December 15, 2017 Articles

UN Comment from Paper to Practice: Realizing the Human Rights of Children and Youth Who Are Street Connected

By Cathy Krebs

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and the ABA Section of Litigation Children’s Rights Litigation Committee were the lead ABA sponsors of the International Summit on the Legal Rights of Street Connected Children and Youth.

Approximately 100 leaders, experts who work every day with street connected children and youth, gathered in São Paulo, Brazil, for the International Summit on the Legal Rights of Street Connected Children and Youth (Summit) at the law firm of Trench Rossi on November 28–29, 2017. Attendees shared one common goal: to work together to examine the mandate provided by the United Nations General Comment No. 21 on Children in Street Situations (UN Comment) and to draft Principles that would assist governments and communities in understanding how best to implement the UN Comment.

The American Bar Association (ABA), under the leadership of ABA President Hilarie Bass, decided to build on the success of the first International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth held in London in June of 2015, with a focus on bringing together street youth experts across the globe for only the second-ever convening focused on the legal rights of street youth as a path to ensuring dignity and human rights for a population often forgotten or ignored. The ABA found a strong partner in Trench, Rossi & Watanabe (a cooperating firm with Baker McKenzie), which agreed to host the event in its São Paulo offices. This entailed not just providing space but also coordinating logistics such as food, translators, and video conferencing for attendees and speakers from all over the world. The United Nations was also an active participant with four members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child speaking on plenary panels.

Attendees came from all over the globe, from countries that included Japan, Australia, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, Canada, Bolivia, Mexico, Uruguay, and the U.S. Translation was essential as not all attendees spoke the same language. Yet despite the diversity of attendees, there was a shared community and affection that made the International Summit unique and special.

Bernard Gastaud, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from Monaco, opened the Summit by declaring that children in street situations have the same rights as all other children, no more, no less. All children are equal. He discussed the articles within the UN Comment and reminded attendees that the Comment must be used as a tool for all of us to fully implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Next, Sarah Thomas de Benitez, a senior international researcher and consultant with decades of experience, spoke about one of the many themes that continued to emerge throughout the event: the enormous power of story in driving change. She noted that one of the first narratives of the street connected child was one of a victim waiting to be rescued. Policies based on this dehumanizing myth failed because they were not based on reality. More recently, the narrative has become focused on a child with connections to the street who has rights. Policies based on this narrative are rooted in evidence and rights. She commended the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for their bravery in writing the UN Comment, for informing their work with consultations with children and for writing a radical and robust document that clearly states that a welfare and repressive approach has no place in a rights-based document.

ABA President Hilarie Bass and Judge Eduardo Rezende Melo of the International Association of Youth & Family Judges and Magistrates in Brazil moderated the opening panel which consisted of Benyam Mezmur, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the chairperson of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and associate professor of law at the Dullah Omar Institute of the University of Western Cape in South Africa; Mikiko Otani, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from Japan; Kavita Ratna, the director of advocacy at The Concerned for Working Children in India; Pablo Bassi of Gurises Unidos in Uruguay; Susana Tierno of the National Childhood Institution of Uruguay in Uruguay; and Iain Byrne of the Amnesty International in the UK. This opening plenary panel focused on accountability, children as agents of change, the important role for lawyers and judges, the example of Uruguay as an early adopter of the UN Comment, and the need for adequate, flexible approaches based on the needs of each family. Kavita Ratna elevated the voice of youth when she told the story of a youth consultation held in India to assist in the drafting of the UN Comment. Although participating children were of different ages and from different places, they were asked what they all had in common. Their answer was "courage."

Next came the youth panel which was a highlight of the entire Summit. Presenting on the panel were Dieumerci (last name withheld), a Street Outreach Worker with PEDER (Programme d'Encadrement des Enfants de la Rue) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Jessica Medeiros of Street Child United in Brazil; Claudiane das Dores Santos of Street Child United in Brazil; Liya Ngalam, a Street Child United ambassador from the United Kingdom; Sam Smith, a Street Child United ambassador from the United Kingdom; and Courtney Smith, a youth advisor with National Network for Youth in the United States who served as moderator. One presenter talked about how too many people connected the experience she was having on the street with who she was as a person. Another asked why does it have to be luck whether someone can leave the street? Instead, shouldn’t it be based on something more concrete like good programs and policies? Together presenters reminded attendees that the perception of street connected children and youth needs to be changed, that representation matters, that youth need opportunities to succeed, and that personal connections are much more important that policies. One presenter stated the need to work with vulnerable youth so that the world that our grandchildren live in will be better—that is what she wants for her own grandchildren and why she does this work. Last, the panel moderator reminded us that this advocacy can be the difference between life and death.

After the opening plenary panels, the real work of the Summit began. After lunch all attendees broke into nine small working sessions, with each group consisting of approximately 10 people. The sessions were based on topic areas of the UN Comment and addressed: non-discrimination based on social origin, property, birth/other status; non-discrimination of LGBT Youth; children with disabilities (including disabilities from trauma); destigmatize homelessness/change the story; birth registration and identity; nongovernmental organization (NGO) and lawyer collaborative advocacy; violence and social cleansing; health, drug and substance abuse; and standard of living and structural poverty. Each session had a facilitator or co-facilitators who wrote draft Principles prior to the Summit, and each group focused their conversation on finalizing those Principles during their small group discussions. Principles are very much focused on how governments and communities can implement the UN Comment. These conversations were incredibly dynamic and productive with participants sharing expertise and best practices from around the world.

After a short break, attendees attended a different second small group session. Some of the sessions from the first group were repeated and new topics were added, including: education; comprehensive child welfare system; access to information and privacy; and the criminal justice system. Some of the youth held their own small group sessions to share their expertise and feedback on the Principles as well. Portuguese and Spanish translations were offered in several sessions to ensure that everyone could participate.

