The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, convening for its 35th session from 12 -30 January 2004, examined the most voluminous report in the history of the United Nations treaty bodies, the first periodic report of the government of India. The report is about 500 pages long. After the pre-sessional hearing, the government of India submitted another 62 pages by way of responses. With over half a dozen alternate NGO reports, the members of the Child Rights Committee have an uphill task if they are to effectively examine the implementation in India of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The most striking aspect of the government of India’s first periodic report is that it has reportedly been written with the financial support of the UNICEF. This practice is not specific to India since UNICEF does provide financial support to hire professionals to write the periodic reports of governments all over the world.
The problem does not lie with financing per se but with what UNICEF financed. It would appear from the document that India is a model state when it comes to the rights of the child. The report maintains a stoic silence on the torture of children. It instead restricts the depiction of the violation of the right to life in India to female infanticide, presumably because it is practiced by society and the state’s role is to heroically resist such obscurantist practices. And despite the Union Home Ministry providing information about internal armed conflicts in 14 out of 28 states, there is not a single reference to the effects of armed conflicts on children. The only reference in the report to armed conflict is about Punjab where the problem ended almost a decade ago!
The Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights in its alternative report, “The Status of Children in India”, as well as in its oral submission on 9 October 2003 before the CRC Committee, raised the ethical issue of financing a report which, despite its volume, fails so comprehensively to address the issue of child rights and the violations thereof. UNICEF’s representatives stated that the organisation only facilitated dialogues between the NGOs and governments. As some UN agencies hide behind a veil of secrecy, only UNICEF officials in Delhi are aware as to whether it financed the hiring of professionals and publication of the report. Till such time as a full public disclosure is made, there is no option but to accept the official version. In the meanwhile all speculation on the exact nature of UNICEF’s involvement that is bound to come up cannot do the organisation much good.
The chairman of the CRC Committee, Jacob Egbert Doek, in his oral reply on 9 October 2003 argued that the submission of a periodic report is better than “no report” at all in evaluating the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by a state party. Therefore, in his view, UNICEF should continue with the process of financially assisting governments in the writing of the periodic reports.
This is not a particularly satisfactory point of view, given the magnitude of the consequences, in particular the nature of the relationship between governments which renege on their commitment to implement the convention and a UN agency that is mandated to oversee the status of children the world over. UNICEF and the Committee on the Rights of the Child need to make ethical choices based on past practices with regard to the periodic reports. This is all the more important in the context of UNICEF’s direct responsibility and involvement in evaluating states’ record in the implementation of the convention.
Article 45 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that “in order to foster the effective implementation of the Convention and to encourage international co-operation in the field covered by the Convention, the specialised agencies, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and other United Nations organs shall be entitled to be represented at the consideration of the implementation of such provisions of the present Convention as fall within the scope of their mandate. The Committee may invite the specialised agencies, the United Nations Children’s Fund and other competent bodies, as it may consider appropriate to provide expert advice on the implementation of the Convention in areas falling within the scope of their respective mandates. The Committee may invite the specialised agencies, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and other United Nations organs to submit reports on the implementation of the Convention in areas falling within the scope of their activities”.
What has UNICEF’s performance been in this regard? UNICEF primarily remains a service-providing agency, akin to the humanitarian organisations which provide assistance in non-controversial but important areas, such as the realisation of access to the highest attainable standards of health, right to education, right to food, and so on. Fourteen years after the adoption of the CRC, UNICEF is yet to develop ways to address many of the civil and political rights issues like juvenile justice, torture, extra-judicial execution, rape and the status of children requiring special measures of protection. UNICEF does address some of these problems esp-ecially in countries which are in crisis, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia, but it is yet to develop methods to address such problems in countries like India. UNICEF rarely reports on these issues before the CRC Committee.
Instead, the agency seems to have developed mechanisms to work in tandem with states on matters which, though important, are incidental in their consequence compared to the job that it has been entrusted with. Specialised agencies such as UNICEF or the Secretariat of the United Nations bodies may well be required to train and increase the expertise of government officials to enable them to submit the periodic reports. However, hiring of individual professionals or professional agencies to collate information and write the periodic report subject to final approval of the government concerned is an altogether different issue. Most governments typically tend to hide behind jargon when discussing issues on which they have clearly failed to deliver in accordance with internationally accepted norms. Hiring professionals well versed in the techniques of presentation only provides a more effective cover to negligent governments, by dressing up their reports in appropriate ways and enabling them to evade international censure. To cite one instance, in the report just submitted by the government of India, some of the initiatives undertaken by NGOs have been presented as if they were bona fide government initiatives. Such claims are the more ironic, because it is a well known fact that the government actually uses repressive measures to impede the activities of dedicated NGOs working with children caught in armed conflict situations. Such deliberately misleading claims cannot but raise the ethical question of whether it is proper for UN agencies to finance or support govern-ment’s that are so economical with the truth.
CRC Committee and other treaty bodies
But it is not just UNICEF that needs to examine the merits of its own actions. The Committee on the Rights of the Child needs to evaluate its own functioning before it goes through the motions of evaluating the performance of governments. The Committee can, of course, claim to be bogged down in work because of the universal ratification of the CRC, which means that an extraordinarily large number of reports are submitted to it for its consideration. But the fact of the matter is that most states default in submitting periodic reports, which itself is a sign of how ineffective it is as a monitoring body.
Most other UN treaty bodies such as the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are not as fortunate as the CRC Committee because they lack the requisite support from UN agencies. As a result many governments have not submitted their periodic reports to these committees for years. It does appear that the submission of periodic reports to the CRC Committee has more to do with UNICEF’s support rather than the governments’ commitment to implement the CRC or the effectiveness of the CRC Committee in ensuring the submission.
It is difficult to be rid of the suspicion, in the light of the non-submission of reports before other treaty bodies, that UNICEF’s role in ensuring compliance with the CRC is to ensure adherence by states to the bureaucratic requirement that reports are submitted by providing incentives. That in the process of doing this duty it ends up compromising its credentials by pushing through reports that grossly misrepresent the status of the child does not seem to be of much concern. A part of the solution to this problem lies with the CRC itself. It must evolve suitable guidelines that will ensure that sufficient pressure is brought to bear on governments to submit their reports. The CRC Committee should also develop a General Comment on Article 45 to ensure that even if UNICEF funds the writing of periodic reports under exceptional circumstances, the true situation of children is properly reflected.