At thirteen years old, I sat down with Jean Chrétien. I had just started a charity and had an ambitious goal for the meeting: I wanted Canada’s then-Prime Minister to do more to end child labour. My idealistic confidence came from the fact that the law was on my side.
Just a few years earlier, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was signed, a groundbreaking document that defined the rights of children for the first time. The convention changed the way national governments form policies for child protection. But as the convention turns 30 this month, cracks are beginning to show.
Its 54 articles lay out children’s rights and government responsibilities on everything from access to education and healthcare to the right to play and express opinions. We’ve made incredible progress in the years since it was signed. Today, more children are in school than ever before. Fewer lose their lives to preventable illnesses. And the convention has shifted the conversation on childhood, becoming the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.
But what do children’s rights mean today?
The articles were written the same year the World Wide Web was born, before climate change entered mainstream consciousness, while robots and automation were still the stuff of science fiction. The convention must evolve to protect emerging rights.
I often speak with young activists and parents across the country, who tell me that digital safety is one of their most pressing concerns. Offline rights must extend online, especially for children, something absent from the pre-digital age convention. The right to privacy and to be free from cyber bullying are the most obvious examples. The right to own your own data, a relatively new idea, promises to help young people make informed decisions about their online footprint.
While digital behavior is an important focus, access remains a prime concern. It’s nearly impossible to be a student today without digital resources. The internet can broaden horizons and empower learning—something I’ve seen firsthand in our partner schools in Kenya that come equipped with computer labs. Children deserve the right to connect.
But the most glaring omission has to do with the future of our planet. None of the rights contained within the convention can withstand a radically altered environment. With more than half a billion children living in high flood areas, with increased risks of malnutrition and precarious migration, children are already bearing the brunt of climate change. Polls consistently show it’s the issue young people care most about. Climate justice is justice for our children.
Admittedly, Canada has a long way to go to achieve the UNCRC’s current goals without the addition of new ones. A recent report pointed to numerous shortcomings, most glaringly in the funding gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
Whatever its shortcomings, the UNCRC is more than a legal text. It’s a living document. It’s not enough for nations to sign it and move on. We need to continually engage with it, refresh it and enforce it. We need to protect children’s rights in a changing world for the next 30 years, and for generations to come.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.