By Maria Prieto – 19 November 2023
“What makes me and the rest of the children living in unrecognized states less human than the children living in other states?”
On October 28, 2023, the Children’s Rights Research project organised the first stage of the International Conference on Realising Children’s Development Rights in De Facto States. The event was a child-led conference, which aimed to amplify the voices of children in de facto states. The conference provided a platform for the children themselves to highlight the challenges they face in finding protection for their rights. The ultimate goal of the overall conference is to facilitate conversations between children, academics, and different societal actors (e.g. politicians, non-profit organisations), to ensure that every child, even those amidst political and legal conflicts, enjoys equal access to developmental rights.
During the event, children from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Palestine shared their first-hand stories. This is what they said:
“Children who require or request therapy are denied and ridiculed or completely ignored”.
Dürü and Naz, two children from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, talked about systemic issues affecting children's well-being in education and family dynamics. Dürü explained problems within the Turkish Cypriot education system, including differences between public and private schools, unstable school buildings with frequent electricity cuts, and the neglect of children’s mental health challenges and neurodivergence. Naz discussed challenges within families, talking about how children have a hard time when parents separate and the stigma surrounding therapy. Both, Dürü and Naz, shared their experiences to raise awareness and called for actions in addressing the everyday struggles faced by Turkish Cypriot children in education and family life.
“The education system needs a lot of work to adapt to today's world and the different needs of students”.
Marwa, Nimco, Ridwan, and Hanad shared with us that the most pressing issues for children’s rights in Somaliland are in the areas of education, healthcare, and employment. They emphasized the need for equal opportunities in schools, calling for qualified teachers and a unified education system. Secondly, they explained the urgent need for accessible and quality medical services for all. In the employment sector, they want a fair hiring process and more job opportunities. They believe that the children in Somaliland should be able to say what they think and dream about, and they want to work together to make the future better for everyone.
3. Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
“Insufficient funds also mean inadequate safety measures for children. Schools are frequently situated far from the homes of many children, making the journey unsafe, particularly for girls, putting their academic progress at risk.”
Moha took us on a journey to the desert refugee camps, where children like her face huge challenges in relation to education. She explained how the lack of finances leads to overcrowded classrooms, the absence of teachers, and a deficit of essential resources. The consequences include kids dropping out of school, an adverse impact on their well-being, and limited opportunities, particularly for children with special needs. Moha believes that everyone, no matter where they come from, should receive a good education because it can bring a positive change in society. Therefore, she asked for urgent need for improvements in the education system to make sure everyone has a better future.
“In the war of September 27, 2020 in Nagorno-Karabakh, all the rights of children were violated, in particular- the right to life, the right to free movement, the right to education”.
Marine and Lusine shared heart-wrenching experiences of the 2020 war and the subsequent challenges they faced, including the loss of homes, cities, and loved ones. This happened in the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. They told us that the blockades imposed by Azerbaijan left them without essential resources, violating their fundamental human rights. On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenians living in this region, taking away their right to live in their homeland through military force and twenty-four-hour aggression against the civilian population. This attack impacted heavily on children’s basic needs and rights. Both Marine and Lusine emphasized the need for international attention and condemnation of these atrocities. Expressing disappointment at the insufficient global awareness of their situation, they concluded: “My Motherland, the place of my birth, will cease to exist on January 1, 2024”.
Sadeen and Yossed shared what’s been happening in Palestine during the last weeks. Their colleague from Gaza, Lama, who was expected to join this conference could not participate because they lost contact with her. In Gaza, the Israeli military has been targeting residential buildings and civilian homes, primarily affecting children. They told us that this marks the fifth war for children of their age. Instead of enjoying a peaceful childhood, they’ve grown up under the constant threat of death, arrests, and a lack of essential resources such as food and clean water.
Additionally, in the West Bank, daily violations of children’s rights, such as Israeli military checkpoints restricting movements and the demolition of schools, are a prevalent concern. Palestinian children urgently require protection, peace, and support to safeguard their human rights. It is crucial for the global community to stand alongside them, working together to find lasting solutions.
