Children’s rights have taken some important steps forward in the last several decades — and a few big ones back, says Benyam Dawit Mezmur, an expert in children’s rights and the Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program.

A baby born today can expect to live longer than at any time in human history, says Mezmur, who is also a professor of law at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. “For example, the number of children who die as a result of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia — we have made significant progress on all of these areas.”

But, he adds, the work is far from over. “Is there room for improvement? A lot of room!”

Mezmur has spent his career advocating for the rights and needs of children around the world. As a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, and through his work with the African Union, the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, his home university, and Harvard Law, he continues to push for legal and policy changes to protect and nurture some of the world’s most vulnerable people — children.

“Worldwide, there are children caught in armed conflict, children without adequate food or education. There are 160 million child laborers, and no less than 15,000 children under the age of five who die of preventable diseases every day,” he says. “That is an indictment of the international community.”

Creating a world fit for children

People under the age of 18 make up more than a quarter of the world’s population, and experiences during childhood — especially a person’s first 1,000 days of life — can have a profound impact on one’s lifelong physical, emotional, and material circumstances, Mezmur says.

Technically, children are protected under the umbrella of human rights, but while post-World War II universal rights treaties “were intended to address the rights of ‘everyone,’ the reality was that they were often interpreted to mean adults,” says Mezmur. “It was not always interpreted to include persons with disabilities, and in some instances, women were not included, and even less so, children.”

This called for a new instrument to enshrine certain basic rights for children around the world, says Mezmur, who refers to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted in 1989 and is currently in effect in 196 countries, as “a Magna Carta for the realization of children’s rights throughout the world.” Notably, he adds, “The only guilty exception that has not ratified is the United States, although it is worth mentioning that it was an active participant in the drafting of the Convention, and continues to be the major financial contributor for UNICEF’s global work on behalf of children.”

 “[Universal rights treaties] were intended to address the rights of ‘everyone,’ [but] the reality was that they were … not always interpreted to include persons with disabilities, and in some instances, women were not included, and even less so, children.

Human Rights Program fellow Benyam Dawit Mezmur

The agreement was necessary because some human rights abuses are unique to younger people, such as the use of child labor or the recruitment and use of underage soldiers, says Mezmur. Other issues, such as climate change, inequality and discrimination, and war are borne by everyone, but can often have an outsize impact on children, he adds. “Contrary to what seems to be the common belief, if you’re talking about COVID-19, it has significant implications on children’s rights. If one is discussing corruption, there are implications for children. If you’re talking about the manner in which immigration is handled at the border and within borders, it has implications for children. In fact, it’s very rare that a decision on the part of a government has no implications for the rights of children.”

Mezmur, who has served on the UN Committee for almost a decade including a stint as its vice chair and chairperson, says that the body plays an important role in monitoring children’s rights in member states. “Every country is different, with its own opportunities, but also challenges,” he says.

Countries submit regular reports to the Committee on progress and setbacks in areas concerning children, and later send delegations to Geneva to answer what can sometimes be difficult questions and engage in a constructive dialogue with the Committee. Then, if violations exist — which Mezmur adds that no country is immune to — the Committee helps the country to discuss and identify solutions. “It’s constructive in the sense that it’s not an adversary process like a court. We are not doing a naming and shaming exercise, and we are not going to be passing judgments. We will be giving recommendations. It is a very collaborative process, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes the questions cannot be sensitive.”

Recently, South Sudan — the latest country to have ratified the convention — submitted its initial report to the Committee. Among others, Ukraine also entered a report, registering concern about the toll of Russia’s invasion on the life, education, and physical and mental health of its children.

Both countries are facing ongoing crises, but Mezmur warns that neither wealth nor the absence of active conflict inoculates nations from decisions and actions that can harm children. “There are instances where children that have been affected by armed conflict elsewhere enter a country and ask for asylum and become refugees. There are also issues pertaining to the manner in which a country sells small arms, and how this in turn affects children in armed conflict in other parts of the world.”

Climate change, inequality, and conflict — and their resulting impact on food insecurity, natural and manmade disasters, migration, health, and more — are the three biggest problems facing children across the world, in Mezmur’s view. “If you are Tuvalu, or Samoa, or Bangladesh, climate change might be the number one issue for you. If you are South Sudan, Yemen or Myanmar, conflict might be the immediate number one challenge for you. If the country is Namibia or Haiti, or even the United States, the manner in which inequality is pervasive and is at times structural might deserve your undivided attention as number one. And as such, context matters, and while countries are expected to implement the Convention in its entirety, they can and should have leverage to identify their priority issues for immediate action.”

‘Where does your loyalty lie?’

