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Dialogue with UNICEF (With Martha Ross DeWitt)

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7. Dialogue with UNICEF

United Nations Children's Fund

Three United Nations Plaza

New York, New York 10017


19 May 2004

Leo Semashko, Ph.D., and

Martha Ross DeWitt, Ph.D.

International Sociological Association

Dear Mr. Semashko and Ms. Ross DeWitt,

Thank you for your message to Carol Bellamy which was referred to me for response. Although UNICEF encourages all initiatives that may bring about a positive impact o­n the promotion of children's rights, me regret to inform you that me unable to support your project.

As you know, UNICEF supported the Convention o­n the Rights of the Child from its initial drafting phase through to the campaign, enabling the achievement of quasi-universal ratification. The Convention has also changed the way UNICEF works, making possible the expansion of the scope in organization's interventions. These changes are reconfirmed in UNICEF's Mission Statement of 1996 which reads, "UNICEF is mandated to advocate for the protection of children's rights and strives to establish children's rights as enduring principles and international standards of behaviours towards children".

Over the last decade, UNICEF has been providing assistance to Governments in their efforts to implement the principles and provisions of the Convention. A children's right to express his/her views, and have them taken unto account in matters affecting her/him is o­ne of the four guiding principles of the Convention. This principle, along with the principles of non-discrimination, the best interest of the child, and the right to survival and development, are based o­n the notion that children are subject of rights with the same value as adults. UNICEF believes that the participation of children in the decision- marking process is crucial to improving and realizing children's rights. In this context, and in many countries, UNICEF has encouraged activities aimed at ensuring the realization of a child's right to express his/her opinions. For example, in Mexico UNI CEF assisted the Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico in the organization of a National Survey of Children and Adolescents. The survey provided a space for children to express their opinions o­n key issues, and for society to respond to children's concerns. In Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Jamaica, UNICEF supported initiatives such as consultations, elections, and children's parliaments, where thousands of children actively participated and expressed their opinions in matters relating to their countries, schools, and families.

UNICEF's work in this area is guided by the Convention o­n the Rights of the Child. Thus, while the Convention emphases the importance of pa rents and legal guardians' involvement for the guidance they can offer to children, the Convention stress the importance of allowing children the opportunity to learn to participate and formulate their own decisions in matters that directly affect their lives. The Convention also acknowledges the special status of children by referring to their "age and maturity"* in the difficult area of involving children in decisions made o­n their behalf, and in the political process. The Convention asks States to ensure that parents and legal guardians gradually prepare children "in a manner consistent with their evolving capacities"** to exercise their rights independently. As Roger A. Hart*** reveals in his book, Children's Participation, "it is unrealistic to expect that children could suddenly become responsible, participating citizens without prior exposure to the skills and responsibilities involved". It is through frequent experiences with direct democratic participation in institutional settings, that children can gradually come to participate in the decision- marking processes.

UNICEF has drawn upon valuable lessons from its experience working for, and with young people. The most important being, that the competence of children to express their views should not be underestimated. Consequently, it is for children themselves to decide whether they are willing to participate in the democratic, political processes. In order to ensure that children's participation in decision making is effective, particular attention should be paid to the context in which they participate. UNICEF believes that the most important aspect (with regard to a child's right to vote) is not the strategy used to ensure their participation, but rather safeguard against the manipulation of children and assure that their recommendations are taken into account in the decision- making process. Children should be able to participate voluntarily, without being coerced to do so. They have the right to be fully unformed about the different parameters of the activity, and the context in which they participate (or in which adults are involved to participate o­n their behalf).

UNICEF also believes that all children should be given the opportunity to participate in decisions affecting them. This is especially true for children living in situations that hamper their ability to exercise their rights. These are children that deprived of family care, caught in armed conflict, orphaned due to HIV/AIDS, refugee children, and children living in the streets. It is important that all children's voices are listened to, and that they are heard. 

UNICEF thanks you for your interest in children's participation, and wishes you good luck in your endeavors.

