The World Council of Churches (WCC) on 26 May hosted an event marking the 40th anniversary of Child Rights Connect, celebrating four decades of coordinated global civil society advocacy in Geneva for child rights using the United Nations system.
Speakers said that despite progress, child rights must be enhanced to make the world a safer place for children where climate change is a growing obstacle to their rights and looking at the investment in fossil fuels, which churches are engaging in, was raised.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, a key speaker, said, "I am delighted to see many children here in the room and online today. For me, this shows the real progress we are making in ensuring children's voices are heard in the conversations that matter."
Participants noted that this year also marks 25 years since the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adoption.
The conference considered the context and challenges faced by the child rights movement and child human rights defenders and looked at potential responses through UN mechanisms and agencies.
"This conference is about changing the narrative on children's rights," Türk explained.
Children telling their stories
"If we want to change the narrative, we need to change the narrator. This means children telling their own stories. Children enjoying their rights and envisioning a better future," said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"The quest for rights and freedoms for all children is not the responsibility of children alone. We all need to accompany them on this journey."
Türk explained that the 1989 adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child by the UN General Assembly made it the most ratified international law convention in history.
Najat Maalla M'jid, special representative on violence against children, threats, and violent reprisals faced by child human rights defenders, also addressed the conference.
Other speakers included Philip D. Jaffé, professor at the University of Geneva's Centre for Children's Rights Studies and member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and Barbara Hintermann, director general, Terre des hommes Lausanne Foundation.
Church members’ objections
At a session on anti-child-rights narratives and attacks based on traditional and family values, Luis Pedernera, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from Uruguay, spoke of evangelical groups in Latin America raising objections to talking about child health and sexual and reproductive matters and sex education in schools.
"They say we are taking away the rights of parents to educate their children through sex education in schools."
Pedernera said they objected to terms such as co-parenting and having child rights matters discussed at schools.
He said the way to counter their objection is to educate parents about the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Children spoke virtually from places around the world, such as Hawaii, Nepal, and Palestine, about how their rights were challenged by the environment, customs, laws, or conflicts they live in or around or their access to technology.
A teen from Zambia spoke virtually, saying she had worked with parents and children.
Seen as taking advantage
"One of the major concerns is that children are often perceived as taking advantage of the fact that they have rights.
"How do you change the narrative around this issue of children's responsibility and avoid using it against children's rights and good practices in helping children and parents understand the relationship between children's rights and responsibilities?" said the Zambian child.
The senior WCC-UNICEF Partnership manager Frederique Seidel addressed the closing session about child rights climate and investments.
"At the World Council of Churches, we are currently experiencing, with a new climate litigation initiative, how difficult it is to get the recognition that new investments into fossil fuel are a crime against children," said Seidel.
"Although there is so much evidence from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that new investments into fossil fuel must stop, at the same time, massive bank investments are undertaken."
Seidel said the effect of climate change and disasters is well known to impact children's mental health when they see no match between the scientific facts and the legal system.
She said preventing future investments in fossil fuels is one of the most important ways to respond to the climate emergency and urged support for pending church-backed litigation.