To assist with the work, each small group had a notetaker who captured the conversation and revised the Principles based on the input of attendees. Northwestern University School of Law generously paid for the travel of five law students to São Paulo so that they could take notes during each session, and Trench, Rossi & Watanabe provided the remainder of notetakers and volunteer translators. The work of the Summit would not have been accomplished without the generosity of these two organizations.

At the close of day one Casey Trupin of the Raikes Foundation in the United States and Irene Rizzini, a professor at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and president of the International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood (CIESPI) in Brazil, moderated the plenary panel "Strategies for Implementation at the Sub-National Level—How to Raise Awareness (of Citizens and Political Authorities) on the General Comment and Involve Youth in Implementation of the Comment." They had a lively conversation with panelists Ann Skelton, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Caroline Ford, the executive director of the Consortium for Street Children in the United Kingdom; and Tushar Anchal from Plan India. Panelists focused on concrete strategies as well as challenges for sub-national implementation of the UN Comment, and they all agreed that participation of youth will be critical for implementation. As Ann Skelton noted, youth were very innovative in providing suggestions for the UN Comment, and they can be equally effective in communicating these suggestions back to communities, especially if supported by NGOs and governments. Stakeholders and youth from each country should develop a national plan of action that should include goals and indicators so that achievement can be measured. Day one concluded with a reception hosted by Trench, Rossi & Watanabe, where all attendees were able to reflect upon and continue conversations begun during the day.

The second day of the Summit began with a short overview of the small group sessions from the first day as well as a presentation on destigmatizing homelessness and changing the story for street connected children and youth by Kurt Shaw from Shine a Light in Brazil and Joe Hewitt of Street Child World Cup. Kurt and Joe shared some insights from the small group discussions that they moderated on this topic on day one. They talked about how communication is not merely a luxury, but an integral part of the implementation of the UN Comment. Storytelling about the courage of individual children connected to the street is the most powerful way to overcome the two most prevalent stereotypes: as victim or delinquent. Communications should not be limited to the media, but must include real-life meetings between children from different walks of life. Children must be part of any campaign creation, so they can show, as well as speak about, their courage. Communications strategy must focus on children and their parents, police officers, and policymakers. Communication must focus on the general public, as public opinion is key to prompting action by those in power. Lastly, professional communications strategists should be engaged (preferably on a pro bono or volunteer basis) to assist with strategizing, as most NGOs do not have the resources or experience to launch an effective campaign.

Following this plenary session, attendees once again broke into nine small group sessions that addressed: right to peaceful assembly; right to be heard and to expression; structural discrimination; right to family (reconnection to family); trafficking (sex and labor); prevention from entering the street; employment; children and youth participation in the implementation of the UN Comment; and access to justice. Once again, conversations were focused on practical suggestions on how the UN Comment can be implemented in each country and community. After lunch, session four began, the last set of nine breakout sessions, which included some of the topics from session three along with the following new topics: child rights approach as opposed the child protection; systems that discharge children and youth to homelessness; gender, and factors underlying girls' development of street connections; and the police (police sweeps; specialized training for the police).

Following the completion of the breakout sessions, attendees reconvened for the final plenary session. After a brief overview of the small group sessions held on day two, Trenny Stovall of the DeKalb County Child Advocacy Center moderated a panel on "New and Private Partnerships" with panelists José Carlos Meirelles from the law firm Pinheiro Neto Advogados in Brazil; Caroline Ford from the Consortium for Street Children in the United Kingdom; and Koji Fukumura, chair of the ABA Section of Litigation. Panelists discussed how private law firms, corporations, and bar associations can partner with NGOs to work on behalf of street-connected children and youth, including descriptions of successful partnerships.

The final session was focused squarely on the future: "Moving forward with the UN Comment: Where Are We Going Next?" Sarah Thomas de Benitez, who assisted in opening the summit, spoke about how we as a community need to humanize and value street-connected youth, challenge misunderstandings and lazy thinking, read and understand UN documents, and use solutions-based language. Mikiko Otani, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from Japan, spoke about how each country can dialogue with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Finally, Dieumerci, the street outreach worker with PEDER, shared a stunning reminder of why this work is so important. He shared the story of his friend, a thirteen-year old girl whose murdered body was found with ropes still tightened around her neck. She had no family and lived on the street, so nobody could claim her. Her pregnant body uncollected, and her street youth community's outrage unaddressed, the boy and several other youth went to speak to government officials about the violence she, and others like her, suffered. But they were turned away. They were told they would not be heard. They had no right to speak because they lived on the street. Their voices were silenced.

Angela Vigil of Baker McKenzie in the United States concluded by describing the next steps for the Principles developed during the Summit. During the month following the Summit, the Principles for each session will be edited and prepared for dissemination. Once they are finalized, they will be shared with the ABA House of Delegates during the ABA Midyear Meeting in February 2018. In spring 2018, those Principles will be sent to the leader of every country around the world to assist in the implementation of the UN Comment. In addition, each Summit attendee will be asked who in their country should receive a copy of the Principles. Attendees will then be able to leverage those Principles to further the work of implementing the UN Comment within their own country.

The work done at the International Summit on the Legal Rights of Street Connected Children and Youth was an important step forward for the realization of human rights for children and youth who are street connected. But even more, attendees talked about being energized by the connections made and the work done. We move forward with new partnerships, practical tools, and a renewed energy to realize the human rights of children and youth who are street connected.


Cathy Krebs is the committee director for the ABA Section of Litigation Children's Rights Litigation Committee.

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