25 SES 04, Discourse and Policy Perspectives on Children's Rights
This paper addresses the tendency towards consensus thinking surrounding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Attention to contradictions and tensions within the convention are uncommon in children’s rights research.Through highlighting and elaborating on some of these contradictions, the paper seeks to contribute to a broader critical academic debate about the development of the UNCRC and its role in children’s rights research. With the ambition of stimulating increased multiplicity of meaning in children’s rights discussion, the paper analyses the development of the text of the UNCRC in the drafting of the convention from its inception in 1979 until its publication in 1989. The analysis centres on the discussions that took place between the parties of the working group responsible for the drafting.
The specific purpose of the paper is to demonstrate ways in which the final text of the convention expresses consensus reached during the drafting process and identify unresolved conflicting perspectives in the drafting. This will be achieved by clarifying:
- co-existing alternative meanings attributed to human rights for children and to the convention’s role and character,
- instances of closure in the drafting in order to produce consensus regarding human rights for children and the role of the convention, and if so, what form that closure took,
- how the final adopted text of the convention relates to alternative meanings and possible closures.
Previous research into the drafting of the UNCRC is limited, but the studies undertaken shed some light on various difficulties and developments in the drafting deliberations. Studies have elucidated how the deliberations led to partial rather than complete agreements or compromises, how the interest of various parties was balanced against each other, and how some topics were left without being discussed (Alston 1990; Tobin 2013; Quennerstedt 2009; Price Cohen 1990, Holzscheiter 2013).
The drafting of an international treaty is a particular instance, where parties with sometimes highly differing views and interests meet with the purpose of reaching an agreement. Language exchange is the primary means through which a treaty is produced, including meaning-making and meaning-negotiation. The analysis in this paper focus on language exchange and draws on Bakhtin's theorising on two forces in language – dialogue in which heteroglossic language expands the alternatives in meaning and perspectives, and monologue in which monoglossic langage tends in an opposite direction, towards a single voice and perspective (Bakhtin, 1981). Examination of the deliberations that produced the text of the convention can increase our understanding of such a discursively powerful document as the UNCRC. By clarifying how counteracting forces worked in different directions, the contestations within children’s human rights can be made more explicit and accessible for contemporary discussions about the multiple meanings of children’s rights.
This study is a text analysis of the UN’s own documentary evidence of the drafting process of the UNCRC. The primary material consists of reports of the working group’s annual sessions between 1979 and 1989. Other material which has also been analysed includes: Poland’s initial proposal for a convention, and comments from states and organisations relating to this initial proposal; the revised Polish proposal; proposals from states and NGOs submitted during the two readings; and the result of the technical reading. The analysis focuses on two themes: the meaning attributed to (a) human rights for children and (b) the convention’s role and character. In the analytical reading of the documents, the working group’s discussions relating to these two themes were identified. A detailed analysis of the selected sections was conducted by searching for instances of heteroglossic and monoglossic tendencies respectively. Heteroglossic tendencies were sought by identifying ways in which the multiplicity of meaning increased through: - standpoints expressed in proposals for the convention text, - standpoints expressed in utterances about the proposed text, - standpoints highlighted in reactions to utterances in the discussion. Monoglossic tendencies were sought by locating movements towards unity and decreased multiplicity through: - the content of critique of, or support for, standpoints expressed in the discussion, - the success or dismissal of such critique and support, - how the final wording of an article came to include or exclude the standpoints that had been expressed in the discussion.
The analysis shows how dialogic movements in the deliberations that took place during the drafting of the UNCRC opened up a larger scope for meanings attributed to children's civil, political and socio-economic rights. But the drafting deliberations also included monologic movements, which closed down meaning. These respective movements are detailed in the paper. Further, the analysis of what meanings that were assigned to the role and character of the convention shows that two fundamentally contradictory ideas about the role of the convention operated throughout the drafting process. These represent two different logics about human rights for children, (i) that children have general human rights, and (ii) that children have an adapted version of human rights. When the two analytical themes are combined, a qualifying insight is gained: that different children’s rights logics underlay the closures for different kinds of rights. Concerning children's civil and political rights, the children's rights logic that prevailed in the process of closure was that children have an adapted version of human rights - this logic justified adaptions of these rights for children in the UNCRC compared to what is expressed generally in other instruments. Concerning children's socio-economic rights, the prevailing logic was that children have general human rights - which justified that the same level for these rights were set for children in the UNCRC as in other instruments, no adaptions were accepted. A main conclusion is therefore that the (putative) consensus on different kinds of human rights expressed in the text of the UNCRC draw on inconsistent perceptions of human rights for children.
Alston, Philip (1990). ‘The Unborn Child and Abortion Under the Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child’. Human Rights Quarterly 12(1), 156-178. Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays. M. Holist (Ed.). University of Texas Press. Holzscheiter, Anna (2011). ‘Power of discourse or discourse of the powerful? The reconstruction of global childhood norms in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’. Journal of Language and Politics10(1), 1-28. Price Cohen, Cynthia (1990). ‘The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations in the Drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’. Human Rights Quarterly 12(1), 137-147. Quennerstedt, Ann (2009). ‘Balancing the Rights of the Child and the Rights of Parents in the Convention on the Rights of the Child’. Journal of Human Rights, 8(2), 162-176. Tobin, John (2013). ‘Justifying Children’s Rights’. International Journal of Children’s Rights 21(3), 395-441.
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