Essay: Expanding the Boundary of Ethics and Politics

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Expanding the Boundary of Ethics and Politics

Since 1990, the United Nations has been attempting to secure the universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and as of now, every member country of the United Nations has signed and ratified the treaty except Somalia and the United States. As the leader of an NGO attempting to work towards the rights of the child as outlined in the Convention, there are a number of things which can be done both the encourage the universal adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically and work towards the maintenance and protection of those rights more generally. Doing so, however, requires a reinterpretation of some commonly held assumptions regarding the nature of human rights, because attempting to establish any rights through the authority of a written document will always be problematic unless one is honest about how powerful (or powerless) that document really is.

Before discussing the ways in which an NGO could work towards the rights of the child established in the Convention, it will be useful to briefly discuss the most important points of the Convention as well as take an honest account of documents such as this one and their actual relation to the maintenance and security of human rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child seeks to acknowledge that children represent a special class of human beings that require special consideration and care. As the preamble of the Convention on the Rights of the Child notes, this acknowledgment of a need for special rights and considerations for children previously "has been stated in the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 and in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1959 and recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," but these previous declarations did not constitute a legally binding treaty that all signatories would have to follow, and as such did not actually secure the rights for children outlined (United Nations 1990). The Convention gives these rights the protection of the law, and requires signatory countries to alter their laws (largely having to do with child custody, labor, and military service) in order to ensure that they are not in violation of the Convention.

The rights included in the Convention stem from these earlier declarations as well as additional consideration of the particular developmental needs of children. The basic human rights that the Convention outlines can be summarized as "the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life," born out of "the four core principles of the Convention [which] are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child" (UNICEF 2011). Some of the rights included are obvious while some, at first glance, may seem unnecessary, but all of them work towards ensuring children receive the best treatment possible while maintaining a balance between individual autonomy for the child and a safe home environment ideally overseen by a responsible parent or guardian. For instance, Article 7 of the Convention ensures, among other things, that children "shall have the right from birth to a name" (UN 1990). Establishing the right to a name may seem unnecessary or otherwise arbitrary at first glance, but because a name is necessary for inclusion into the political order and to gain all of the advantages afforded citizens, the Convention includes this as an explicit right (in addition to the fact that denying a child a name is the first step toward dehumanizing them, which ultimately leads to some of the more dramatic problems the Convention was intended to combat, such as child soldiers or forced prostitution). This is just one of the many explicit rights outlined in the Convention, but it helps to demonstrate the extent to which the Convention seeks to clearly delineate the myriad ways in which children must be protected.

Before discussing some ways in which an NGO might effectively work towards securing the rights outlined in the Convention, it is necessary to honestly confront the limitations of the Convention, and indeed, any legal document. In short, the Convention is merely a document, and like all cultural and social productions, has no real inherent meaning. However, this is not to suggest a kind of existential criticism that all political organization or the codification of legal ideals is entirely pointless due to the meaninglessness of human activity, but rather to acknowledge that in reality, there is no such thing as an inherent right, because nature and reality make no claims to ethics or morality. While this may seem like a bleak prospect, for the most part this reality does not generally impede the functioning of society, but it does require one to consider, if there is no objectively definable ethics or morality, the purpose of documents such as the Convention on the Human rights of the Child, and a look at the preamble to the United States' Constitution will help to reveal this purpose.

As stated above, any document claiming to outline or defend essential rights for human beings, children or otherwise, is not actually discussing anything essential, but rather what might more helpfully be considered as essential standards for the functioning of society. Put another way, rights are useful not because they are natural or inherent due to people's existence as human beings, but rather because they offer guidelines for balancing the individual happiness of individuals alongside the concessions required of every individual when entering into any kind of union or group (again, noting that the happiness of the individual and the success of the group are not goals suggested by any kind of objective evidence other than an evolutionary disposition toward these goals). For any concerns regarding the prevalence of a coded religiosity in American political documents, the preamble to the Constitution includes an implicit acknowledgment that documents such as these only matter inasmuch as people have agreed that they matter in achieving certain goals. Thus, the preamble starts by stating that:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure, domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (U.S. Constitution)

Thus, the preamble does not claim that the Constitution (and the rights included as amendments) are being codified and supported because they represent any kind of natural justice human beings are inherently owed, but rather because the codification and support of these rights in the form of the Constitution will make it easier to achieve the goals outlined, the first of which is the formation of "a more perfect Union." Documents such as this serve to ensure the successful functioning of individuals within society, and because this is a (relatively) easy thing to measure, people are able to come up with logical ways of achieving this goal, so that human rights are shown to be eminently more important and useful than if they were simply assumed out some ephemeral special status given to homo sapiens above other species. This distinction is important to make because it makes the reasons for attempting to protect human rights clearer, because human rights are shown to be a tool for success, rather than a presupposed obligation. In turn, the maintenance of human rights becomes the implicit responsibility for any person who desires to remain part of society, because as a member of society they have an implicit responsibility for ensuring its success.

This is why the Convention on the Rights of the Child is such a crucial document, and the rights established within it need to be fought for so forcefully. The Convention proposes that society as a whole will function better for everyone if children are afforded certain special considerations and rights, so anyone who cares about the effective functioning of society must similarly care about the maintenance of these rights. As the leader of an NGO, acknowledging this is crucial because it allows one to frame the issue of child rights in such a way as to demonstrate the influence of child rights on society as a whole, especially because the responsibility for children is often assumed to end with the parent, an attitude which more often than not leads to parents being overburdened and unsupported by society. In general, framing the issue in this way is one of the most important things an NGO can do, because it serves to engage individuals and groups who might support the rights of children who view the issue are relatively removed from their own experience.

This serves to obviate one of the biggest drawbacks of using an NGO to work on issues like this,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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