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A right is a commonly-held judgement arising from our humanity as to what is fair and proper. In common language it is most often expressed in the negative, “It’s not right – that children should be cold and hungry – that they should be denied their best chance in life”. In this context, the common meaning of the word “right” as “appropriate” is close to the meaning of “a right” used in more technical language.

There was an interesting article in Saturday’s Herald based on an interview with Dame Sylvia Cartwright who has returned to New Zealand this year from her work in Cambodia. She has been a champion of human rights in this country and internationally. I was reminded how she courageously spoke out in defence of children’s right to not be assaulted in 2002 during the Section 59 debate.

In the interview Dame Sylvia observed that New Zealanders had reduced a former concern for children’s rights to a more basic focus on their economic survival. Public discussion has been about the lack of suitable food, clothing and housing rather than the wider issue of children’s citizenship. The two views of children’s problems are related. A sustainable solution to child poverty must be built on a recognition of children’s rights not just to food and shelter but to a permanent place at the table when decisions that affect them are made.

New Zealand has a long and honourable history of concern for children’s interests expressed in ground- breaking legislation and in government and non-government programmes for child protection, preventive health and education. The set of children’s rights laid down in the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) was adopted by our government when it signed up to the Convention in 1993. Government must report to the Child Rights Committee (CRC) of the U.N. every five years on its compliance with the Convention. The fifth report is currently being prepared by the Ministry of Social Development and a companion non-Government report will be prepared under the auspices of the NGO coalition, Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa (ACYA).

Despite this commitment, New Zealand has been found delinquent in a number of respects in successive CRC reports. One of their concerns has been our failure to comply with Article 27 of the Convention which says in part:

  1. States Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development
  2. The parent(s) or others responsible for the child have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capacities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development.
  3. States Parties, in accordance with national conditions and within their means, shall take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.

The particular concern of the CRC in this respect has been disparities in standard of living. Around 20% of children fall below the poverty line, as judged by measures of both insufficient income and material deprivation. Maori are over-represented in this population of poor children.

The CRC take into account many facets of children’s rights in New Zealand but the standard used to judge each country’s performance is quite coarse, as it must be, given the huge differences in political systems and national prosperity between countries, time constraints on the Committee and the opacity of the diplomatic UN language the Committee uses. It does not pick up the range of underperformance of services for children that arise from lack of adequate resourcing. Another factor that contributes to the lack of definition of New Zealand’s performance is the failure to gather detailed statistics on which to base judgements. This is another consistent complaint of the CRC.

Even so, available statistics indicate problems for New Zealand children. I have mentioned the disparity in income and living standards between rich and poor and Maori and non-Maori. In addition there is the relatively high rate of violence to children, as indicated by child homicide rates and in the New Zealand birth cohort studies.

Setting aside what the Child Rights Committee thinks of us, the Convention provides a useful framework for our own more fine-grained assessment. For convenience of analysis children’s rights are often divided into three groups under headings which begin with the letter ‘P’. These are the right to:

  • provision (of standard of living, health care, education, provision for disability etc),
  • protection (from exploitation, abuse, wrongful detention etc) and
  • participation (in decision-making, in the life of the community through exercise of the freedoms – of expression, of thought, of association, of access to information and cultural material, etc).

I add a fourth ‘P’ heading, the right to a

  • place (in a family, community and country including the right to a personal identity and to life itself)

The Convention asserts each of these rights.

By what standard should we judge the realisation of these rights? For a few such as the right to life there is a yes or no answer but for most there is a qualifier. The Convention uses phrases such as ‘to the maximum extent possible’, ‘shall use their best efforts’ and ‘take all appropriate measures’ recognising that the capacity to realise the rights and what that realisation means differ according to the circumstances of the individual and the country.

Rights talk is discredited by its use in common discourse by people apparently wanting more than their entitlement, “I have a right”, “I know my rights”. They invoke a supposed common standard to support a shaky case. The rights discourse is due for rehabilitation for it expresses a valuable idea that is a part of our shared humanity and we are not at present doing particularly well by that standard.

A right is a commonly-held judgement arising from our humanity as to what is fair and proper. In common language it is most often expressed in the negative, “It’s not right – that children should be cold and hungry – that they should be denied their best chance in life”. In this context, the common meaning of the word “right” as “appropriate” is close to the meaning of “a right” used in more technical language.

Formulations of rights such as the Convention are a valuable reminder of what we already know as to what is right. As such they should be in wider use.

[1] Fisher, D. (2015) Controversial? I’ll be the judge of that. Weekend Herald, 13/6/15, p A9.

It's not right

 
 
 
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