These stories were heard by academics, and different stakeholders, including the United Nations (UN), with Benoit Van Keirsblick participating as a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee). Benoit expressed the efforts the UN is making to contact Israeli authorities and expressed his concern about this situation. Additionally, he explained how the CRC Committee works and its procedures. He emphasized the importance of receiving testimonies from children in conferences like this, as it is crucial for gaining an understanding of the situation and identifying the needs in these countries.
The main aim of the committee is to ensure the practical implementation of the Convention, highlighting its significance beyond mere theory. Challenges arise with states outside the UN, underscoring the necessity for the Convention’s universal application, regardless of a country’s UN membership status. Currently, the primary goal is to monitor children’s right globally, aiming to address territories outside the UN. He is committed to continuing to seek solutions together, with a clear vision in mind: to support and defend children’s rights.
Screenshot depicting some of the participants, including Benoit Van Keirsblick, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
In conclusion, Guleid Ahmed Jama, a children’s rights researcher from Somaliland, emphasized the significant challenges faced by unrecognized states in terms of accountability, education, access to global resources, and humanitarian concerns amid frequent conflicts. For him, recognizing the plight of these states within the international system is vital. Currently, the international system just focus on the UN, overlooking rights violations in these regions. As these countries are not UN members, there is a crucial need to establish proper mechanisms, reports, and international protection to ensure the safety of children.
Listening to children’s stories was impactful, constructive and primarily served as a starting point. Our goal is to convene and explore practical, long term solutions. Subsequently, this conference will be succeeded by an in-person event on 17-18 January 24 in Famagusta, northern Cyprus. This event will feature presentations by academics and activists dedicated to children’s rights, along with a final report based on the outcomes of the chil-led events. Finally, we will do a workshop to develop a shared preliminary answer and agenda for action centred on how to better protect and realise the rights of children living in de facto states in the future.
By Marieke Hopman & Emmanuel Achiri - 19 October 2023
Since the start of our project in 2019, four de facto states got involved in armed conflict. We argue that this shows that children living in de facto states deserve more attention from the international community (rather than less, as is currently the case).
A de facto state is a state fully function as any other state, with a population, government and a territory, yet they are not United Nations member states. Children living in de facto states fall outside the scope of international legal protection. Generally, governments of de facto states are not allowed to sign and/or ratify international legal conventions (with Palestine as the only exception), and international human rights law does not apply to de facto states. Children living in de facto states receive little (if any) attention in international bilateral and multilateral fora. Development aid cannot be channeled to most de facto states, or only with great difficulty. The rights of these children are often not protected in practice by non-governmental organisations and UN organisations, for whom working in these areas can be particularly challenging. Lastly, the situations of these children are generally under researched. Our project that studies the development rights of children living in de facto states, is the first project to do so.
All de facto states are subject to political conflict. This is part of the reason why they are de facto states: because there are other states that claim the same territory, and as a result of political and sometimes military actions, they cannot become UN member states. So while these de facto states fully function as states (with a population, government and a territory), they are not fully recognised as states, and the people living in de facto states suffer political and economic consequences of their countries’ disputed status. For example, some de facto states are under economic embargo, so that it is very difficult for people living in these areas to engage in international trade. Politically, they are under constant threat of annihilation, if the state who claims the territory chooses to reclaim the territory through military means. Such developments we have seen recently.
Since the start of this project in 2019, four de facto states who are part of our project became involved in an armed conflict. First, in 2020, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) restarted their war against Morocco over the territory of the Western Sahara that is currently under Moroccan control. This happened after a 29 year ceasefire had been in place, yet the promised referendum for self-determination had still not materialised, and nothing had improved for the Sahrawi refugees in camps in Algeria. Second, in February 2023, armed conflict broke in the Los Anod region of Somaliland between the Somaliland state army and local Dhulbahante militias. Although the conflict is currently at low intensity fighting, children are still at grave risk. Third, also in 2023, after nine months of blockade of the main supply route, Azerbeijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming the territory. In this case, the military power of Azerbeijan was overwhelming. All children living in Nagorno-Karabakh have moved to Armenia, and per 1 January 2024 Nagorno Karabakh seizes to exist. A few weeks later, Hamas attacked a group of Israeli near the Gaza border, and this started a war between Israel and Hamas which has only just begun. The attack by Hamas (and their holding of hostages, including children), provoked an extremely severe military reaction by Israel, who are heavily bombing Gaza and do not allow for humanitarian aid (including food, water, fuel and medical supplies) to be delivered to the area. UNICEF warns that “time is running out for children in Gaza”.
