Universal Children’s Day: A time to pause and reflect upon our ongoing research on children

Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

e.a.faulkner@hull.ac.uk

PhD students researching child exploitation at the W.I.

Charlotte Russell  c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

Jasmine Holding Brown j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

James Baker j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

The 20th November is Universal Children’s Day (also known as World Children’s Day), as this was the date in 1959 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child and in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter the CRC). This November then marks the thirty-first anniversary of the recognition of children’s rights and offers an opportunity for researchers working on child exploitation in the Wilberforce Institute to take a moment to pause and reflect together upon the role of children’s rights within their research. PhD students James Baker, Saphia Fleury, Jasmine Holding Brown, Charlotte Russell and Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner (Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery) all work in the area of ‘children on the move’, interrogating both historical and contemporary abuses of children’s rights in situations where they are forced for a range of reasons to leave their homes and cross national borders.

As identified by Price and Cohen (1991) the CRC guaranteed the child’s ‘individual personality’ rights and set the minimum rights which states should recognise for children. But though the CRC is often celebrated for its universal acceptance (with the USA being the only State that has failed to ratify), questions still arise around its provenance and representation. Notions of the child and childhood have been heavily influenced by Western discourses and a romanticised ideal of childhood. The perception that ‘West is best’ is perpetuated in the CRC which can be interpreted as a new imperialism brandished under the guise of ‘children’s rights’, serving as an effective tool to ‘beat’ the Global South, in addition to deflecting from the continued Western dominance within the field of children’s rights. There are other problems too – within this construct children are residential, fixed and inherently local. What then does all this mean for us as researchers investigating ‘children on the move’?

The research of Jasmine and James considers historical exploitation and abuse of children perpetrated in the twentieth century in the form of British and North American ‘child saving’ schemes and the British ‘assisted child migration schemes’ to Australia.  Focusing on the early twentieth century prior to the drafting and adoption of the CRC, children were arguably invisible in the international legal system. Approximately 7000 children were taken from British (and some Maltese) orphanages and sent to work in Australia’s agricultural sector, living in farm schools thousands of miles from home, and many became victims of maltreatment, involving aspects of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. When such cases were reported to authorities by child migrants they were seldom believed, and even if they had been, children’s rights at the time were far less developed than they are today. In this way, justifications for such projects, which emerge from ideals of ‘saving children’ and of advancing British views through education, destruction of culture and populating colonies with ‘white British stock’, are interwoven into the legacy of children’s rights. It is striking how the welfare of children, or ‘children’s rights’ as we might now conceptualise them, can be tied so effectively to the ‘national interest’ in ways that ultimately harm children, assimilation through education being a particular case in point. 

If we look at children taking refuge from persecution and the consequences of conflict, this has been a matter of international concern since Eglantyne Jebb  (the founder of Save the Children), in 1920, declared that ‘the world’s children stand in urgent need of better protection’. Despite the fact that the treatment of children affected by armed conflict – the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking children  – had been dealt with by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocol of 1977, they were not separately recognised in an international instrument until the adoption of the CRC in 1989 through Article 22. The research of Charlotte and Saphia considers the contemporary movement of children, with the former focusing upon children within European refugee camps and the latter upon child migration in the context of climate and environmental change.

Charlotte’s research advocates for the amplification of children’s voices in line with the rights afforded under international law, with the aspiration of addressing the impasse between policy and practice regarding the enjoyment of rights afforded by the CRC. The voices of children provide a link between the contemporary and historical aspects of this research, as each of the doctoral research projects seeks to centralise children.

Saphia’s research catalogues the inadequacies of the international legal framework to address children who migrate, whether domestically or internationally as a consequence of climate change. In contrast to any other international human rights treaty, the CRC provision for the protection of refugee and asylum-seeking children remains largely absent from mechanisms designed to tackle the human impact of climate change and environmental degradation. (Pobjoy, 2017; Myers & Theytaz-Bergman, 2017). The recognition of the rights of migrant children in the two Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants has been lauded as the first intergovernmental agreement to recognise climate-related migration. However, the Compact (not legally binding) is far from flawless despite making a departure from the traditional international legal architecture that has been implemented to protect refugees. The protections afforded to environmentally displaced persons are not systematic and competing priorities in migrant protection may ultimately bury the issue of climate migration. There are also difficulties when we consider the rights of children that fall outside the traditional view of children as weak, passive and vulnerable in the context of contemporary migration, such as adolescents who have decided to migrate in search of economic opportunities, as this strikes at the heart of the international legal framework.

