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Compiling and writing States Parties’ reports to UN Treaty Bodies is a cumbersome and rarely coordinated effort. Different institutions of the State Party are usually involved and even in the most efficient cases compiling comprehensive information from a variety of sources is still a very onerous task. Moreover, the periodic nature of UN report writing may result in a void in terms of continuity. It is not surprising therefore to find serious delays in the submission of reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as contradictory information contained in different sections, even on the same topic. The summary table and some excerpts from the reports testify to this.
UN report writing is a complicated matter. A variety of reasons (not all of which may be said to be ‘in good faith’) may influence a State in its reporting to the Committee, and the precision and comprehensiveness of the report will reflect this. It is therefore rather complex to come to understand the degree to which these reports accurately reflect the realities of the reporting country. There is always a risk that they are not sufficiently self-critical but simply self-congratulatory and descriptive. Certainly, the reading and analysis of all the reports used in this research confirmed that only in few cases was there a sincere attempt at reflecting on reality and problems in a meaningful way, going beyond mere information sharing. This is a missed opportunity, however, as much could be gained by a fuller and better understanding of conditions within each State Party, especially those States which face the biggest obstacles in their attempts to secure children’s rights. A fuller engagement with the Committee would provide a clearer sense of the (dis)connections with the real life of the direct subjects of children’s rights, and would constitute an important step towards addressing the problems they face.
Discrepancies evidenced by this analysis are not limited to States, but include some aspects of the Committee’s approach too. The latter emerge both from tensions caused by States parties’ resistance to the Committee’s recommendations that minimum ages should be brought into uniformity at 18, and from occasional inconsistencies among the Committee’s Concluding Observations. According to the text of the CRC, the Committee’s main role is to examine States Parties’ reports in order to monitor and assess their implementation of the CRC. If the spirit of this exercise is to “foster the effective implementation of the Convention”,[1] it is important that the Committee’s recommendations should be both unambiguous and feasible. This is why the Committee’s use in its Concluding Observations of vague language such as “in conformity with international standards” or “internationally acceptable level” seems confusing and leaves room for a variety of outcomes. It certainly undermines the clear stand taken elsewhere by the Committee when recommending that the CRC’s protection measures should still apply to all children below 18 regardless of whether they have achieved majority otherwise (through marriage or criminal responsibility, for example).[2] Another area of inconsistency arises when the call for a specific recommendation is advanced during the meetings with States, but then this is not systematically reflected in the Summary Records or Concluding Observations. While the reasons for this discrepancy are not clear, this constitutes another missed opportunity to hold States accountable as it offers them an easy way out when it comes to follow-up.
Undoubtedly, the efforts of the Committee in engaging with States are commendable. However, Concluding Observations are as yet the best instruments at the disposal of the Committee (as well as States and civil society) to make sure that concerns are addressed and that implementation is enforced. If they remain vague or inconsistent, they will be rendered void of any meaningful persuasive power. This is why it is important to foster a more accurate understanding of the Committee’s practice, between innovation and constraints, especially in terms of how its recommendations are (perceived to be) related to local contexts. This publication contributes to building this understanding.
Despite these limitations, there is room for a more positive engagement. Even if it is difficult to discern reality from elusive language, what is affirmed in these reports is what the State itself has publicly declared and what makes it accountable to its citizens and to the international community at large. At what age? is only a starting point, but it is hoped that it can be a useful tool for advocacy and action aimed at bringing about change for children.

[1] CRC, art.45.
[2] For marriage see CRC Committee, General Comment No. 4: Adolescent health and development in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN document CRC/GC/2003/4), 2003, paragraphs 1, 9 and 20; Concluding Observations on Nepal (UN Doc. CRC/C/15/Add.261, 2005, paragraph 66) and Liberia (UN Doc. CRC/C/15/Add.236, 2004, paragraph 51); for criminal responsibility see CRC Committee, General Comment No. 10: Children’s rights in juvenile justice, UN document CRC/C/GC/10), 2007, paragraphs 36-38.