Germany joined a treaty on children's rights 25 years ago but is just getting to debating whether to anchor the agreement in the country's Basic Law. After a quarter of a century, is the move more than a campaign ploy?
Much has improved for children in Germany in the 25 years since the country officially joined the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, said Rudi Tarneden, UNICEF's spokesman in Germany. For example, nonviolent education has been incorporated into laws. If parents separate or divorce, children have the right to see both parents. Children are also encouraged to express their own opinions much more so than a quarter of a century ago.
"The Convention on the Rights of the Child has certainly helped change our understanding of children," Tarneden said. "Compared to 25 years ago, almost no one would say that children should not be taken seriously."
Children's rights as a political issue
Germany has, however, not yet incorporated the rights of children and teens in the country's Basic Law. Berlin wants to address this issue now.
"Children are not just small adults," said German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, adding that they have different needs'Spy' toys put data protection and child safety at risk and are exposed to different dangers than adults.
At the ceremony for the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Germany, Maas stated that a society needs to welcome children regardless of their skin color or heritage. German Education Minister Manuela Schwesig, like Maas a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), also used the ceremony to show her support for a draft law being discussed in the Bundesrat, the upper house of German parliament, that would specifically add children's rights to Germany's Basic Law.
But as the junior partner in the German grand coalition government, the SPD is facing opposition from members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, a spokesperson for the CDU/CSU alliance, called the SPD initiative symbolic.
"Our Basic Law already protects all humans equally, and, of course, children with their unconditional and equal right to respect for their dignity and the free development of their personality," she said.
The opposition Left and Green parties also said they feel talk about protecting children is designed as an election campaign measure.
Nonetheless, most children's rights' organizations view the project as positive. "This is more than symbolic politics," UNICEF's Tarneden said. "We are convinced that children's rights are a good foundation for good children's policies."
That is why he said there was no reason to relegate integrating children's rights into the Basic Law merely as a campaign issue as more action still needs to be taken so the convention's promise that children "should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding."
Who stands for children's rights?
Claudia Kittel from the German Institute for Human Rights agreed. The organization is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Germany.
"Every child in Germany should have a nearby place to go to that stands up for children's rights together with the child," said Kittel.
There are currently official representatives for children or Children's Offices in about 100 of Germany's 11,000 municipalities.
Leipzig is one of the municipalities where a Children's Office exists. If a new playground or a new street is being built, a schoolyard is being rebuilt or the school system is to be reformed, Christian Gundlach and his colleagues at schools or at youth centers ask what young people in Leipzig think about it. They inquire about the wishes of children and adolescents to pass them on to the authorities, as participation is also a human right.
But Gundlach said he sees another problem: "Children know too little about their rights." This is why many do not take the opportunity to turn to the Leipzig Children's Office if their rights are disregarded. Also, the funding is not quite "abundant" and there is not enough staff, Gundlach said. Nonetheless, the tasks have become more diverse. "There is always talk about the rights of children, but a concrete idea of what that ultimately means and what is needed to achieve it is lacking."
Adults think differently
UNICEF spokesman Tarneden tried to explain: "It is possible that we adults apply too much of our own logic and have not yet learned that the children's opinion can be an important inspiration."
Surveys show that half of all children said they can imagine participating in municipal decisions and would defend their rights. Politicians complain that young people are not interested in public service, said Tarneden: "The only way to really counter this by giving young people the opportunity to gain some experience."