Youth & Children's Rights

Adult responsibilities, rights of minors: Youth rights - more than a timely slogan?

Published on

Double standards that load the responsibilities of adults onto the shoulders of young people while only granting them the rights of minors has led to a renewed interest in the human rights of young people. Youth rights have a history that is longer than commonly known, including a 1992 report by a Special UN Rapporteur with a youth rights charter. But is there more to youth rights than a nice slogan?

This article first appeared in The Commonwealth Yearbook 2013, published for the Commonwealth Secretariat by Nexus Strategic Partnerships): Robertson A. and Jones-Parry R. (eds) (2013) The Commonwealth Yearbook 2013. Cambridge: Nexus/Commonwealth Secretariat. This version is slightly updated and adjusted for context.

Youth rights - more than a timely slogan?The stark discrepancy between the age of criminal responsibility—which is age 10 or lower in 70 countries around the world including the United Kingdom—on the one hand, and the driving age, drinking age and age of consent, on the other hand, has led to a renewed interest in the rights of young people in recent years, headlined by the campaign to lower the voting age.

“What kind of twisted message do we send when we tell youth they are judged mature, responsible adults when they commit murder, but silly, brainless kids when they want to vote?”

The current situation, captured by the quote[1] above, is often portrayed as a double standard that loads the responsibilities of adults onto the shoulders of young people while only granting them the rights of minors.

Double standards load the responsibilities of adults onto the shoulders of young people while only granting them the rights of minors.

The global youth sector, within and beyond the realm of the Commonwealth, is meanwhile largely self-absorbed in the search for new structures. While discussing “an architecture for youth engagement” in the United Nations, dubbed “Youth 21”[2], the overall coordination of youth policy and youth work across nation states lacks consistency and rigour to an extent that here at we described the situation as a ‘cacophony of inconsistent action’ - something that with the appointment of a Youth Envoy[3] will hopefully change, albeit slowly. Even basic data, such as the state of national youth policies, was not available until very recently - in stark contrast to the rhetoric touting, and demanding, evidense-based youth policies.[4]

Youth rights, however, have a history that is longer than commonly known and goes beyond the current inconsistencies of the sector, with Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire and John Dewey the most widely acknowledged intellectual heroes of the movement. The first youth rights declaration was presented by the American Youth Congress as the “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth” in July 1936 before a joint session of the U.S. Congress.[5] Occasionally, youth rights swirled to the surface at global level as well, most notably with the 1992 Report on Human Rights and Youth[6] by Dumitru Mazilu, who was the UN Special Rapporteur on Youth and Human Rights between 1985 and 1992.

Youth rights have a history longer than commonly known.

Despite the rare global appearance, the youth rights movement has, since 1936 and until recently and with many sector-typical fluctuations, been largely dominated by US-based alliances and initiatives. In 1989, the National Child Rights Alliance adopted a “Youth Bill of Rights,”[7] and in 2010, Robert Epstein wrote the “Young Person’s Bill of Rights”[8] for the first Youth Rights Day. Organisations such as the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA)[9] and the Freechild Project[10] and projects such as Youth Rights Media[11] and the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project[12] have shaped and advanced the youth rights discourse.

But the US-American youth rights movement seems somewhat stalled: In 2012, Alex Koroknay-Palicz stepped down from his position as the Executive Director of the NYRA after 12 years, and the organisation is struggling with the transition;[13] the website of the Youth Rights Network, initiated as the free encyclopaedia for youth rights, hasn’t been updated since 2010;[14] and the 2010 National Youth Rights Day,[15] which was meant to be the first in a series of annual youth right days, has so far remained the only one.

The youth rights movement in the US is stalled; it’s on the rise in Europe.

Meanwhile, a few European initiatives have started to address youth rights. The UK-based National Association for Youth Justice[16] promotes the rights of and justice for children and young people in trouble with the law, a topic the Guardian has closely followed[17] as well. The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, the Germany-based publisher of the Handbook of Intergenerational Justice, strives to enforce ethics that will preserve the opportunities and potential of future generations.[18] And the European Youth Forum published a report on the state of youth rights in Europe alongside a study entitled “The young and the rightless? The protection of youth rights in Europe.”[19]

The Youth Forum study, authored by Mourad Mahidi as his thesis for a European Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation at the Finnish Åbo Akademi, observes that young persons, in their transition from childhood to adulthood, face specific challenges and argues that these challenges should be the objects of youth rights. The publication sets out with an analysis of youth as a legal category, looking at various ways in which a young person is defined across various legal systems and showing that, while young persons indeed form a legal category, a comprehensive definition spanning across contexts remains absent.

With the African Youth Charter (AYC) and the Iberoamerican Convention on the Rights of Youth (ICRY), the study looks at two examples from other continents, aiming to highlight how challenges to youth rights are tackled through youth rights instruments. Taking a comparative perspective, the publication outlines the mixture of adopted human rights and newly introduced specific youth rights in the African Charter and the Iberoamerican Convention, observing that “the impact an international treaty has usually depends directly on the power of their supervision and monitoring mechanisms” and noting that both the AFC and the ICRY “lack real international monitoring mechanisms.”

