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The human rights of Indigenous children

posted 19 Dec 2012, 15:32 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 18 Feb 2016, 23:19 ]

On 3 August 2012 the Secretary-General of the United Nations reported on the human rights of Indigenous children within the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). UNCROC is described by UNICEF New Zealand as 'an international human rights treaty that sets out the basic rights of children and the obligations of governments to fulfill them'. New Zealand ratified UNCROC on 6 April 1993, and is one of 191 countries to do so (with the exceptions being Somalia and the United States of America).

The principles of equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, and the right to be heard and to participate in UNCROC apply to all children. Indigenous children and their communities also have collective rights and freedoms, such as those set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

Recognizing in particular the right of indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child (p.3).

Article 30 of UNCROC and other UN conventions and declarations recognise the right of Indigenous children to their cultural identity.

Article 30 In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.

Article 24 of UNCROC recognises the right of Indigenous children to health. The United Nation's 2009 report on the State of the World's Indigenous Peoples puts this right to health within the context of an Indigenous concept of health 'which extends beyond the physical and mental well-being of an individual to the spiritual balance and well-being of the community as a whole' (p.156).

Article 24 1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services.

Yet Indigenous children continue to experience discrimination and marginalisation in many aspects of their lives. This affects their development, opportunities, health and well-being, and often their survival. Discrimination is highlighted by the August report as both a cause and a consequence of the pervasive disparities in education, health care, and many other services experienced by Indigenous children compared to non-Indigenous children.

The health disparities experienced by Māori children, compared to non-Maori (non-Pacific) children are presented in a report prepared by the New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service for the Ministry of Health, in March 2012. This report, Te Ohonga Ake, highlights the burden of ill health and disease experienced by Māori children and young people.

The challenge now is to understand how to improve the health and wellness of Māori children and young people in ways that acknowledge their rights and value them as people we, as a country, have a duty of care towards. Setting this within the context of international declarations and conventions reminds us that we need to keep talking about their rights, as well as the multiple ways that Māori children and young people can be marginalised through discriminatory practices that ignore these rights. Unless we tackle the 'root' causes of the disparities experienced by Māori children and young people (e.g., racism, exclusion) in ways that are respectful of their cultural identity then we shouldn't expect these disparities to be eliminated any time soon.