On Israel’s declaration on the rights of the child

THE “ISRAELI DECLARATION on the Rights of the Child” is to be signed today at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem by the president’s wife, Mrs. Aura Herzog. The Equal Opportunity Fund for Early Childhood Education and Care and the National Council for the Child will distribute posters of the declaration and launch other activities to make the declaration widely known to both adults and children.
The idea of having such a proclamation came from Amalia Biederman, the director of the Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF), a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of care and education of infants and pre-school children in Israel.
This new declaration, whose drafting was coordinated by the National Council for the Child, could indeed help to put the issue of children’s rights (and not just those of early childhood age) higher on the Israeli agenda. Such an instrument was used, for instance, in the U.S. “Declaration of the Rights of Foster Children” promulgated in Philadelphia. The signing took place on historic ground in the building in which the United States Constitution was signed. And at a meeting for sponsors of the Israeli Equal Opportunity Fund, which took place last October, Mrs. Jehan Sadat, widow of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and EOF chairperson, Mrs. Rahel Dayan, widow of Moshe Dayan, put their signatures to a Children’s Bill of Rights.
The document which is to be signed today by Mrs. Herzog has more relevance, because several child welfare organizations in Israel were involved in the drafting process and more publicity will be given to the event. In this new declaration, the rights of the child are formulated in the context of family life, love, understanding and adequate housing. Also dealt with are the right to prevention of abuse and neglect, the right to identity (having a name), and the right to privacy, the right to consideration under the law and to “special and sensitive protection under the legal system.” The right to self-expression is also formulated as is the right of children who are among the victims of disasters to be the first rescued and to receive priority treatment.
HOWEVER, THE ISRAELI declaration has no legal validity: the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, unanimously adopted by the General Assembly on November 20, 1959, is far more important as far as Israel is concerned, as it has become part of accepted international law. When the draft was discussed in 1957 and 1959 by the Human Rights Commission, then attorney-general Haim Cohn represented Israel and recalls the prevailing optimism at the time. “It was a small and select group of experts. Because we wanted our meetings to be as non-political as possible, we had hardly any differences of opinion.”
Indeed the records of the commission still attest to this spirit of cooperation on the part of all members to work for the best interests of the child. At the meeting on April 1, 1959, where the question of children born out of wedlock was on the agenda, the Iraqi representative, for instance, said “it would be better, as was done in the Israel amendment, to denounce discrimination against children born out of wedlock.”
“The Iraqi representative and I sat next to each other and we worked together very well,” Cohn remembers.
THE UN DECLARATION states that children have the right to special protection to ensure full physical, mental and social development, the right to a name and a nationality, adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical services, the right to free education (at least in the primary stages) and the right to be among the first to receive protection and relief. It added that all children have equal rights without distinction of race, religion or nationality and the right to be brought up in a spirit of tolerance, peace and universal brotherhood.
Now, 30 years later, the present Human Rights Commission, meeting in Geneva this month, has approved a draft Convention on the Rights of the Child for submission to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, which is scheduled to meet in the middle of this year. Since 1979 a working group of the commission has been drafting the text of such a convention, designed to set universally agreed standards for the protection of children and provide a framework for programmes to improve the situation of children.
As international instruments, declarations are known as “soft” law: they are declaratory statements of general principles, but carry no specific obligations as such. By contrast, conventions are binding, “hard law,” requiring an active decision on the part of individual states to accede to or ratify them.
The idea of a convention provides an opportunity and impetus to define more clearly, and to harmonize, human rights standards for children, to fill in the many gaps identified in the current provisions, and to set the results of this in-depth reassessment within the context of a single, binding international instrument. The projected convention (very likely due for ratification this November) codifies under one title those provisions of international law pertaining to children. It is therefore an important and easily-understood advocacy tool – one that promotes children’s welfare as an issue of justice, rather than one of charity.
It will provide a framework for Unicef and other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (such as Defence for Children International) to define and promote more effectivelly existing and future programme priorities and will create the impetus for an alliance for action for the world’s children. It is an innovative convention:
* First of all, because it will be the first international binding instrument that specifically states that traditional practices such as female circumcision (as still practised on a wide scale in Africa) are harmful.
* Second, because it says that state agencies will be responsible for the physical, psychological and social re-integration of a child whose rights are violated.
* Third, it no longer mentions primarily only duties of adults and the state (as formulated in most declarations), but spells out for the first time child participation (for instance the child’s right to express an opinion and to have that opinion taken into account).
* Fourth, placements in institutional care will now be subject to constant review (the right to have all aspects of placement evaluated regularly).
The Israeli declaration’s promulgation today is, nevertheless, a welcome initiative which should raise public consciousness of children’s rights. However, the challenge for Israeli child welfare organizations will come when they begin lobbying for ratification of the planned UN convention by our government, already supported by the Israel Unicef Committee and the Israel branch of Defence for Children International.

Jerusalem Post – Jerusalem
Author: Philip Veerman
Date: Apr 3, 1989
The writer is coordinator of the Israel branch of Defence for Children International.

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