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INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH PROJECT FUNDED BY THE SPECIALISED COMMITTEE
INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH OF THE SWISS NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (SNSF)
Children’s Rights Unit
PO Box 4176 • 1950 Sion 4 • Switzerland
Tel. +41 27 205 73 00 • Fax +41 27 205 73 01
• The international priorities of child rights advocacy have significantly evolved over the
period under review (1989-2009). In particular, the ambition to foster socio-economic development, which received major attention during the early 1990s, has gradually given way to a minimalist approach focused on fulfilling children’s basic needs. Since 1995, violence against children has become an increasingly central theme, overshadowing issues such as street or abandoned children. The shifting priorities have been accompanied by an increased emphasis on culture as the main root cause of children’s social problems and by a decreased capacity to critique States’ socio-economic policies and “structural” forms of inequality.
• While the “official version” about processes of prioritization emphasizes the central role
played by children’s realities (namely, by the gravity and scope of social problems) and by the actors’ capacities and strategies, the research suggests that priorities are constructed within a relational field. In particular, the social perception of issues (that is, their consensual or controversial character and their conformity with dominant representations of children and their rights), and the political interests of States (which are also the main donors of leading actors), appear to play a very significant role when it comes to prioritize certain issues over others.
• Despite the doctrine of the indivisibility and interdependence of children’s rights,
promoted by the UN General Assembly since 1973, child rights advocates seem to share a widely accepted hierarchy of rights, at the top of which stands the child’s right to life and survival. Themes such as children in emergencies (including armed conflict and disasters), basic needs (such as children’s right to health, nutrition, shelter or sanitation) and the most extreme forms of exploitation and/or violence receive therefore much more attention than children’s social, economic or cultural rights.
• The trajectory of child rights themes on the international agenda depends on the
capacity of the arguments underpinning them to resist critique and mobilize resources. Advocacy arguments are articulated around three interconnected planes: at the
ontological level, they aim to establish truths about the world (by providing, for instance, data or statistics); at the epistemological level, they ground these truths on the legitimacy of data gathering methods; and at the axiological level, they mobilize shared values and/or representations. The themes that have gained prominence during the period under review, such as violence against children, have performed better than the other themes on all these planes. Rising themes also appear to fit better the modernist narratives accompanying the children’s rights project, perceived as a progressive energy (embodied in the culture of children’s rights) confronted with evil and conservative forces (represented by deviant cultures).
• The children’s rights field has changed dramatically during the period under review.
From a handful of INGOs gathered informally around the drafting of the CRC, it has grown into an increasingly competitive, professional and institutionalized field. Since the year 2000, leading actors have also gradually extended alliances with entities pertaining to other fields, such as development or public health. Violence against children has played a crucial rallying role in the expansion of these partnerships beyond the children’s rights field. The increased institutionalization and the densification and expansion of networks have been accompanied by a growing influence of the UN system and States on the definition of the international child rights agenda.
• The actors constantly mobilize objects, such as treaties, UN resolutions or reports, to
support their arguments. By stabilizing representations, these objects play a key role in shaping the trajectories of themes. Yet, leading actors differ in terms of their capacity to gather information and mobilize resources to produce legitimate objects. In this respect, the UN system – located at the centre of the children’s rights field and of intertwined networks of activists – stands clearly above all other entities. Asymmetries of power appear to be mutually reinforcing, as the knowledge provided by relations with other actors is both the result and the condition of the enlargement of the networks. Accordingly, the research shows that, during the period under review, small INGOs have gradually lost their specificity and now largely align their priorities on those promoted by the UN and other big players.
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