Exactly 20 years ago, on 20 November 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which sets universal standards for the care, treatment and protection of all individuals below the age of 18 years.
It is the most widely endorsed human rights treaty in history, currently ratified by 193 States parties, including Nigeria.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines the human rights to be respected and protected for every child under the age of 18 years, and requires that these rights be implemented according to the Convention's guiding principles. Articles 4 and 41 of the Convention enjoins that "Member States shall undertake to disseminate the Convention's principles and take all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the Rights recognised in the present Convention."
Nigeria signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991, and with UNICEF's support, took the important step of domesticating the CRC into a national law: a draft Child's Rights Bill, aimed at principally enacting into law in Nigeria the principles enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, was passed by the National Assembly in July 2003. Then-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, assented to it in September 2003 and it was promulgated as the Child's Rights Act 2003.
The structure of the Child's Rights Act 2003 (the Act) was informed by the mandate to consolidate all laws (including national and international laws) relating to children into a single piece of legislation that specified the rights and responsibilities of children, as well as the duties and obligations of government, parents and other authorities, organisations and bodies towards children.
Under this mandate, the Act was divided into 24 parts and 11 schedules. The various parts address broadly the rights and responsibilities, protection and welfare of children, the duties and responsibilities of government institutions for children, and other miscellaneous matters. The schedules deal with the rules, regulations, procedures and specified forms for applications and decisions.
The Act, which supersedes all other legislation that has a bearing on the rights of the child, defines a child as one who has not attained the age of eighteen years, and it categorically provides that such a child's best interests shall remain paramount in all considerations. A child shall be given such protection and care as is necessary for his or her wellbeing, retaining the right to survival and development and to a name and registration at birth.
The Act now also provides for the establishment of the Child Rights Implementation Committees at the national, state and local government levels, with their memberships, functions and procedures clearly spelt out. These are to ensure that there is commitment by government at all levels to implementing the provisions of the Act, the CRC and other international treaties through research, investigation and jurisprudence, and to ensuring that child rights are systematically incorporated into civil society and sectoral programming.
The states are expected to formally adopt and adapt the Act for domestication at the state Houses of Assembly as state laws. This is because issues of child rights protection are on the residual list of the Nigerian Constitution, giving states exclusive responsibility and jurisdiction to make laws relevant to their specific situations. State laws inimical to the rights of the child are also to be amended or annulled as may be required to conform to the Act and the Convention on the Rights of the child.
However, since 2003 when the Child's Rights Act was passed into law, only 19 states have both passed and given gubernatorial assent to child's rights laws in their states.
Last Friday, 20 November 2009 marked exactly 20 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child became the first legally binding international convention to affirm human rights for all children. "The anniversary gives us an opportunity to renew our commitment to the rights of all children in Nigeria," said Dr. Suomi Sakai, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria. "The Convention demands that we place children at the heart of human development-because it is their right."
In the 20 years since the convention became a legally binding document, much progress has been made. It has inspired a set of actions and became a reference point to better protect children in Nigeria. It has set the agenda to ensure children's right to survival, development, protection and participation are realised.
However, challenges remain. The convention has been fully domesticated in only 21 states of Nigeria. This means that millions of children in Enugu, Ebonyi, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Kebbi, Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Adamawa, Niger, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Katsina, and Zamfara do not have the appropriate legal framework for the protection of their rights.
"Domesticating the Convention on the Rights of the Child into local laws is a first call for children", said Dr. Suomi Sakai, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria. "It reflects how much importance a society places on its children."
Njoku is of the Communications Unit of UNICEF; Oladiji is of the Child Protection Unit of UNICEF