Scottish Government had committed to using them. However, during the pandemic, they have struggled to do so effectively.  

In May 2020, alongside the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland, we undertook an Impact Assessment independently of the state’s response to Covid-19. We wanted to demonstrate to government how, if done correctly, a rights-based approach can inform better decision-making.  

Our Impact Assessment followed the key themes identified by the UN Committee and revealed significant and far-reaching impacts of pandemic-related decisions in relation to children and young people. It formed the framework for our work over the last 10 months to improve the situation in Scotland.  

Some of the issues where we have seen progress include poverty alleviation, where the Scottish Government responded to findings that digital exclusion was impacting home learning and socialisation by committing £30 million. They also established a winter support fund and payments to address the loss of school meals and the longstanding issue of food insecurity.  

Covid rules were also amended to provide additional socialisation – recognising the importance of this for children’s development. 

There is a long way to go. Most children are still not back at school and there are significant impacts ongoing.     

But we are seeing the start of tools like impact assessments to deliver better decision- making.  

As the world looks to how we build back better from Covid-19 and achieve the SDGs in a way that realises children’s human rights; children must be at the heart of decision-making. They are experts in their own experience and their ideas are practical, innovative, and inspiring.  

We have seen the leadership of Child Human Rights Defenders through their work on climate change, anti-misogyny, and anti-racism all over the world. Their leadership will be an important part of delivering on the SDGs through and post-Covid. Impact Assessments have to be part of the legitimate, systemic decision-making to ensure children’s rights are not overlooked as we build a sustainable, rights-respecting world for all. 

Thank you, Madame Vice-President. 

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