Yours sincerely,

Elizabeth Gibbons


Global Policy Section

Division of Policy and Planning

* Article 12 of the CRC

** Article 5 of the CRC

*** Hart, Roger. Children's participation: From tokenism to citizenship, UNICEF Innocent Essays no. 4, 1992

Reply to UNICEF

June 3, 2004

Elizabeth Gibbons


Global Policy Section

Division of Policy and Planning


Dear Ms. Gibbons,

Thank you for your detailed reply, in which you describe the active efforts by UNICEF to uphold and implement the UN Convention o­n the Rights of the Child. The colossal work of UNICEF truly deserves approval and admiration. You talk persuasively about children's right to express their opinions. You talk in detail about "the participation of children in the decision-marking process" of their problems, about "the importance of allowing children the opportunity to learn to participate and formulate their own decisions in matters that directly affect their lives", about "gradually prepare children 'in a manner consistent with their evolving capacities' (CRC, Article 5)

 to exercise their rights independently". You correctly emphasize that "the competence of children to express their views should not be underestimated," that "children them selves to decide whether they are willing to participate in the democratic, political processes." We share your opinion that the "most important aspect (with regard to a child's right to vote) is .... (to) safeguard against the manipulation of children" and that "children should be able to participate voluntarily, without being coerced to do so."

Our idea of children's suffrage exercised by parent s and legal guardians does not at all block, but rather, encourages the participation of children in the solution-making with regard to children's problems. However, children's suffrage concerns an altogether different aspect. We assume that 'in a manner consistent with their (children) evolving capacities,' especially younger than age 14, it is altogether insufficient for a competent and independent evaluation of the disposition of political forces at elections, o­n which disposition the make-up of governing bodies at all levels depends, which, in turn, determines to the benefit of what population groups the federal monies shall be distributed. These are the kinds of choice that children are unable to handle; however, the implementation of children's key rights depends, above all, o­n federal financing. So, what children's suffrage envisions is that the child be granted a vote and entered in to voters records, BUT (and this BUT is very important) o­nLY children's parents or legal guardians may EXERCISE this right, i.e. receive the child's election ballot and vote with it.

We are led to believe that you have missed this cardinal feature of our children's suffrage concept. It would appear that you think that it calls for children's independent participation in elections, which is not the case. The right is the child's, but o­nly his/her parents or guardians may exercise it . This is the essence and distinctive feature of children's suffrage as we have conceived it. Thus, it is parents/guardians, and not children, who exercise the voting rights of children, which eliminates any chance of "manipulation of children." Voting is done by parents/guardians o­n their children's behalf, not by the children themselves. However, through awareness of this voting right, children's suffrage promotes and enriches the participation of older children in the democratic process, and in exceptional circumstances allows mature, older children to independently participate in elections. But these are separate, albeit interlinked, aspects of the implementation of children's rights. Children's suffrage does not contradict the Convention, nor does it limit or violate any right of the child. Rather, children's suffrage complements the Convention, with a right that helps to ensure the implementation of all the other rights of the child. Children's suffrage provides an additional bulwark, an effective tool, and a fresh air of hope. Children's suffrage rejuvenates, strengthens and unites civilizations of the world in their ultimate purpose: to guarantee their future - through their children. Children's suffrage ensures top-priority investment in the principal strategic resource of any civilization - its people, whose moral and ethical foundations are instilled in childhood. The ultimate goal of children's suffrage is to create a will in future generations to discover new, more efficient and more humane means for solving the problems of humankind and of each nation. Through parents and their minor children, who constitute a majority of the population, children's suffrage will "help build a world fit for children ". It will become an invincible, motive force for all nations to join that global movement to which the 2002 UN Special Session has called 'all members of society.' 

Why is a law of children's suffrage necessary? It is necessary to achieve o­ne all-encompassing goal - efficient implementation of the rights of the child, a goal that has not been achieved to date. Children's suffrage joins the power that parents/guardians of young children have with the power of the state, to create an efficient mechanism to uphold the rights of the child, a mechanism that is presently lacking. It needs to be stressed, and you will hopefully agree, that the responsibility and the duty to uphold children's rights rests primarily with parents and the state, rather than with children themselves. o­nly children's suffrage, exercised by parents and guardians, spells out this responsibility and duty for parents and the state. Apart from children's suffrage, there exists no other instrument for the efficient implementation of children's rights. Such a mechanism cannot be forced upon nations: in any given country, such a mechanism can be created o­nly from within, by a plan for children's suffrage designed in accordance with the country's traditions and mentality, and legitimated through an appropriate federal law.

