Children’s Rights, Social Justice and Participation

The rights of children and young people are inalienable – they cannot be taken or wished away. A new politics in Scotland should lead to the full incorporation of The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child – the most ratified human rights treaty in the world – that addresses a holistic range of children’s provision, protection and participation rights. The rights of children and young people have been incorporated on a piecemeal and case-by-case basis in Scotland because the political establishment fears full incorporation of the UNCRC may open a floodgate of litigation. Yet a UNICEF UK 2013 report found that full incorporation and increased training for professionals had given: legal effect to government commitments, generated more respect for children and young people as rights-holders and ensured the implementation of children’s rights principles in domestic law and policy.

Children and young people associate rights with being: safe/secure, treated fairly, respected, and included. They associate rights with concepts of social justice such as access to law, respect from adults and the removal of structural inequalities such as poverty, scarce transport, poor play facilities or inadequate housing. Structural inequalities inhibit the building of strong long-term relationships, for example: it is difficult to make friends if you do not live in housing that you feel happy to bring a friend home to. The Scottish Human Rights Commission and The Christie Commission have argued that dignity and fairness can be better achieved, if the core principles of human rights (participation, accountability, non-discrimination, empowerment and legality) are embedded into public services. A new politics in Scotland requires us to develop frameworks for enabling children and young people to influence and change issues in their lives.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child defines participation as an ongoing process of information sharing, mutual respect and dialogue between children, young people and adults, where diverse views are taken into account and shape outcomes. Here, the rights of adults, children and young people are not separate and competing – they are connected and complementary. Outcomes in Scotland: tend to to be defined by professionals; often fail to enable social justice; can be incomprehensible to most families; and can be manipulated or used un-reflexively by professionals to discriminate against families. A children’s rights and social justice approach poses questions for how we ensure that children and young people are enabled to: collaboratively define outcomes; collectively participate in local partnerships; and co-operatively set the agenda for the Common Weal.

Participation can sometimes be manipulative – hence one Think Tank on children and young people’s participation called for participation to be meaningful, effective, embedded and sustainable. Good examples exist of where children and young people have been engaged with on a rights basis. Children and young people are able to collaborate with adults, in different ways and at different levels, to influence policy and practice – whether it be a local early years centre at Cowgate in Edinburgh which receives regular outstanding inspections for promoting child-led learning, or Investing in Children, an organisation with an emerging profile in Scotland, that runs a membership scheme, agenda days and dialogue groups to effect local change, or the Scottish Youth Commission on Alcohol. The Common Weal papers have sought to create a new participatory political environment in Scotland – if children and young people are to be afforded their full rights, we need to build on existing good examples to ensure that we foster appreciative collaboration between adults, children and young people.