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General Assembly Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural)

The General Assembly Third Committee focuses its discussions on social, humanitarian and cultural concerns that arise in the General Assembly, although its work often overlaps with that of other United Nations organs, including the Economic and Social Council and its subsidiary bodies. Human rights, education and cultural preservation are typical issues for the Third Committee. Notably, the Third Committee would not discuss the legal implications of human rights matters, as those are discussed by the Sixth Committee, nor would it call for special studies or deploy monitors, as those tasks are handled by the Human Rights Council. The Third Committee also adheres to the purview guidelines of the General Assembly as a whole.

Promotion and protection of the rights of children Promotion and protection of the rights of children

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes rights for everyone “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” This endows every child with the right to health, education and protection, yet millions of children lack access to these rights for no reason other than the country, gender or circumstances into which they are born. Around the world, children make up nearly half of the almost 900 million people living on less than $1.90 a day. Families struggle to afford basic health care and nutrition needed to provide children with a strong start. These deprivations leave a lasting imprint; in 2014, nearly 160 million children were stunted, which the World Health Organization describes as impaired growth and development from poor nutrition, repeated infection or inadequate psychosocial stimulation.

The promotion and protection of the rights of children has been one of the core values of the United Nations since its founding in 1945. In the aftermath of World War II, the global situation for children was dire. In 1953, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was created as a permanent organization within the United Nations. UNICEF was first tasked with treating yaws, a disease threatening children worldwide. Over time, the scope of UNICEF’s work broadened and focus was placed on promoting education, ending violence against children, the use of children in conflict, eliminating extreme poverty and access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). 

In 1959, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which established a political commitment and support for specific rights of children, but was not binding for Member States. Continuing the work of the Declaration, in 1966 Member States promised to uphold equal rights – including education and protection – for all children. Throughout the 1970s, the General Assembly and other United Nations agencies worked to set standards for children’s rights in labor, conflict zones, and legal representation. After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations wanted to introduce a Charter of Human Rights which would be enforceable and would oblige states to respect it. The year 1979 was declared the International Year of the Child and led to a renewed interest in codifying the rights of the child. A working group within the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a precursor to the Human Rights Council, was established to write an international charter on the topic. In 1989, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in 1990. The Convention established legally-binding commitments to uphold specific civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. All Member States of the United Nations except the United States are States Parties to the Convention. The Convention is enforced by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which submits a report every year to the Third Committee on the status of the rights of children. Member States signed two optional protocols in 2000. The first Protocol, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, addresses WASH protection of children in conflict zones and the second Protocol, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, prohibits the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. More recently, Member States signed a third optional protocol in 2014, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure, which created mechanisms for children or their representatives to file complaints about violations of children’s rights.

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established specific goals of reducing preventable child deaths, increasing education opportunities, reducing extreme poverty and increasing access to WASH. By the MDG target date of 2015, Member States had made considerable progress. For example, the global under-five mortality rate declined by more than half, dropping from 90 to 43 deaths per 1000 live births from 1990 to 2015. There were also significant areas of remaining concern. Despite increased focus, developing regions and countries affected by conflict still have large percentages of children who disproportionately feel the effects of conflict. Additionally, the MDGs failed to make substantial impacts in maternal mortality, especially in regions with the worst rate. In 2015, the General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set goals for all Member States to achieve by 2030. The focus is now on building a sustainable world where environmental sustainability, social inclusion and economic development are equally valued. While every SDG impacts children, the goals most applicable to the rights of children are the first five, which respectively are no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, and gender equality. 

The United Nations is taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the rights of children in the SDGs by using trackable human rights indicators so Member States can understand the regional and global progress. This human rights based approach focuses on the most disadvantaged and responds to the call to “leave no child behind,” so that the rights of every child, everywhere, will be fulfilled. The Follow-up to the outcome of the special session of the General Assembly on children Report of the Secretary-General promoted strategic partnerships across the United Nations system, and between the public and private sectors as a means to address some of the issues facing children’s rights. The Secretary-General also noted the need for ambitious action on sustainable development, and reaching the world’s most disadvantaged children, as crucial to achieving success. 

At its 71st session, the Third Committee of the General Assembly discussed how increased migration affects children in vulnerable and minority populations. The General Assembly reaffirmed that Member States are under obligation by international law to promote and protect the human rights of all people, including children, regardless of their migration status. From the Syrian refugee crisis to American detention of migrant minors, the rights of the child migrant continue to be a pressing current issue. The United Nations has addressed violence against children since its founding and has made gains in multiple sectors, yet violence, exploitation and abuse of children has evolved and persisted into the present. Combattants globally still deliberately attack, kill, maim, or force children to fight in armed conflicts. Rape, forced marriage and abduction have become standard tactics in conflicts from Syria to Yemen, and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, to Nigeria, South Sudan and Myanmar. The United Nations has called on all warring parties to abide by their obligations under international law to protect children in conflicts, yet little has changed. Gender related child rights issues persist both in and out of conflict zones. Unequal responsibility for work in the home socializes children into thinking that these duties are women’s only roles, thereby curtailing generational change and narrowing girls’ ambitions. Issues such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, gender-based violence and gender-based discrepancy in educational opprotunities persist throughout the world. Member States and the international community must adopt solutions that address gender-specific discrimination and disadvantages. 