There is a great margin for improving the protection of youth rights.

The study goes on to analyse the challenges that young Europeans currently face and in how far the rights of young persons are protected by existing instruments, concluding that there still is a great margin for improving the protection of youth rights in Europe. Largely owed to a lack of evidence, the author determines that there is no obvious response to the question of how youth rights should best be protected and promoted. The publication’s final chapter nonetheless observes that a European Convention on Youth Rights with a strong supervision and monitoring mechanism would likely protect youth rights well and develop the European human rights system adequately further.

Following the study, the British Council and the Open Society Foundations co-convened a youth policy symposium in 2011 in co-operation with the European Youth Forum. The event, entitled “Defending Youth Rights - Hard Law vs Soft Law,” attempted to highlight current challenges for young people in accessing their rights, to review existing frameworks for ensuring the rights of young people, to critically engage with recent debates on the need to increase young people’s access to their rights and to explore the rationale of binding and non-binding instruments to ensure that young people can adequately access their rights.[20]

While the symposium could obviously not replace the largely absent body of research and evidence on youth rights as asserted, a body which remains to be built over the coming years and for which the Commonwealth could and should initiate and contribute research, it provided a valuable starting point to raise and respond to the pros and cons of a convention on youth rights, and to discuss how to best champion—to research, address and advocate for—the rights and needs of young people in Europe and beyond.

A distinctive dilemma explored during the symposium is the absence of a clearly defined legal definition of young people. While young people do exist as a legal category, that category is not clearly defined and young people continue to be widely perceived as a socio-political concept with fuzzy borders and inconsistent interpretations, whereas children are progressively treated and understood as a codified concept with a clear legal status.

It is no surprise then that the symposium turned to the Convention on the Rights of the Child—a treaty recognising the human rights of children—as an example for an instrument that is similar to the advocated Youth Rights Convention.

Of particular interest proved the monitoring mechanism of the Children’s Rights Convention, mainly implemented through the Committee on the Rights of the Child, a body of experts scrutinising the convention’s implementation. The committee publishes comments on the content of human rights provisions including its own interpretation, last on “The right of the child to be heard” (2009) and “The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence” (2011).

Could a Youth Rights Convention revert the tendency of disenfranchisement?

Following the Youth Rights Symposium, the question of a youth rights convention remains at the centre of the debate at least within Europe. The political will to initiate a Youth Rights Convention, driven forward most notably by the European Youth Forum, is viewed with enthusiasm by some stakeholders and, in light of the unanswered questions above, with scepticism by others.

Arguments easily support either side’s position - while a convention would likely champion a rights-based approach to youth policy development and practice, youth might be marginalised as a group with a subset, and not the full panoply, of human rights; while two regional youth rights conventions have already been developed and introduced, they lack monitoring mechanisms and are not constructed around an evidence-base of violated rights but the perceived needs of young people; and so forth.

The discourse is however underpinned by the unifying interest of all partners to champion—to research, address and advocate for—the rights and needs of young people. There is a worrying trend to exaggerate and sensationalise youth violence and to scapegoat young people by lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, as documented by John Lash of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.[21]

Can a new Youth Rights Convention revert that tendency of disenfranchisement? Can a new Youth Rights Convention find a balance that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is often criticised to have failed: the balance between the protection of young persons, provisions for young persons and the participation of young persons?

Youth rights: a slogan in need of a definition

In 1973, Hillary Clinton, then an attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and known as Hillary Rodham, argued that “the phrase ‘children’s rights’ is a slogan in need of a definition.”[22]

While celebrating its 40th anniversary[23] and enjoying the long overdue finalisation of the Youth Development Index (YDI)[24] in 2013, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Youth Affairs Division (YAD) will soon need to answer the question whether and how it wants to engage in the youth rights discourse and how the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) should be positioned within a rights-based framework. So will other youth and youth rights actors and activists across the globe.

Who will be part of defining the slogan?


[1] - []
[2] - []
[3] - []
[4] - An overview of national youth policies now exists at []
[5] - []
[6] - 1992 Report on Human Rights and Youth (pdf) []
[7] - []
[8] - []
[9] - []
[10] - []
[11] - []
[12] - []
[13] - []
[14] - []
[15] - []
[16] - []
[17] - []
[18] - []
[19] - Study available here. []
[20] - /articles/youth-policy-symposia/brussels-report/ []
[21] - /articles/justice/trends-in-lowering-the-age-of-criminal-responsibility/ []
[22] - Rodham, Hillary (1973) Children Under the Law. Harvard Educational Review 43: 487-514. []
[23] - []
[24] - []

Photo credit: European Youth Forum