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Woodbridge woman honoured at UN for work with children

A Canadian woman who has campaigned eight years to bolster children’s rights around the world is celebrating a landmark addition to international law, although her own country has yet to get on board.

Sara Austin, from Woodbridge, Ont., addressed a special event at United Nations headquarters in New York City on Monday as the global body called into force a new treaty she designed.

The protocol gives mistreated children a voice for the first time, by enabling them to make direct complaints to a UN committee tasked with upholding the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

As the most widely ratified convention in UN history, its 194 signatories promise to protect children such as those forced to work in mines, brothels, factories and as child soldiers. But never before did it have a mechanism compelling action when violations were found.

“Until this day, there was nothing really tangible we could do to hold governments accountable,” Austin said in a telephone interview after giving a speech to about 150 people, including representatives of nine national governments.

“The impact is actually quite significant. Not just individual victims will receive remedies, but potentially millions of lives could be changed.”

The treaty went into effect Monday at the wrap of a three-month waiting period, which began when the last of ten threshold countries signed on. Some 45 other nations have signalled their intention to ratify, but Canada is not among them.

Austin, a director for World Vision Canada, said the organization is “urgently” calling on Ottawa to join the early adopters and, in effect, live up to its commitments.

“We also want to see our government support the rights of children in our own backyard, and give meaning to the rights of children in our own country,” she said.

A child rights advocacy group, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, notes the convention is largely symbolic without agreement to the new protocol.

“I think Canada has been clear that they don’t intend to ratify,” said the organization’s chair, Cheryl Milne. “They haven’t been that supportive of it in terms of the process.”

Were the country to sign, Milne suggested a priority group for exercising the law would be First Nations children.

Neither the Foreign Affairs department or the office of the federal justice minister returned requests for comment.

The idea to amend the popular convention was conceived by Austin during her graduate studies in 2006. By then, she had already spent many years travelling overseas. Among her motivating experiences was witnessing child labour and exploitation in Thailand.

“(I was) meeting children, day-in and day-out, whose rights were starkly different from what was promised by their governments,” she said.

That disconnect inspired her thesis, which seized on the fact that other UN conventions had tools to compel government compliance but the one addressing children’s issues did not.

She mobilized supporters, lobbied governments, brought the concern to UN world headquarters in Geneva and eventually got the massive body’s approval.

The Third Optional Protocol, as it is officially called, allows children or their representatives (such as NGOs) to bring grievances of rights violations directly to the committee on the rights of the child. They can only present their case of evidence to the committee after exhausting all domestic options.

The committee will investigate, and should it find valid violations, it can instruct national governments to provide remedy. That could include offering rehabilitation, reparations, financial compensation or guarantees of non-repetition.

Joanna Harrington, a law professor at the University of Alberta specializing in international law, questioned the effectiveness of the new treaty.

“If you really do care about the implementation of international human rights standards,” she said, “for me the focus should be on what Canada can do within Canada rather than adding yet another international complaint mechanism to an overworked, under-resourced, part-time body.”

She noted that the federal government already accepts complaints through its own human rights committee, which includes children’s rights.

In fall 2012, the UN committee on the rights of the child called out the government over its adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In its 10-year review of how Canada treats its children, it found that changes made by the Conservatives to the country’s youth justice laws no longer conformed to international standards.

It also identified a list of other short-comings, including addressing violence against aboriginal girls, problems in foster care and for child refugee claimants and increasing affordable daycare.

The original convention was signed in November 1989 and applies to any human being under the age of 18.