Improvements made in the OIC covenant on the rights of children

Published : 08 Aug 2023 08:14 PM

The whole Islamic world for the last three decades has been trying to improve the existing human rights paradigm with regard to treatment of children. This effort was undertaken not only by the Islamic States who are Members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference but also through collaboration with international institutions including the United Nations. It has been a long process but it appears to have ended positively. This included the pro-active cooperation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) of 1989, as well as other conventions and covenants, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children of 1990, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the World Fit for Children Document.

As a former Member of the OIC Independent Human Rights Commission, one feels pleased that at long last the Parties to the Covenant have found least common denominators and this has found the required place in the form of new Articles. This appears to have happened because all Members recognize that to realize security, stability, development and progress for the society- the family environment is the cornerstone of the social edifice. This dynamic has reiterated that provision of necessary care to childhood and ensuring welfare of children by granting them all their rights, including an additional care for those of them living especially in difficult situations is crucial for all concerned. It has also underlined that every child is entitled to all the rights, freedoms and special care without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnicity, color, sex, language, religion, national/social origin, fortune, birth or other status.

Such a belief has grown from the conviction that the family is a fundamental unit of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children. The new Articles included in the revised Covenant has reiterated that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated and must be treated globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. In this context one must also recall the revised Cairo Declaration/ODHR.

The Covenant now states that a child means every human being below the age of 18 years. In this context the Covenant seeks to realize some significant objectives: To ensure that (a) the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.  (b) a child is provided additional care and assistance in difficult situations, especially if the child is disabled, abandoned, orphan or homeless. (c) a child is not only able to receive the opportunity for primary and secondary education but receive it free of charge if the child belongs to a recognized low-income group. (d) a child should be encouraged towards his/her early participation in the cultural and social life of the society.

It has also now been agreed that to preserve the best interests of the child should be of primary consideration. This will particularly apply with regard to all judicial or administrative proceedings affecting a child. In this regard an opportunity shall have to be provided for the views of the child to be heard either directly or through an impartial representative as a party to the proceedings, and those views shall be taken into consideration by the relevant authority in accordance with the provisions of appropriate law. This is indeed a good step forward.

It has also been meaningfully underlined that there are certain parental responsibilities that must never be overlooked. The child’s upbringing and development need to be their basic concern at all times. This will denote that parents will need to secure, within their abilities and financial capacities, conditions of living necessary for the child’s development. At the same time ensuring domestic discipline has to be administered humanely and in a manner consistent with the inherent dignity of the child. This is a positive step indeed.

At the same time it has been reiterated that State Parties to the present Covenant shall ensure that a child who is parentless, or who is temporarily or permanently deprived of his/her family environment, or who in his/her best interests cannot be brought up or allowed to remain in that environment shall be provided with alternative family care, which could include, among others, foster placement, or placement in suitable institutions for the care of children – depending on the child’s ethnic, religious or linguistic background. However at the same time measures will need to be taken to trace and reunite children with parents or relatives where separation has been caused by internal and external displacement arising from armed conflicts or natural disasters. Within this dimension it has also been pointed out that the child should be permitted to leave his/her country with his/her parents, except in cases where the child had been separated from them, in accordance with applicable laws and procedures or imposed legal restrictions on his/her departure.  Interestingly, it has also been clarified that in cases where the parents of the child are living in two different States, States Parties shall have the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents, save exceptional circumstances.

It has also been clearly noted that State Parties to the present Covenant shall take appropriate measures to prevent the abduction, sale of, or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form, by any person including parents or legal guardians of the child. States Parties to this Covenant shall also undertake to respect and ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts which affect the child. 

The dimensions in this regard has also been widened by pointing out that States Parties to the present Covenant shall take all necessary measures to ensure that no child shall take direct part in hostilities and refrain in particular, from recruiting any other child within this matrix. 

Attention has also been drawn another significant aspect. States Parties to the present Covenant shall, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, protect the civilian population in armed conflicts and shall take all feasible measures to ensure the protection and care of children who are affected by armed conflicts. Such rules shall also apply to children in situations of internal armed conflicts, tension and strife. One can only hope that this scenario will be understood in many parts of the world where civilian populations are suffering from continuous conflicts.

The revised Covenant has also not forgotten another important facet- the responsibilities of the child towards the child’s family and society, the State and other legally recognized communities and the international community. The child, subject to his age and ability, and such limitations as may be contained in the present Covenant, shall have the duty – to work for the cohesion of the family, to respect his parents and elders at all times and assist them in case of need. The child should also try to serve his/her community by placing his/her physical and intellectual abilities at its service; and also preserve and strengthen required cultural values in his/her relations with other members of the society, in the spirit of tolerance, dialogue and consultation that can and will contribute to the moral well-being of society.

It has been a very arduous task by the State Parties who have been involved in this exercise but it has finally yielded results. States Parties, in accordance with their system of organization, shall designate one or more focal points within government for matters relating to the implementation of the present Covenant, and shall give due consideration to the establishment or designation of a coordination mechanism within government to facilitate related action in different sectors and at different levels.

States Parties shall, in accordance with their legal and administrative systems shall also maintain, strengthen, designate or establish within the State Party, a framework, including one or more independent mechanisms, as appropriate, to promote, protect and monitor implementation of the present Covenant. When designating or establishing such a mechanism, States Parties shall take into account the principles relating to the status and functioning of national institutions for protection and promotion of human rights. Civil society, in particular persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, also need to be involved and participate fully in the monitoring process.

One can only hope that our National Human Rights Commission will immediately get in touch with the OIC Human Rights Commission and ascertain how all Member States are trying to be consistent with the Covenant. This will be important given the various difficulties that are emerging on a regular basis in different parts of our country- both rural and urban. I am sure that if required the concerned agencies and authorities will be able to provide the required support.  

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance