Skip to main content

Gordon Brown: Will world hear a child's cry for justice?

By Gordon Brown
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Instantly made homeless, tens of thousands of Yazidi families have sought shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan after being chased from their homes, often at gunpoint, by ISIS. Kurdish photographer Warzer Jaff spent a week documenting the exodus of the Yazidis from their ancient homeland. This portrait shows the family of former soldier Hajji Khalaf, 28, from Sinjar. With him is daughter Alisa, 3; son Ezel, 4; wife Thawra, 24; and daughter Alifa, 6. Instantly made homeless, tens of thousands of Yazidi families have sought shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan after being chased from their homes, often at gunpoint, by ISIS. Kurdish photographer Warzer Jaff spent a week documenting the exodus of the Yazidis from their ancient homeland. This portrait shows the family of former soldier Hajji Khalaf, 28, from Sinjar. With him is daughter Alisa, 3; son Ezel, 4; wife Thawra, 24; and daughter Alifa, 6.
HIDE CAPTION
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
Yazidi refugees braced for life in exile
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now a U.N. envoy, says children deserve justice
  • Brown says there are 500 days left to fulfill Millennium goals and we're falling short
  • Much needs to be done to make promise of universal education meaningful, he says
  • Brown: Young people are demanding their rights and will be heard

Editor's note: Gordon Brown, former U.K. Prime Minister, is a United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Gordon Brown.

(CNN) -- Almost a century ago Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, said that the only international language the whole world understands is the cry of a child.

Now, as we start the 500-day countdown to the deadline for the Millenium Development Goals and prepare to mark World Humanitarian Day on Tuesday, I am not so sure. Having done far too little to stop children and their schools from becoming instruments of war in Gaza, we have also been slow to respond to the plight of the Yazidi children of Iraq, utterly incapable of providing basic health and education for a million child refugees exiled from Syria and appear powerless to rescue the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Boko Haram terrorist group whose aim is to stop girls going to school.

All of this despite international legislation, including the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and more generally the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the conventions on children and the excellent recommendations from Graca Michel that the U.N. Security Council should pay special attention to the abuses of children's rights in conflict zones, including the misuse of schools.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown

Now today, exactly 500 days out from December 31, 2015 -- the point at which we all promised to achieve universal education for all children, there are still 58 million children who never go to school, millions of them unable to do so because they are condemned to child labour, child marriage, child trafficking or, in the case of girls, medieval forms of discrimination.

Round the world young people are starting to see the blindingly-obvious connection between boys and girls shelled in Gaza, the schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria, the Syrian refugees without a home, millions of children denied basic rights -- including the right to education across the world -- and the rape of girls in India, the forced marriages of 9 and 10 year olds in Bangladesh, the genital mutilation of their counterparts in Mauritania and across Africa and the denial of girls' basic rights in Pakistan and elsewhere.

It all comes down to one basic truth: Almost 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is still an abject failure to take children's rights seriously and, as the adult world vacillates its people themselves who are now becoming the most vociferous in their anger at the violations of their rights, beginning to see their freedom fight as a civil rights struggle and leading the charge for change.

ISIS: We've taken Yazidi women, children
Christian leader: ISIS beheading children
Every tent holds a horror story
Parents outraged over missing schoolgirls

And what marks 2014 a turning point for children's emancipation is the country-by country growth of civil rights groups led by young people themselves and, spurred by contact and communication across the Internet, their coordination under umbrella organizations such as Girls Not Brides, fighting schoolgirl marriage; the Global March against Child Labour, opposing child slavery; and the World at School, championing the right to education for all boys and girls.

Young people's groups, from Bachpan Bachao Andolan, fighting child labour in India; to the Yellow Movement in Ethiopia and the Street 2 school campaign in Tanzania have yet to trend on Twitter and Facebook.

But they soon will.

Opinion: Nigeria's kidnapped girls not forgotten

Girls fighting child slavery from the Kalamari forum in Nepal and the 19 child marriage free zones in Bangladesh have yet to become a major presence on our streets. But it will happen soon. And on Monday 500 youth ambassadors representing all countries of the world will announce they will meet in New York on September 22 and, shadowing the next day's U.N. General Assembly of world leaders, they will attempt to force the rights of children onto the international agenda. They will argue hard, and they will be heard.

This is not about asking and receiving. They are demanding their rights. They will demand that children should not be weapons of war and schools should never become theaters for prosecuting conflict. They will demand the Security Council now properly police laws that ban the militarization of schools and, as called for in the Lucens guidelines, the insertion of these obligations into doctrine and military manuals.

They will demand that education should be a right across borders, with a universal obligation to offer all children education even in unstable environments -- and for the early removal of all barriers, from child labor and child marriage to sexual discrimination -- to this universal right.

Of course, what moves people to hear the anguish of the child is the plight of the most marginalized. But, sadly, it is always the weakest, the youngest and the most vulnerable -- the street child, the orphan, the trafficked girl, the isolated rural poor -- who remain neglected, forgotten and left behind. It is to reverse this injustice that we, the adult world who have done too little, must now support young people waging their own liberation struggle.

It is not too late: we must, of course, use the next 500 days not just to be more attentive to the needs of the children of the world and to keep our promises but also to offer practical support to young people as youth ambassadors, young people's representatives and new youth groups mobilize for this new struggle.

For if the enduring image from a century ago is one of helpless children waiting to be protected and even pitied, then the image remembered by the next generation will be radically different. As young people connect, communicate with each other and assert their rights, the new "cry of a child" is less likely to be the shedding of tears and pleas for charity than defiant marches on our streets and a deafening clamor from young people themselves for justice.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT