The Rights of Young New Zealanders

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs

Lunchtime Talk, Wellington Cathedral


The Very Reverend Michael Brown, Archdeacon Tric Malcolm, Rev Alister Hendery, fellow panellists, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me to join you in celebrating the completion of this beautiful Cathedral. It gives me great pleasure finally to be able to stand in this wonderful space and speak here today.

Building a Cathedral in Wellington has been the dream of so many people since the city was first founded. It is a project that has involved a great number of people from all walks of life and it is testimony to all of their hard work and dedication that finally sees St. Paul's completed.

Cathedrals have always played a significant part in the cultural and spiritual life of the community and I think it is only fitting that at long last the people of Wellington should have such a fine space to congregate in.

To fully appreciate this building, you have to see and hear it in use which is what this Festival and the lunchtime lecture series are all about.

Today's topic, "The reality of human rights for young people today," is an area that the Ministry of Youth Affairs is particularly involved in through its work on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or UNCROC as it is more commonly known.

I would like to look at UNCROC and outline what I think it means for the human rights of young people in New Zealand and around the world today.

I gather that your architect Roy Wilson was given some solid advice about finishing off the design for this Cathedral. "Every time we have departed from the original design it has been a disaster." Clearly following this advice has paid off, but working from an original design is a lot like signing an international convention. It helps you know where you're heading and it provides a very useful benchmark to refer back to.

Last week New Zealand was visited by Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, a much respected, and wise law professor from Thailand who works in the area of children's rights. Professor Vitit described his discussions with rural Thai children about the Convention. After talking about the nature of international conventions the children said "so it's a promise?".

I think that is a very useful way to regard UNCROC. Quite simply it is a promise to respect children. It covers all children and young people under 18.

So what is the nature of this promise? Firstly, it is very comprehensive. It covers young people's civil and political rights, as well as their economic, social and cultural rights. What's more, UNCROC encourages this spectrum of rights to be implemented holistically.

To make UNCROC a reality for children and young people we need to deal with all the rights that are conferred, as a group. Several key principles within the Convention assist with this approach:

the rights set out in the Convention apply to all children without discrimination;
the best interests of the child is a guiding principle under UNCROC; and
the views of the child must be respected in implementing the rights under UNCROC.
The second thing about this promise is that it reflects deep rooted support for UNCROC and children's rights across different governments, cultures and belief systems.

Children's rights are not a new thing. The first declaration of children's rights was made in 1924. Interestingly, it predates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This clearly indicates the widespread support that exists for children's rights and is a recognition of the vulnerability of the young.

More countries have agreed to UNCROC than any other international agreement. At present only two states have not ratified it - the USA and Somalia.

The extent of this support for UNCROC and children's rights was also reflected in the drafting process. Drafting of the Convention took ten years. The process involved not just state parties but also the non-government sector. UNCROC can therefore be regarded not just as a promise by states but as something we, as individuals, can all aspire to.

A question that follows from this, and is often asked about UNCROC, is " what does it mean for me?" What are the implications of this promise to do well by children?

In fact, sometimes adults get a bit nervous of UNCROC. A common response when the issue of children's rights are raised is "they know too much about their rights already - they need to learn more about their responsibilities " or "what about my rights as a parent?"

However, what is often not understood is that UNCROC expressly recognises the essential role played by parents, caregivers and others in guiding young people in the exercise of their rights.

Take for example a teenager who wants to attend a party. A fairly common issue for teenagers and their families. However, imagine the party is being organised by a local gang.

The young person has several rights that apply. For example freedom of association, freedom of expression, and a right to have a say in decisions that affect her or him. On the other hand, parents have a responsibility to guide the exercise of these rights, and freedom of association can be limited under the Convention to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

In such a situation UNCROC will not necessarily provide a clear answer. A balancing of everyone's different rights and responsibilities will be needed. Resolution will come through developing good relationships with young people, listening to what they have to say, respecting their views, and treating them fairly.

Many of the conventions to which we are signatories, are about empowering those who haven't traditionally participated. And it's fair to say that this prospect often makes the power brokers nervous. But increasingly, young people, women and indigenous people will have a bigger part to play, so facilitating their input is the challenge we must all meet.

In the past there was almost a fear of empowering those who had not traditionally participated but that is now changing. Although some may not always like the challenges posed by these groups, ultimately it is the interests of us all if everybody has a stake in the future of their nation.

As one young person commented recently "hearing our point of view is important because children and young people can explain things in a respectful way if adults take the time, and are willing to listen."

This comment was reinforced as part of some research conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and the Commissioner for Children. It was suggested to the Ministry and Commissioner for Children's Office that there is a need to better inform children and young people about UNCROC.

It was considered appropriate to ask children and young people to define the content and way the information should be conveyed.

Linda Gilbert, the researcher, worked with a youth advisory group to develop, distribute and analyse surveys to young people. Over 1,000 young people returned the surveys which clearly shows us that young New Zealanders are keen to have a say on issues that affect them.

The results of the survey, known as the Article 42 Consultation project, will be published shortly. However I want to share with you today some of the key messages from the children and young people involved, particularly in relation to the key principle, under UNCROC, namely participation.

The advice from the young people involved in the survey to adults seeking children and young people's views on things was:

adults need to make the first approach to children and young people;
be careful not to criticise children and young people - accept them and their views;
sometimes kids aren't open with adults because they are scared or shy - take time to get to know them;
negativity is contagious - adults need to be positive around kids.
Taking this advice on board will help us to make human rights more of a reality for young people in New Zealand. We need to think through the sorts of things we can do in legislation, policy and practice to continue to implement UNCROC, and raise awareness and appreciation about young people's human rights. In developing this "human rights capacity" we need to involve children and young people more and respect their right to be heard.

One example of how this might be done is the recently announced Prime Minister's Youth Advisory Forum. The purpose of the forum is to give young people a voice at the highest level of decision-making through participating in discussions with the Prime Minister.

The forum provides young people (12-25 years) with an opportunity to advise Government about issues that are significant to them. Based on the principles of youth empowerment, young people are involved in the planning and evaluation of forums, which will be run by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. There will be three forums held annually and the Prime Minister has indicated to me that she is really looking forward to the first meeting.

A second example is a proposed amendment to the Education Act which will give statutory acknowledgment to the right of a student to have a say at their own school suspension hearing. This amendment will help give effect to Article 12 of UNCROC.

The involvement children and young people have in local planning processes is another way of respecting their views in decision-making processes. The Christchurch City Council provides a fine example of how this can be done. The Council conducted a city wide survey of children to seek their advice on what they liked and didn't like about the city and how things could be improved, from a children's point of view.

UNCROC and the rights it sets out have the potential to improve the reality of human rights for young people across all levels of decision-making. From parents to non-government organisations and local bodies through to the Prime Minister.

New Zealand has a proud record when it comes to human rights and that often means that international expectations of us are high. The expectations children are just as high. So, I'm sure there are ways that each and every one of us here today could explore to improve the input children and young people have into decisions that directly affect their lives.

In closing, I would like to refer to another comment made by a young person as part of the Article 42 consultation project.

"The times have changed. Children should respect their elders, but it is a two way relationship. Adults need to respect us too."

I hope that we can all use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to build on and strengthen the human rights for young people in New Zealand today, that we are as successful in sticking to the original design as you have been in completing the Cathedral, and that the outcome, for young New Zealanders, is just as great.

Thank you.