Questions to consider:

  • What obligations do Member States have to protect refugee and migrant children? How can they best be implemented?
  • How can children best be protected in conflicts? How can Member States influence combattants in their regions to follow international human rights laws protecting children?
  • What role does gender-specific discrimination and disadvantages play in advancing children’s rights? 

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Rights of indigenous peoples Rights of indigenous peoples

Despite being under five percent of the world’s population, indigenous peoples make up fifteen percent of the world’s poorest people, and suffer higher rates of sexual violence, infant mortality and malnutrition than the general population, with an indigenous persons’ life expectancy up to 20 years lower than the life expectancy of non-indigenous person worldwide. 

Indigenous people also have historically faced widespread marginalization and discrimination across continents. The past and present experience of indigenous peoples includes forced assimilation, loss of land, and lack of access to the economic benefits of natural resources from their traditional or ancestral land. Systemic discrimination and lack of self-determination often keeps indigenous peoples from participation in government. In many nations more than 50 percent of their indigenous peoples live in urban areas. While some move to seek education opportunities and employment, many migrate to escape human rights abuses related to land rights and cultural survival. Non-violent human rights abuse protests by indigenous peoples frequently result in criminalization and violence against protesters. The unique relationship between indigenous peoples and the environment also leaves indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples have argued against the adoption of a formal definition at the international level, stressing the need for flexibility and for respecting the desire and the right of each indigenous people to define themselves. As a consequence, no formal definition has been adopted in international law. 

Despite the international community’s recognition of the issues faced by indigenous peoples, responses have been inconsistent. In 1982, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) formed the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) to study international standards for indigenous rights due to concerns of oppression. In 1989, based on the work of the WGIP, the International Labour Organization (ILO) revised a 1957 convention to create the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which recognized indigenous self-determination and outlined rights pertaining to education, healthcare and equal employment opportunities. However, the binding nature of the Convention and its emphasis on indigenous autonomy made it unpopular; only 21 States have ratified the Convention. In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action called for the formation of a permanent place for indigenous peoples within the United Nations system. In 2000, the United Nations created the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). This body is comprised entirely of indigenous people who are mandated to study the implementation of programs pertaining to the economic and social development, culture, education, health, environmental concerns and human rights of indigenous peoples.

In 2007, the General Assembly took a significant step forward with the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons (UNDRIP). UNDRIP affirms that indigenous peoples “have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.” It also declares that indigenous peoples have the right to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” while recognizing the sovereignty of Member States. UNDRIP goes on to require that any relocation from ancestral lands or extraction of natural resources must be done with the full consent of indigenous peoples and with formal compensation. While UNDRIP was adopted by an overwhelming consensus, it was considered contentious for its recognition of indigenous self-determination and assertions over the control of natural resources on indigenous lands. While indigenous peoples own, occupy or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity and 11 percent of its forests. This has made indigenous land a target for resource extraction, which can cause contention in land rights between governments, companies and indigenous peoples. Subsequent work was done at the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, in which the United Nations reaffirmed its commitment to UNDRIP and committed itself to further study and implementation of its goals. Yet a 2014 report by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples identified significant current obstacles to indigenous rights: the lack of recognition of indigenous peoples’ self-determination, inconsistency in application of human rights laws, the continued lack of reconciliation or acknowledgment of atrocities committed against indigenous peoples, negative perceptions of indigenous communities, and the social and economic conditions that result from these injustices.

While multiple gains have been made, issues pertaining to UNDRIP persist. Ethnic and religious discrimination against indigenous peoples continues in multiple countriesaround the world. The General Assembly Third Committee must address how Member States can implement policies and laws to allow indigenous persons the ability to live free from discrimination and the threat of genocide. An expanding number of indigenous peoples are facing criminalization for peaceful protest on ancestral lands and the battle between extractive industries, commercial farming and other corporate interest continues to threaten the existence of indigenous groups. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by indigenous populations. Indigenous peoples were among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their close relationship with the environment and its resources. Indigenous peoples are vital to the maintenance of their lands and therefore help enhance the resiliency of the ecosystems. They have reacted to the impacts of climate change in innovative ways that draw from traditional knowledge and technologies that may help society at large cope with changes. 

The case of indigenous peoples remains a key priority for the United Nations under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Many Member States are recognizing and constitutionally passing laws that support indigenous peoples, yet implementation remains difficult globally. While most Member States have adopted UNDRIP, some have not been successful in executing it. Going forward, rights for indigenous peoples must not only be recognized at an international level, but embraced at the national and local level as well. 

Questions to consider:

  • How can Member States utilize UN organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to protect and understand the value of indigenous culture and cultural heritage sites? 
  • How has your Member State addressed the human rights of indigenous persons, including tolerance of native practices and religious freedoms? Are there good practices that could be shared at the regional or international leveL?
  • How does environmental justice intertwine with indigenous peoples rights? Are indigenous peoples disproportionately affected by climate change? 

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