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Committee on the Rights of the Child, Day of General Discussion "Children as Human Rights Defenders"

Opening Remarks by Ms. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

28 September 2018

Excellences, members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to join in welcoming you all to this Day of General Discussion on Children Human Rights Defenders. Congratulations to all those who made this possible and to everyone who helped plan the great way that our discussions will work today.

I am very pleased to be also here alongside Ireland’s Amb. Michael Gaffey and Norway’s Amb. Hans Brattskar and so pleased that many other important human rights people have joined us here.

I am most excited of course to be welcoming the members of the Child Advisory Team. You make this such a very special moment for us all – for us personally who work here and for the human rights work we try to do here. This year is the 20th birthday of the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration and the 70th birthday of the UDHR. Thank you for the gift of your presence here and thank you for your leadership that has made it possible.

Today, we will talk with you, about you. We will listen to you, thank you and we want very much to encourage you too – in your leadership roles as children human rights defenders.

But I want to start us off in a different place. And, let me explain why.

It should not be so unusual to have people of your age and experience at the United Nations. But it is.

It shouldn’t be such a rare and exceptional event to have your voices join ours in discussion, and directly influencing the decision making that takes place here. But it is.

It should not be a celebration that you are here with us, because it should be normal, routine, regular and familiar. But it is not.

Dear members of the Child Advisory Team, to talk fairly about you, we probably first should talk fairly about us – those of us who are not children - are no longer children. To be fair to you, we must put some tough facts on the table.

We older people have failed you – have failed children. In so many places, in so many ways – older people are still failing children.

I don’t mean to become too serious, but if we are to be honest with you, we have to take you seriously. And people who take each other seriously, tell each other the truth.

And the truth is that older people are not always trustworthy.

We know that there are older people who hurt children, including physically, even sexually. Some of those older people are priests, some school teachers, some are football coaches, sometimes even family members – people whose jobs were to protect you but who failed. We know there are even leaders of countries who decide to force a girl child - pregnant because an older man has hurt her - to leave school. And yet, it is your right to be protected from our failures.

We know there are older people running our governments, who choose to spend more money on their armies than on education for children. Young human rights defender Malala Yousafzai has said that just “eight days of military spending” would give all children access to 12 years of free education. Millions of children still are denied education. And yet, it is your right to be educated, even at times of conflict.

We know that there are older people – we even hear them at the United Nations – leaders in government, in religions and in communities who don’t even want children to have basic information or essential services – information that you need to understand what happens to your bodies when you grow up to be teenagers; services to help you know how to manage your body when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, how to make sure you can stay safe. And yet, you have a right to information about your bodies and to take care of your own body.

There are people – always older people – making decisions about you without even thinking to stop to ask you what you want, what you think. And yet, you have a right to participate in decisions affecting your lives.

Yet, the strange thing about this, is that it was older people - even older people – including some working 70 years ago - who made those laws and standards that recognise you have those rights, and yet it is older people who are breaking those promises.

So, I believe that first we older people owe you, and through you, all children, such a deep apology for those many times when we who should have protected, defended and supported you, but failed you instead.

And we owe you also such a deep continuous promise - to do all that we can – everything within our power - to protect you from the failings of older people. And, of course, it is your right to hold us accountable to that promise.

Now, I don’t mean to be tough on non-children, I want to be fair. So, to be fair, many more older people do want to respect and protect children’s rights.

But, we have to admit that even then, we often trip up; we stumble over our weird ideas about what it means.

For example, we are quick to talk about how children need to learn, but we are slow to talk about how we need to learn, learn to listen children.

We make a big thing out of the need to wait until children grow up and are educated enough, and somehow old enough before we can let them take part in public decision making. But, you don’t need to have finished secondary school, or have a university degree, to have a wise opinion about your own life, to contribute well to decisions about your life, or to participate influentially in the life of your community.

Of course, sometimes as we get older, we do get more knowledgeable and much wiser but that it is not guaranteed. While, on the other hand, being young today – that is a wisdom in and of itself.

In this digital age, on this globalised planet, living in a time when we are more interconnected than ever before, when we have the largest generation ever of young people, being young is a competence.

What’s more, millions of young people are living their lives in the toughest of places, at the hardest of time, experiencing the worst that human beings can do to each other. I am not arguing that educational qualifications and work experience are not important. But I am asking why do we older not give more weight to your experience – to what you have experienced?

If young age is no barrier to experiencing the worst consequences of older people’s decisions, then why use young age as an excuse to leave you out, to lock you out, from the places where those decisions could be changed.

As human rights defenders, you know far better than I do why it is so important that we rethink the power relationship between older and young people.

If we would just change how we older people relate to children, make more room for you, listen to you more respectfully, value your experiences more, keep our promises to you then maybe we too would grow up and with you, just get on with changing the world for better.

END