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Child rights expert sounds the alarm: ‘Global crises are hitting children hardest’

Wars, climate change and the effects of covid have caused a global decline in children’s well-being. In her inaugural lecture Ann Skelton, Professor of Children’s Rights in a Sustainable World, points to the disastrous effects of multiple interacting crises.

At the beginning of the interview, Skelton apologises, ‘I wish I had better news but I am afraid I don’t.’ In addition to being a professor, she chairs the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child that monitors compliance with treaties.

Unfortunately, war and poverty are nothing new. What is different now from previous years?

‘There has been an increase in major wars and conflicts and in extreme conditions such as the covid pandemic and climate change that come together in a kind of perfect storm. That is why this polycrisis is so difficult to deal with. ‘For a while, things seemed to be improving and more countries were on their way to reducing child poverty. But with covid things stagnated or regressed. Many states were unable to meet their sustainable development goals and children’s rights have been less of a priority since then.’

Can you give an example of how crises interact?

‘Many families are already very poor and are forced by war and conflict to leave their homes. They end up in an area facing extreme weather conditions due to climate change. In Sudan, for example, which faces extreme drought and the threat of famine and where armed conflict has displaced four million children. Unfortunately, the media pays almost no attention to the situation in Sudan.
‘Forced displacement often deprives children of medical care and education for a long time, when each year of a child’s life is so important for their development. And having no education and being malnourished also affects your brain development.’

‘For a while, things seemed to be improving but with covid things stagnated or regressed in some countries’

You point to shocking figures in your publications: worldwide, an estimated one in 20 children suffer directly from war and conflict and one in six live in extreme poverty.

‘Yes, they are inconceivable numbers. Another horrifying figure: in Gaza, an average of 10 children a day lose one or more limbs due to war, and the majority of fatalities are children. In wars, it is usually mainly men who are killed − which is also terrible − but we expect that more than we expect children to die, but that is the reality now in Gaza.’

You also note an international revival of conservative values. How is that affecting children?

‘We see in the UN context that many states emphasise the rights of families and less specifically the rights of children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children are entitled to increasing levels of autonomy and opportunities for development as they become older. But in many countries − from Russia to the United States − there has been regression when it comes to sex education in schools, for example. These countries say that this should be a private matter for families once again.’

You chair the UN Children’s Rights Committee. Why is it so difficult to enforce rights?

‘The UN has limited power and the system of treaty bodies to oversee compliance with the Conventions is under strain. Member states have to fund the UN system but far from every state pays its contribution. As a result, treaty bodies such as ours cannot function optimally. A lack of funds means we will soon be able to meet for three weeks instead of four. So our time and attention for children’s rights is shrinking. 

‘In my inaugural lecture, I point to the big question of what all this means for the power of international law and the bodies that deal with it. I am certainly not throwing in the towel, but we all need to be brave enough to step out of our business-as-usual model and opt for a more holistic approach. Let’s operate much more from the understanding that we all belong to the same planet and are interconnected. Fortunately, there are also positive developments such as interesting breakthroughs in international law thanks to lawsuits by young climate activists.’ 

What can researchers do?

‘These issues are too big to tackle individually or with a small group. That is why I also want to invite the Leiden University community and beyond to help think how we can work together to combat the big problems of our time and how children’s rights can be better protected.’

Inaugural lecture on 12 April: International children’s rights in polycrisis: Interconnected pathways to social justice and a sustainable future

Text: Linda van Putten
Photo: Refugee camp in Iraq/Anmarrfaat

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