Children are victims of some of the most devastating examples of state sanctioned and private human rights abuse, within the context of international law. Migration is the field where children’s rights come face to face with and clash with the sovereignty of states, in particular their prerogative to decide on entry, residence, and expulsion of non-nationals. The conflict between the interests of the nation state and the rights of children opens an interesting space for research into the exploitation of ‘children on the move’ during the past two centuries and beyond. We look forward to continuing our research and further discussions on the exploitation of children and the global challenges connected thereto.

“Children’s Rights” by LindaH is licensed under CC BY 2.0
https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/2643bf16-3190-496d-827d-de8e4843eedf

Summary of author’s recent publications

Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

e.a.faulkner@hull.ac.uk

Today Dr Elizabeth Faulkner summarizes two of her latest publications.

These recent publications reflect my ongoing interest in the rights and exploitation of children and international law, which emerged out of my time as a doctoral researcher within De Montfort University’s Law School. The first is a collaboratively written journal article which seeks to address the colonial contours of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Last year saw the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the UNCRC, which was ratified in 1989. This commemoration presented an opportunity to examine and revaluate the epistemologies of children’s rights, their representativeness, and their intellectual utility. The article, entitled ‘The Decolonisation of Children’s Rights and the Colonial Contours of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’ points to the potential for the UNCRC to perpetuate colonial tendencies if accepted uncritically as a global and definitive blueprint for children’s rights. We therefore sought to interrogate the power dynamics and colonial legacy upon which our views of children are formed, the colonial contours of the UNCRC and the decolonisation of children’s rights. References were made to the impact of ancillary protective legal instruments on children to provide a more holistic analysis of the legal architecture underpinning children’s rights.

Conrad and I advocate that we, as academics, need to interrogate the power dynamics that shape the underlying presumptions upon which our worldviews are built on an ongoing basis.  We used a decolonial lens to challenge both the pedagogy and scholarship of the discourse, whilst simultaneously inviting scholars to recognise and engage with the colonial legacies that perpetuate the study of children’s rights. We set out an argument that scholarship on children’s rights needs to be disentangled from hegemonic Western epistemologies if it is to remain relevant.

Indeed, the colonial legacy present within the discourse of children’s rights needs to be challenged  in a multiplicity of ways, from the development and implementation of the international legal framework, to the teaching of children’s rights, to the removing of barriers to scholars from the Global South to participating in the discourse. Such factors manifest as Hokusai’s wave, a wave that suppresses, prevents, and subsequently perpetuates the dominance of imperialist approaches to children’s rights, knowledge and reform.

***

The second publication is a book chapter which analyses how international law seeks to prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, and appears in the fourth edition of Professor Trevor Buck’s International Child Law Routledge text, edited by Dr Rajnaara Akhtar and Dr Conrad Nyamutata of De Montfort Law School. The book examines the rights of the child using the global framework of the UNCRC. Through examining both public and private international legal aspects, this interdisciplinary text promotes a holistic understanding of the ongoing development of child law, children’s rights, and the protection of the child. Chapter 8 of the International Child Law text (‘Sexual Exploitation’) acknowledges that the sexual abuse and exploitation of children has occurred throughout human history but did not emerge upon the international agenda until the 1990s. The chapter grapples with the issue of definitions, as the expansion of the discourse since the turn of the twenty-first century has arguably rendered any definition of ‘child sexual exploitation’ as vague and ambiguous. The fact remains that international law does not offer a distinct definition of the sexual exploitation, but the international legal apparatus has sought to address this through the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (OPSC). The chapter on sexual exploitation in previous editions had mentioned trafficking, but not explicitly addressed the Trafficking Protocol and its role in combatting the sexual exploitation of children. Although trafficking is frequently perceived as synonymous with commercial sex work or ‘sexual enslavement’, this is not the case. The issue of quantification of the issues and the profits rendered from the sexual exploitation of children are touched upon, as they shape and inform the international action of global bodies that have a mandate to combat child sexual exploitation, such as The United Nations and the Group of 7 (formerly G8). The key difference between global and regional mandates is that regional ones ordinarily involve localized action. Examples of regional instruments include the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution.

The chapter finds resonance with the journal article above, through highlighting that the discourse of child sexual exploitation ‘is produced by and reproduced by the dominant discourse of childhood in the West, and more specifically, a discourse of female childhood in which female sexuality is constructed within a sexual double standard’. This analysis coincides with the fact that the most active geopolitical region seeking to combat child sexual exploitation is Europe. Moreover, this chapter sought to introduce the emerging critical scholarship upon the issue of ‘modern slavery’ and challenge the assertion of the previous edition that ‘trafficking … has become a modern-day slave trade’.