Reflections on the Civil and Political Rights of Children in a time of Pandemic

Children with masks

Written by: The Honourable Landon Pearson O.C., Former Canadian Senator and Children’s Rights Advocate

Until the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989  people rarely talked about the political rights of children let alone their civil ones, the ones designed to ensure everyone’s entitlement to participate in the civil and political life of society and the state without discrimination or repression. Even the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child spoke primarily to protection and provision rights, to safety, health, education and so on. So the inclusion of Article 12 in the CRC , the right to participate, was a major step forward. What was even more remarkable was the fact that the American delegate to the drafting process of the Convention insisted on adding after Article 12 the list of civil rights included in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the US had recently ratified. These rights, the right to freedom of expression and access to information, to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and  to privacy (Articles 13-16) are all essential preconditions for the exercise of political rights. The irony is, of course, that the US is now the only country in the world not to have ratified the CRC!

But why should Article 12 be considered a political right when it only speaks to children and youth under the voting age? In my view this is because of the reality that an informed voter necessary for a fully functioning democracy does not magically appear at the age of 18. Political skills have to be learned and practised because they represent the ultimate personal expression that shapes the governance of any country that claims to be democratic.  Properly respected Article 12 can enable young people to have a say even before they have a vote. What Article 12 implies is that “there can be no talking about us and if you don’t listen to us, you grown-ups, what you decide may backfire.”

During this pandemic and the other challenges like climate change that are on the way the voices of youth are more important than ever. Young people are not the problem, they are the solution . We need to hear from them so that they can share with us their lived experiences of Covid 19 and direct our thinking as we collectively prepare for the future. Even little children have valuable insights and much to contribute to the continual planning that now has to go on. There can be no return to the way things were before the pandemic broke out but there can be a new normal, better than before, that children and young people exercising their civil and political rights can help us to construct.

The Honourable Landon Pearson O.C. is a long-time advocate for the rights and well-being of children.  From 1994 to 2005, Landon Pearson served in The Senate of Canada where she became known as the Children’s Senator as well as the Senator for Children. She is currently Chair of the Advisory Board at the Landon Pearson Resource Centre at Carleton University, which is devoted to promoting the rights of children and youth.