It is 40 years since I arrived as a student at Sussex University in the wake of the global student revolution of 1968, in the year of Woodstock and the moon landings. The Cold War was at its height but the first SALT disarmament talks began in November. In Vietnam it was the year of the secret bombing of Cambodia and the My Lai massacre, but also the first US troop withdrawals (and John Lennon returned his MBE in protest at the war). It was also the year of ARPANET, the progenitor of the internet. It was a time when young people believed in change and we thought anything was possible. Some of us still believe it!
Half way from there to here was 1989. This was also a year of revolutions, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the official end of the Cold War. For me though, the most important revolution was the adoption on 20th November of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For the first time the world made a set of promises to all its children and young people backed by the force of international law. It is a document of staggering power and simplicity and well worth a read. Its 54 Articles offer a unique set of global values, that every child should be brought up “in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity”. My favourite is Article 29 which says that “the education of the child shall be directed to:
- The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;
- The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, …;
- The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;
- The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples…;
- The development of respect for the natural environment”.
In essence, the Convention (the CRC) made a number of vital promises to every child: the promise of protection from violence, exploitation, abuse and adult responsibilities, with social security, safety and play; the promise of education for all, according the values of Article 29; the promise of survival beyond infancy and the highest attainable standard of health; the right to be treated equally, regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status”; and the right to be heard – not only to be able to express oneself freely, but for the child’s opinions to be given “due weight” in matters that affect them.
Yet, 20 years later, in 2009, violence against children is widespread, childhoods are damaged or denied by war, work and abuse; a billion children live in poverty, including 4 million in the UK; 9 million under 5s die annually, most from preventable causes; 100 million children are out of school. Discrimination is rife and children’s voices are still not heard as they should be. In our own society, young people are vilified in the media and in politics for the sake of a quick soundbite. In short, the promises made 20 years ago continue to be broken. 20 years is too long. It is time for the promises to be kept.
For those, at Sussex and elsewhere, who believe it is still possible to change the world for the better, there can be no greater cause than fighting for the rights of the world’s children.
2009 is another special year. Will we really meet the challenge of climate change? Will it be the year when global recession heralds a positive change in corporate, social and political values – or not? Will the G20 decide that we should manage the global economy for the benefit of the most vulnerable? And it is the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Will the promises be kept? Not if we stand by and do nothing! It is also a time when the power of online social networking to mobilise change has become reality. The need and the opportunity for social action has never been greater.
When a Sussex student of 2009 looks back 40 years hence, what will he or she be able to say about the changes that began in 2009?
Follow me on twitter @davidnbull; support my charity fundraising challenge (with my daughter Katy, also a Sussex graduate) at indiacharitychallenge.wordpress.com; support UNICEF’s promises campaign at www.unicef.org.uk.