Every individual has rights, and states have obligations to all their citizens to protect those rights, including those of the most marginalized, vulnerable or at risk.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly sets out children’s rights and the principle that the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in all decisions that affect them. Having signed the Convention, Canada also has specific treaty obligations towards children.

In 2007, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights supported taking such a rights-based approach with regard to children’s issues in its report, Children: The Silenced Citizens, Effective Implementation of Canada’s International Obligations with Respect to the Rights of Children.

In this report, we quoted Suzanne Williams from the International Institute for Child Rights and Development, who illustrated how this approach can change our perspective:

If 100 children need to be immunized, the needs- or problem-based approach would say that after 70 children are immunized we have a great success rate of 70%.  The rights based approach recognizes that there are still 30 children that need immunization.  The rights-based approach reaches out to even the most marginalized children and makes a difference in all children’s lives.

To take this illustration further, the rights-based approach could examine why the thirty children were not vaccinated. What was the reason they were not vaccinated? Was it because they were children at risk or vulnerable or whether they were not vaccinated  on the grounds of discrimination such as gender, sexual orientation, religion or race or ethnic origin? Taking a rights-based approach means being accountable to those other thirty children to determine what has prevented them from being equal participants in the vaccination or other public programs.

The purpose of a rights-based approach is to help individuals assert their rights and to help states to meet their human rights obligations.

The Human Rights Committee identified three key principles of a rights-based approach should be based:

1.  That all rights are equal and universal
2.  That all people are the subject of their own rights and should be participants in the development of those rights, rather than objects of charity
3.  That an obligation is placed on states to work towards ensuring that all rights are being met.

As the former Irish President and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson stated, the rights-based approach “means describing situations not in terms of human needs, or areas of development, but in terms of the obligation to respond to the rights of the individuals.  This empowers people to demand justice as a right, not as a charity.”

Due to children’s inherent vulnerability, the rights-based approach is very important when examining issues affecting children and youth, to ensure that they are not being excluded from the benefits of laws, policies, programs and other initiatives and that they are not adversely affected by them either. Children are individuals in their own right and with their own rights. The rights-based approach therefore requires engaging children in the matters that affect them. By supporting them in learning about their role as rights-holders, we empower children to actively participate in a free and fair society.