The 2002 UN Special Session recognized that nations , in fact, have been failing to implement the Convention, and that an efficient mechanism for upholding children's rights, impressively set forth by the Convention, is non-existent. The Convention has not helped to stop the deterioration of children's situations around the world. The nations party to the Convention violate its pivotal Articles 3 and 4, where the major principles are summarize d. Article 3 demands from the governments that "the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration," and Article 4 requires them to implement the economic, social and cultural rights of the child "to the maximum extent of their available resources" (italics added). There is no government today, not a single o­ne, that can rightfully say that it gives " primary" consideration to children, " uses its best efforts" to uphold children's rights, or implements children's rights " to the maximum extent of their available resources." In reality, all countries allocate minimum resources and spend minimum efforts to try to implement children's rights. Children's suffrage is the o­nly legal act and mechanism designed to ensure that nations comply with Articles 3 and 4 of the Convention, to implement children's rights o­n a top-priority basis, using their best efforts, to the maximum extent of their available resources.

Considering this, we have a major question to ask UNISEF. If children's suffrage is the o­nly instrument to ensure the efficient implementation of the Convention through top-priority federal financing of children's sphere in each country, then why does UNISEF refuse to give it a consideration and have it discussed? The best response UNISEF can provide would be to support a research into and a debate o­n children's suffrage.

We wish to thank you for your detailed reply, but we are disappointed with your response to our request. In your letter you state "we are unable to support your project," without discussion of the proposal, itself. Perhaps the essence of our request was unclear. What we presently ask is that UNICEF help us conduct a STUDY of attitudes (of parents of minor children, primarily) regarding the idea of children's suffrage, rather than support children's suffrage as such. Before the issues of legitimizing and implementing children's suffrage can be raised, popular sentiment, first of all among parents and guardians of young children, needs to be assessed. We assume that, as a first stage, the idea of children's suffrage calls for a comprehensive examination, exploration, and extensive discussion by scholars and the general public. If the results are positive, o­nly then can we begin to raise the issue of legitimizing children's suffrage, proposing appropriate legislative initiatives, etc. That would be the next, second stage. In our letter to UNICEF we speak about the firs t stage, o­nLY. Presently, we are asking, minimally, for moral support for the research, if UNICEF cannot support it financially. If UNICEF, indeed, "encourages all initiatives that may bring about a positive impact o­n the promotion of children's rights," as you write in your letter, then, is there reason to hope that UNICEF might reconsider, and lend its support to research into, and discussion of, children's suffrage, as an instrument to help promote and implement children's rights , as called for by the UN Convention o­n the Rights of the Child?

Children's suffrage exercised by parents and guardians is a complex, systemic social-political- legal mechanism with wide ranging, positive social implications, as well as prospects for initial, ambivalent reactions. This mechanism requires an ear nest, scholarly analysis and discussion. With this in mind, we suggest that UNICEF organize, in 2005, a small-scale international conference of 50-60 experts o­n children's rights (lawyers, politicians, sociologists, political psychologists, teachers, etc.) for discussing the concept of children's suffrage. This proposal is put forward in our brochure (2004, 72 pages). We are enclosing a copy of the brochure, in the hope that UNICEF will make amendments (you can something exclude or add in it ), after discussing them with us, and re-publish it. Also, we suggest that UNICEF lend its support, at least morally, to an international, comparative sociological research project into parent/guardian attitudes toward children's suffrage. When UNICEF will have the study results and expert opinions, then it will receive a solid foundation for an informed opinion about the idea of children's suffrage and its future prospects for adoption. We believe that this will be the best tack for UNICEF to take, and o­ne that will demonstrate UNICEF's right to say that, indeed, it does not ignore a single "initiative that may bring about a positive impact o­n the promotion of children's rights."


Leo Semashko, Ph D, St. Petersburg, Russia

Martha Ross DeWitt, Ph D, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

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