Children's rights in Germany

Children's rights are still far from being realised in Germany, despite the Federal Government's obligation to adapt its national laws and policies to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This becomes particularly clear when children and youths themselves have the opportunity to express their views on the implementation of children's rights in their surroundings. Several NGOs and civil society organisations advocate a stronger participation of children in Germany.

Germany a "child-just" country?

Germany claims to be a child-friendly country. This can be read in the National Action Plan (NAP) adopted by the Federal Government in 2005. In doing so, it fulfilled a commitment it made at the UN Special General Assembly in May 2002, the so-called second "World Summit for Children". The summit brought together primarily all states that had signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In 1992, the German government ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 November 1989, thereby committing itself to adapting its laws and policies to the CRC. At first, however, the Federal Government saw no need for action at home. The realisation that there is still much to be improved is a first improvement. It should also be noted that the Federal Government ratified the CRC only with reservations until their withdrawal in 2010; the principles of the CRC had previously been subordinated to the law on foreigners and parental/family law in Germany.

The 54 articles of the CRC are intended to provide children with a good, just and dignified living environment. Children are understood here as bearers of their own rights. In practice, this means that children are not only objects of protection and care by adults, but also subjects of their own development, which they can and should help to determine themselves. Article 3 of the CRC describes this with the "best interests of the child". These are to have priority in all matters concerning the child. Under Article 12, the signatory states are also obliged to hear the views of every child and to take due account of them.

Critical aspects in the implementation of children's rights

The advantage and disadvantage of implementing the UN principles is the room for manoeuvre that the vague formulations offer countries in their practical interpretation. This is a consequence of the compromise that had to be reached during the process of development, which took more than 10 years. Since many countries participated in the formulation or had a right of veto, the wording had to be fine-tuned until all participants agreed on basis of consensus. As a result, some articles remained very vague in their direct claim to implementation. For example, in the "participation article" 12 of the CRC, restrictions are that only "the child" is addressed, "who is capable of forming his or her own opinion", that the child may only express his or her opinion freely in "matters affecting the child" and that his or her opinion should be taken into account "in accordance with his or her age and maturity".

Another critical point is that the CRC does not list any authority with powers to which affected children and youth or organisations supporting them can turn. The articles in the CRC are therefore not applicable law, they are not directly enforceable. Rather, the Convention on the Rights of the Child serves as a guideline for all countries to structure their laws in their own country in such a way that children and youth are guaranteed a physically, mentally and emotionally unimpaired life. Affected children or the adults supporting them must primarily turn to the existing legal bodies in their own country and can only refer to state, regional or local legislation.

The "right to individual complaints" to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which was created in 2014 with an additional protocol and signed by Germany, does indeed enable children or their representatives to address the Committee directly in order to accuse a state of child rights violations or to claim the lack of protection of a state. However, this is only possible if they have gone through the national legal process without success. And here too, the Committee can only reprimand states, it has no further sanction options.

The implementation of children's rights in Germany

Article 43 of the CRC requires states to report every five years on measures taken, progress made and difficulties encountered in implementing children's rights in the country. These country reports are examined, commented and provided with recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In parallel to the reports submitted by governments, organisations submit so-called "parallel" or "shadow" reports in which they provide supplementary comments.

Since 1995, more than 100 organisations and initiative groups have joined the National Coalition Germany - Network for the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (National Coalition Germany - NC). It identifies weak points and areas where action is needed regarding the implementation of the CRC in Germany and writes: "The responsibility for creating suitable framework conditions to improve the living conditions of young people lies primarily with politicians. However, the Convention will only be able to be implemented in the real world if a comprehensive social dialogue takes place in which goals are set, concrete steps for action are identified and their implementation is monitored and called for. The NC is committed to the interests and needs of all young people up to the age of 18, in relation to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to be implemented in Germany.

In order to fulfil these tasks, the NC has so far prepared two "supplementary reports" (parallel reports) to the Federal Government's state reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in which it addressed its gaps and weaknesses and provided additional information. Moreover, in 2010 and 2019 it published two "Children's Rights Reports" in which children and youths assess the implementation of the CRC in Germany themselves. For this purpose, the NC organised corresponding forums throughout Germany with, most recently, more than 2700 children and youth contributing their opinions.

The demands made by children and youth in the Children's Rights Reports are based on the following priorities: Opinion and participation, discrimination, protection against violence, privacy, family and other care, children/youth with disabilities, health, environment, poverty and social security, education, play and leisure, refugee and asylum, and awareness of children's rights. Improving framework conditions for children and young people's own initiatives are a recurring topic. Already in the NAP, the Federal Government wanted to make a special effort to "bindingly regulate the participation of children and youths in all decisions affecting them at federal, state and local level". At the same time, children and youth remind us that in the federal states and local authorities many participation and open child and youth work offers have fallen victim to austerity measures in recent years. They would also like to see the wording "youths are participated" changed to "youths participate".

Since 2015, a monitoring body based at the German Institute for Human Rights has also been investigating and surveilling the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Germany. It also makes recommendations on how UN children's rights can be better implemented and advises policymakers at federal, state and local level as well as the judiciary, the legal profession and civil society on the interpretation and child-just implementation of the CRC.

The inclusion of children's rights in German Basic Law has been demanded repeatedly since 1992, accompanied by large-scale campaigns by various non-governmental organisations, most recently even in the coalition agreement of 2018 between the CDU, CSU and SPD. So far, children's rights have not been specifically mentioned in the Basic Law, and there is disagreement about their formulation and weighting. Children's rights in Germany are still far from being realised. Although a rethinking of state policy is evident, implementation still leaves much to be desired. In society, interest in and sensitivity to the concerns and rights of children have grown, but concrete action is still largely a matter for a few committed associations and groups.

Updated: 14.12.2020