"We exist," by Ridwan (14), Somaliland.
Zooming out of the recent catastrophes, these developments show that children living in de facto states, no matter their ethnicity, nationality, religion or political affiliation, are subject to very vulnerable circumstances. Today and any day. As one child in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) told Marieke in 2017:
"It hurts when I am growing [up] because all dreams that you have are limited […] you can’t really evolve roots because something might come up, like a [political] solution that will change the whole game."
This is the situation in which children in de facto states live, in times of war and in times of peace. The recent events show that children living in de facto states deserve MORE attention from the international community, instead of less.
On 28 October 2023 16.00h CEST, children from different de facto states (Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Somaliland, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) will share their stories in a child-led online event titled “Children in de facto states: We want to share our stories!”. If you like to join, please sign up here.
From April 2019 – January 2024 our research team is studying the development rights of children who are living in unrecognized states. Here you find all vlogs and blogs related to the theoretical part of this study, which includes mainly legal/political questions. Please find a short description of the research project here.
By Ramesh Ganohariti - 26 October 2021
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, questions of nationality (i.e. legal status) became crucial since overnight Soviet nationality disappeared and was replaced by new citizenship regimes. While each, now newly independent, Soviet Socialist Republic adopted citizenship legislation, not all Soviet citizens gained access to a new citizenship due to political, social, and practical reasons. What complicated the issue further was the appearance of the de facto states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh, which, despite non-recognition, established their own citizenship regimes. This blog post takes the case of Abkhazia and outlines rights issues, particularly affecting children and young adults, arising out of the non-recognition of the de facto state citizenship.
The most important issue relates to the limited international recognition of the citizenship conferred by de facto state authorities. Particularly before 2008, Abkhazia was internationally unrecognized, and thus by extension neither was its citizenship regime or passport. What this meant was that despite being able to enjoy rights flowing from citizenship (e.g. voting, owning property, access to education) within Abkhazia, citizens had limited options to freely travel, study, work or get healthcare abroad. Thus, due to the non-recognition of Abkhazian citizenship, individuals had to compensate for the lack of rights by accepting a citizenship from another state (i.e. in this case the citizenship of Russia). Acquisition of Russian citizenship became most prominent in the period 2002-2004, when over 60% of the population acquired citizenship, bringing the total proportion of Abkhazians with Russian citizenship to over 80%, and currently stands at around 90% (note that there are no official statistics on this).
While most of the population now had an effective and internationally-recognized nationality, the remaining Abkhazians without any other nationality continue to be in limbo. While no exact data exists, according to a local source at least 5000 Abkhazians do not have any other citizenship. The most affected are young adults and children, who continue to struggle with a lack of travel and education opportunities. This group is likely to continue to increase since children born to mono-citizen parents will lack access to any other nationality. The situation changed slightly with the limited international recognition of Abkhazia, starting with Russia in 2008. While this was considered a monumental step by Abkhazian authorities, Abkhazia to date has been only recognized by five UN members. Thus, once again without widespread recognition individuals’ access to the international system remains restricted. The issues of non-recognition also extend to the non-recognition of Abkhazian diplomas outside of Russia, because of which many young Abkhazians are constrained in their higher education options. Some dual citizen youth chose to study in Russia, and thereafter use that diploma to gain admittance to foreign universities, resulting in a brain drain from Abkhazia. This option however does not exist for mono-citizens since they can only travel to the handful of polities that recognize Abkhazia, and in practice the only higher education destination is Russia.
Another at-risk group are ethnic Georgians, many of whom do not have Abkhazian citizenship but continue to reside in the territory. One issue affecting ethnic-Georgian children (most of whom don’t have Abkhazian citizenship) relates to limited access to education in the Georgian language and engagement in cultural activities, resulting in some parents being forced to move their children to schools in the territory under Georgian control. Following graduation, many continue to study in Georgian universities, also resulting in a local brain drain. In addition, there is some evidence that in certain cases, ethnic-Georgians, particularly minors, are denied Abkhazian citizenship, thereby restricting their rights and opportunities within Abkhazia.
