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What future remains for children’s rights to identity and personal self-determination in an era of international political conflicts?

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The right to self-determination should confer the power to choose how to be viewed and treated; “the power to choose, among several options, the one that corresponds to one’s personal aspirations”* [1]. Such a right would therefore require others to respect one’s personal choice [1], and thus enable a person to control their own life in all its aspects. Currently however, international laws govern the right of all people to self-determination, implying a collective right, rather than an individual one [2]. By this logic, the right to self-determination is often brought to the forefront in contexts suggesting power struggles between two specific peoples (ethnic groups, countries…) with external aggressions from one onto the other (such as colonialism, genocides, ethnic war crimes, etc.). At the same time, Article 2 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) legislates the right of children not to be discriminated against, while Articles 7 and 8 ensure their respective rights to a name and nationality, as well as to an identity [3]. In a world with increasing national and international political conflicts, what future is now left for children, and their right to self-determination and self-identity? Let us engage in a brief overview of some places where Articles 2, 7, and 8 of the CRC seem threatened.

United-States of America – North America

To start with, it is important to point that out of the 195 world countries to have ratified the 1989 Convention on the Right of Child, the United States of America remains to this day the only country that has not agreed to the international legal framework protecting children (notably because of its application, to this day, of the death penalty). Subsequently, many children’s rights are currently violated in the country. The right to identity is no exception to these violations, as the country has implemented several anti-LGBTI rights laws under the Trump administration, and a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for transgender minors in Arkansas [4]. Basic rights to education, health care, and protection are also compromised for stateless children who lack access to their right to a name and nationality [5].

Iran – Middle East

Since protests erupted across Iran in September 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22- year-old victim of police misconduct stemming from the “improper” way she wore her headscarf [6], at least 12,500 Iranians have been detained, and 44 children have been arrested – some of whom have been illegally imprisoned alongside adults [7]. Out of the 284-people killed, 45 were children [8][9]. As a result, children in the country started protests of their own, demonstrating how their agency is more than ever both active and at risk; an act of courage and danger. Indeed, several videos recently posted online showcase Iranian schoolgirls “protesting in their schools and in the streets, chanting, waving, and burning their head coverings” [6], sometimes risking their own life (16-year-old Nika Shakarmi and Sarina Esmailzadeh both died after respectively burning a headscarf and publicly protesting).

Europe & Central Asia

Meanwhile in Europe and Central Asia, in 2021, only 26 countries out of 54 had established some sort of policy surrounding gender identity, 20 had enforced actual laws on the matter, and only 8 had implemented both laws and policy protecting and allowing asylum to refugees persecuted because of their gender identity [see map 1]. Protection against hate was even lower, with only 3 countries (Luxembourg, Montenegro, and Malta) having enforced laws and policies against hate crimes and hate speech related to gender identity [see map 2]. Additionally, to this day, only 3 European countries recognize non-binary identities [10] within their borders (Iceland, Germany, and Malta). This current lack of legislation and protection in the region therefore threatens children’s right to identity, as there are no laws or public policies to regulate, frame and govern xenophobia issues, and protect LGBTQIA+ children.

Map 1. Trans Rights Map – Europe & Central Asia 2021 by TGEU
Map 2. Trans Rights Map – Europe & Central Asia 2021 by TGEU

Myanmar – Southeast Asia

In Myanmar, following decades of persecution, the Rohingya people have been left with no access to citizenship, or legal identity, “although they – and their families – were born in Myanmar” [11]. In 2019, 16-year-old Tosmin shared that her teachers “often ignored Muslim students like [her] and placed barriers between Rohingya children and educational success” [11]. The consequence of this discrimination affected all areas of life for the local population, and in 2019, the state of Rakhine (where most Rohingya used to be located) became Myanmar’s least developed region with a 78% poverty rate – almost double the national average [11].

“The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Such persecution has forced Rohingya women, girls, boys and men into Bangladesh for many years, with significant spikes following violent attacks in 1978, 1991-1992, and again in 2016. Yet it was August 2017 that triggered by far the largest and fastest refugee influx into Bangladesh”

[United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs][12]

As of October 2022, more than 943,000 stateless Rohingya refugees resided in Bangladesh [12] – more than 60% of them being children [11]. Since then, thousands of families have been separated or killed, women and girls have been raped, and the Rohingya population overall has been “severely traumatized after witnessing unspeakable atrocities” [12]. Although basic life assistance (such as food and healthcare) has been provided by the international community to those who now live in the world’s largest refugee camp (Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh), “the root causes of their plight in Myanmar have not been addressed” [12]. According to Razia Sultana, founder of the Rohingya Women Welfare Society (RWWS), this ethnic minority is ignored everywhere, as most of them don’t even have the refugee status, but one of “displaced people” [13]. Consequently, the future of these children, as well as their basic rights to life, self-identity and self-determination, remain jeopardized.

Minority groups around the world

Generally, around the world, minority children (such as Rohingyas previously presented), but also Roma children, Aboriginal children, Indigenous children in Canada or the United-States, children in the global South, and more, have systematically been deprived of aspects of their identity. Examples include inadequate and/or discriminating state policies, ban of minority names, prohibition of minority language, forced removal from their families, illegal international adoption, and more. In this regard, these exclusions, bans, illegal practices, or subtle socio-political pressures on religion, minority languages, culture, education systems, and impoverished families, continue to slowly “break down distinct minority identities” [14] and endanger the future of entire generations to come…


*Open translation

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