Mezmur, who is from Ethiopia, is also a former member and chair of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights of the Child, which looks to build on the baseline rights established by the UN Convention through a regional instrument: the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. “I was not only a member but also the chairperson of both the AU and UN child rights treaty bodies between 2015 and 2017 and I used to be asked, ‘Where does your loyalty lie? To the UN or to the African Union?’ And I would respond, ‘To the children, of course!’”

Several years ago, Mezmur’s advocacy and work on behalf of children around the world caught the attention of the Catholic Church, which was grappling with allegations of sexual assault against clergy members on several continents. He was asked to join a new committee formed by Pope Francis to address the needs of survivors and create ways to prevent and address the sexual abuse in the church. “I am not Catholic, and I have engaged within the UN Committee process and expressed my reservations on some of the ways in which these issues had been handled by the church in the past,” he says. “Meanwhile, having been educated in a Catholic school growing up and started my career at a Catholic charity, and seeing and having experienced the force for good it has also done, I thought I might be able to contribute from the inside out. And I was right.”

The Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors “is an autonomous institution attached to the Holy See, and is an advisory body at the service of the Holy Father,” says Mezmur. According to the law establishing the Commission, its aim is “to propose initiatives to the Roman Pontiff … for the purposes of promoting local responsibility in the particular Churches for the protection of all minors and vulnerable adults.”

In the last four years, the Commission discharged its duties through three working groups with interrelated goals. First, to work with victims of clerical sexual abuse to “explore and develop different methodologies, such as the Survivors Advisory Panel, to promote healing and reconciliation by actively including their testimonies and learnings in the development as well as implementation of policy.”

Another aim is to “integrate safeguarding in education and formation and empower religious leaders that come in contact with children and vulnerable adults” so they can better identify and prevent abuse, he says. Mezmur himself was part of a third group focused on safeguarding guidelines and norms around measures such as prevention and reporting, particularly within the bounds of canon law, to balance transparency, confidentiality, the rights of victims in penal processes, and accountability. The Commission’s efforts likely contributed to the Pope’s declaration in 2019 that the “pontifical secret” — the highest level of confidentiality in the church — would not apply to sexual abuse cases.

“Quite a lot of our recommendations are aimed to have an impact at the local level,” Mezmur says. “The expectation to have almost all initiatives at the Vatican level is misplaced. The Commission is engaging with various stakeholders such as survivors of sexual abuse, the bishops conferences, and dicasteries to strengthen effective and important methods of collaboration, with a particular emphasis on prevention.”

Some lament that changes within a 2,000-year-old institution can be slow — and there is no shortage of news reports of sexual abuse by priests and accusations of cover-ups around the world, Mezmur concedes. “But I have had the opportunity to closely follow the actions of the Holy Father on this issue, and even had an audience with him on a few occasions, and it is patently clear that he is dedicated and is providing the much-needed leadership and providing workable solutions — and is making progress. A more recent good example of leadership is the Holy’s Father’s decision to place the Pontifical Commission within the Roman Curia, with a view to allow for a more proactive safeguarding agenda as a sign for all to see of the Church’s care for the vulnerable and commitment to those who have been most grievously harmed.

“Whether progress is taking too long appears to be an open debate in some quarters,” he continues. “But it is absolutely true that progress is happening on the ground.”

‘Children are no longer mini human beings with mini rights’

Mezmur was recently asked to renew his service on the Pontifical Commission for another five years, and he will continue as a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in addition to his roles at Harvard Law and elsewhere. As he looks to the future, Mezmur is cautiously optimistic about the path of children’s rights. “Our understanding of child dignity, childhood, as well as the efforts needed to create a world that is fit for all children has significantly changed in the last decade, and more so in the last 30 years,” he says.

There are plenty of setbacks, though, and improvement has not always been steady or evenly distributed. Child labor has increased to 160 million, marking a stall on progress for the first time in two decades, says Mezmur, while educational opportunities for many around the world have withered. “For example, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on access to education and exacerbated a lot of the learning outcomes for many children, he says. “We used to talk about an education gap. Now we talk about an education gulf, especially in relation to children with disabilities, girls, and those without access to the internet.”

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on access to education and exacerbated a lot of the learning outcomes for many children. … We used to talk about an education gap. Now we talk about an education gulf, especially in relation to children with disabilities, girls, and those without access to the internet

Inequality, both among countries and within countries has risen, access to the internet as well as protection online remains a challenge, and climate change and its effects will continue to play a growing destructive role in children’s lives in the future. But progress is undeniable, says Mezmur, and with a globally sustained effort and solidarity, political leadership, and adequate investments, it can continue. “We aren’t yet at the point where children are recognized as independent rights holders throughout the world — that is still a work in progress,” he says. “But what the UN Convention has done is to ensure that human rights are for everyone — and that includes children. Children are no longer mini human beings with mini rights.”