The above examples show that (geo)political issues associated with identity, citizenship and passports heavily affect the lives of ordinary residents, specifically children and young adults whose educational opportunities become restricted. It may be further argued that these hindrances negatively affect (even if not contravene) the education rights mentioned in Articles 28-29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A potential solution might be to extend the EU’s engagement without recognition policy more directly to the area of education. For example, international actors could follow the example of the UK’s Chevening Scholarship, which list “South Caucasus” as an option. Furthermore, states that block access to Abkhazian students should realize that that providing access to education in their countries can foster people-to-people contact and become part of the broader public diplomacy strategy used to engage with youth from these isolated regions. Lastly, the rights of children and youth in post-Soviet de facto states, in general is underexplored, and scholars working on children’s rights are encouraged to also explore this region.
By Fons Coomans - 29 July 2021
Gumato, a 13 year-old girl from the Gabra nomadic tribe in Kenia, cannot go to school, because the schools are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She is at home since March 2020. The parents of Gumato decided to have their daughter circumcised while at home. Gumato’s mother said that she was happy with the long period of school closure, because there is now more time for Gumato’s recovery; the period of the school holidays is too short for that. Even though circumcision is prohibited by law in Kenia, it is still a wide-spread tradition among tribes in Kenia. Once a girl has been circumcised it means that she is ready for marriage, even at a very young age. Schools used to be an important safety net for girls against child marriages, as well as against domestic violence, sexual abuse and domestic work. As a consequence of Covid-19 measures all these safeguards seem to have disappeared. Girls are now in a very vulnerable position; several of their human rights are seriously at risk.
The impact of the pandemic on the development of children worldwide
UNESCO has reported that worldwide two-thirds of a school year were lost on average due to Covid-19 school closures. The International Labour Organisation has said that child labour during the pandemic has increased. Since parents have lost their jobs, which had negative effects on family income, many children had to step in and work to support their families. In addition, children who are at home instead of going to school can easily be used for domestic chores or to work on the land (see this report). The World Health Organisation has reported that last year 23 million very young children have missed early childhood vaccinations against polio, measles and diphtheria due to badly working distribution systems for vaccines as a consequence of restrictions on transport, affecting in particular remote areas and slums.
These examples show that the pandemic has a serious impact on the immediate and long-term development of children.
What are children’s development rights?
The United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) defines development as ‘a comprehensive, economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits therefrom’. Article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right of the child to life, survival and development.
In my view, the notion of children development rights is an umbrella term. It involves different children’s rights that are interconnected and together protect the child’s development. It includes the right to health, education, adequate standard of living, safe and clean environment, participation, the right to play and leisure. But also the basic prerequisites to be protected from economic exploitation (child labour), and from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. All these rights are part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For example, a child may receive education by being allowed to go to school. However, if the child is sexually abused by the teacher, his/her rights to health and protection from sexual abuse are violated. If as a consequence the child is taken out of school, his/her right to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally will be affected.
In addition, the notion of development rights of children has to be informed by the principle of non-discrimination and equality of opportunities. For example, pregnant girls must not be denied access to school because they are pregnant, but be able to continue and finish their studies just like other girls.
All these rights have a solid basis in international human rights law, which includes children’s rights. States have voluntarily accepted treaties which contain legally binding obligations to realize these rights. The underlying idea is that human rights are tools to protect human dignity. In addition, human rights are universal; they apply always, to everyone and everywhere. The example of Gumato demonstrates that there is a gap between the idea of having (children’s) human rights in theory and enjoying these rights in practice. Often cultural traditions, beliefs and norms act as obstacles against the possibility to exercise these rights in reality. Female circumcision is such a practice that is based on cultural norms and traditions. In this regard the key role of education must be emphasized. The right to education acts as a key right: through the process of acquiring knowledge and learning skills at school the enjoyment of other rights (sexual and reproductive health rights, participation, expression) will become possible. In addition, education empowers girls to develop themselves and move up the social ladder. Seen from this perspective, the school closures during the pandemic are very serious. The closures may be used by parents and communities to hold back girls and keep them at home.
An empty classroom in Kenya that is now used as a chicken run, due to the school closures
SOURCE: BBC. (2020, 25 August). Desks have been pushed to one side at Mwea Brethren to make way for farm supplies. [Photograph]. BBC News.
Limiting the consequences of the pandemic for children’s development rights: an outlook on the future
What can be done to make sure that the negative consequences of the pandemic will not affect the development rights of children? In the short term, the most important thing is to reopen schools. Schools should restart as soon as possible, and make extra efforts to make up the educational arrears. Protective equipment, such as face masks, test equipment and clean water and soap facilities needs to be provided to pupils and teachers. In addition, a system for monitoring regular attendance of children at school needs to be set up through visits to families by teachers or community leaders, aimed at preventing that children would drop-out, because families need them to work for additional income for the household during Covid times. Governments must invest in hiring qualified teachers who are able to cater for the specific educational needs of pupils. If financial resources are insufficient, the international community must step in to prevent that a whole generation of pupils will be lost.
From a human rights perspective, there is a need to change traditional ideas about education, child marriage, circumcision and child labour to make sure that during future public health or economic crises, children do not carry a disproportionate burden. Instead, it must be recognized that children have human rights that cannot be taken away easily. In general, awareness raising and education of both girls, boys, parents and village leaders may help in changing traditional ideas about the role of girls in society and their future. Personally, I am impressed by the potential of bringing young people into action as agents of change: the example of the Girls Advocacy Alliance is inspiring. This programme, in which Terre des Hommes Netherlands is involved, trains girls aged 15-21, to question dominant social norms with parents, religious leaders and government officials aimed at gradually breaking through vicious traditional circles. By involving girls themselves who stand up and speak out, there is a good chance that the message will be heard, sink in and lead to real changes. Of course, this is not enough. There is a need to bring pressure upon local and national government to take their human rights obligations seriously. This also requires political will and determination to accept and fulfil development rights of children, even if pandemic restrictions make this not an easy task.
 The story of Gumato is taken from the Dutch magazine Wordt Vervolgd (Nov/Dec 2020), published by Amnesty International NL.
By Simona Urbaničová - 6 July 2021
On February 17, 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. To this date, Kosovo is widely recognised as an independent state within the international community, including by the majority of EU Member States and NATO Member States. However, Kosovo is neither a member of the UN nor the EU. So, what makes Kosovo ineligible for the UN and the EU membership? What prevents Kosovo from joining these two organisations? In order to find out answers to these intriguing questions, feel free to watch the video prepared as part of the MaRBLe programme at Maastricht University!
By Marieke Hopman - 10 May 2021
Those of you who were already following children’s rights research, which used to be mostly my PhD project, you may have noticed that we have been out of touch for a while. This was for two reasons:
Now that our first data collection phase is finished, I am very happy to tell you all about this project. The official title of the project is: “Invisible Children: a rights-based approach to development for children living in unrecognised states. Including case studies in Abkhazia, Palestine, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Somaliland”. The video below gives a short impression of what the project is about:
Why is this research important?
According to the most fundamental principles of the international community, “We, the peoples of the United Nations” acknowledge that all humans, including children, are entitled to universal, fundamental rights. Similarly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are universally agreed objectives for “all children”. Nevertheless, there are children who left behind, namely: children living in unrecognized states.
These children are disadvantaged in that:
From the child’s perspective, growing up in an unrecognized state has a major influence on their development. As one student in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus told us:
"It hurts when I am growing [up] because all dreams that you have are limited […] you can’t really evolve roots because something might come up, like a [political] solution that will change the whole game."
What does the study look like?
The main question for the project is: (How) can development rights of children living in unrecognized states be better realized? To answer this research question, a group of researchers is working together to study these three subjects:
The total project takes four years and has a total budget of € 788.665. It is funded by the NWO WOTRO Joint SDG Research Initiative, the UM Children’s Rights Research Fund and both financial and in-kind contributions of organisations and researchers involved in the project.
From now on you can expect regular updates on this website from our research team and blog/vlog contributors. A draft report on the first case study (the child’s right to freedom of expression in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara) will be published in a few weeks. You can follow me on social media (Twitter & Facebook) for regular updates, and you can sign up here to receive our quarterly newsletter.