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UNICEF’s mission is to advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. UNICEF is guided in doing this by the provisions and principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Built on varied legal systems and cultural traditions, the Convention is a universally agreed set of nonnegotiable standards and obligations. These basic standards—also called human rights—set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status or ability and therefore apply to every human being everywhere. With these rights comes the obligation on both governments and individuals not to infringe on the parallel rights of others. These standards are both interdependent and indivisible; we cannot ensure some rights without —or at the expense of—other rights.
A legally binding instrument
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. The leaders also wanted to make sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too. The Convention sets out these rights in 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the Convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. Every right spelled out in the Convention is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The Convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services. By agreeing to undertake the obligations of the Convention (by ratifying or acceding to it), national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. States parties to the Convention are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child.
The human rights framework
© UNICEF/ HQ05-1469/Pirozzi The human rights framework shows that members of any family, like this one in Pakistan, are entitled to all of their rights. Everyone, everywhere has the same rights as a result of our common humanity.
Human rights are those rights which are essential to live as human beings – basic standards without which people cannot survive and develop in dignity. They are inherent to the human person,inalienable and universal.
The United Nations set a common standard on human rights with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Although this Declaration is not part of binding international law, its acceptance by all countries around the world gives great moral weight to the fundamental principle that all human beings, rich and poor, strong and weak, male and female, of all races and religions, are to be treated equally and with respect for their natural worth as human beings. The United Nations has since adopted many legally binding international human rights instruments. These treaties are used as a framework for discussing and applying human rights. Through these instruments, the principles and rights they outline become legal obligations on those States choosing to be bound by them. The framework also establishes legal and other mechanisms to hold governments accountable in the event they violate human rights. The instruments of the international human rights framework are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the six core human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Every country in the world has ratified at least one of these, and many have ratified most of them. These treaties are important tools for holding governments accountable for the respect for, protection of and realization of the rights of individuals in their country. As part of the framework of human rights law, all human rights areindivisible, interrelated and interdependent. Understanding this framework is important to promoting, protecting and realizing children’s rights because the Convention on the Rights of the Child—and the rights and duties contained in it—are part of the framework.
Path to the Convention on the Rights of the Child
© UNICEF/HQ91-0241/Toutounji Women are trained to teach children to read and write in a project supported by UNICEF in Yemen.
The path to the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been long and slow. In 1945, the United Nations Charter laid the groundwork for the Convention by urging nations to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms 'for all'. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights followed three years later, further stressing that "motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and protection" and referring to the family as "the natural and fundamental group unit of society." Several Declarations on the Rights of the Child were agreed during the twentieth century, the last in 1959 "recognizing that Mankind owes to the child the best that it has to give." Declarations are statements of moral and ethical intent but they are not legally binding instruments. The international human rights framework was therefore built to contain covenants (or conventions) that carry the weight of international law. In 1976, the first two covenants—the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—became binding on States parties. These two Covenants used the foundation of the rights and principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus provided a legal as well as a moral obligation for countries to respect the human rights of each individual.
Children’s rights then followed the same path. In 1978, on the eve of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Child, a draft text was proposed for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Drawing heavily from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a working group within the United Nations then collaborated and revised the draft, finally agreeing what became the articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Final approval from United Nations Member States came when the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 November 1989. The Convention then became legally binding in September 1990, after 20 States had ratified it. Many countries ratified the Convention very soon after it was adopted and others continued to ratify or accede to it, making it the most widely ratified human rights treaty. Nearly all States are now parties. Somalia and the United States have not yet ratified the Convention but have signed it, indicating their support.
The role of the United Nations in respect for human rights
© UNICEF/ HQ02-0144/Susan Markisz In May 2002, the UN Special Session of the General Assembly on Children focused attention on making progress for children and investing in them as keys to building global peace and security.
The United Nations has repeatedly emphasized the need to integrate human rights into the broad range of its activities. It is essential to recognize the potential of almost all UN human rights mechanisms and procedures for contributing to the protection and promotion of children’s rights.
Human rights treaties
The creation of a body of international human rights law is one of the United Nations’ great achievements. The United Nations has helped negotiate more than 70 human rights treaties and declarations—many focused on the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children, persons with disabilities, minorities and indigenous peoples. Together, these treaties and declarations have helped create a ‘culture of human rights’ throughout the world, providing a powerful tool to protect and promote all rights. In accordance with the treaties, States parties have set up treaty body committees that may call upon States to respond to allegations, adopt decisions and publish them along with criticisms or recommendations. For the full text of the core human rights treaties, see the links at right.
World Conferences and Summits
The standards articulated in the international covenants and conventions have been reinforced through declarations and plans of action that have emerged from a series of World Conferences organized by the United Nations. These conferences have gained importance as real forums for deciding on national and international policy regarding such global issues as the environment, human rights and economic development. They focus world attention on these issues and place them squarely on the global agenda. UNICEF's work in the area of child rights is informed by the World Summit for Children (1990), as well as by the World Conference on Education for All (1990), the World Conference on Human Rights (1993),
the World Summit for Social Development (1995), the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), the Millennium Summit (2000), and the World Summit and Special Session on Children (2005). The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, in particular, recognized that the human rights of children constitute a priority for action within the United Nations system. At the 2005 Special Session on Children, Member States committed themselves to improving the situation of children.
Other mechanisms for protecting human rights
The United Nations promotes respect for the law and protection of human rights in many other ways, including: Monitoring the human rights records of nations: The treaty body committees receive technical, logistical and financial support from the United Nations. The United Nations also has an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is mandated to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realization by all people of human rights. Appointing ‘special procedures’ to address specific country situations or broader issues: The United Nations may also appoint experts (sometimes titled special rapporteurs, representatives or independent experts), to address a specific human rights issue or particular country. These experts may conduct studies, visit specific countries, interview victims, make specific appeals and submit reports and recommendations. These procedures include a number of child-specific procedures and many broader procedures which increasingly make reference to children's rights. Child specific procedures include the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the impact of armed conflict on children. Many broader procedures increasingly include references to children's rights in the context of their particular mandates. Such procedures include the Special Rapporteurs on the right to education; on torture; on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; on violence against women; on freedom of religion or belief; and on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and also an Independent Expert on human rights and extreme poverty. Country-specific Special Rapporteurs—who focus on the human rights situations in particular countries and regions and can receive individual complaints—and the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons have also singled out violations of children’s rights. Some other relevant mechanisms include Working Groups on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and on Arbitrary Detention.
Protecting and realizing children's rights
© UNICEF/HQ93-1356/Roger LeMoyne Children, such as this small boy in China, need the support of their families and every member of society.
Human rights apply to all age groups; children have the same general human rights as adults. But children are particularly vulnerable and so they also have particular rights that recognize their special need for protection.
Children’s rights in the human rights framework
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child. The Convention and its acceptance by so many countries has heightened recognition of the fundamental human dignity of all children and the urgency of ensuring their well-being and development. The Convention makes clear the idea that a basic quality of life should be the right of all children, rather than a privilege enjoyed by a few.
From abstract rights to realities
Despite the existence of rights, children suffer from poverty, homelessness, abuse, neglect, preventable diseases, unequal access to education and justice systems that do not recognize their special needs. These are problems that occur in both industrialized and developing countries. The near-universal ratification of the Convention reflects a global commitment to the principles of children's rights. By ratifying the Convention, governments state their intention to put this commitment into practice. State parties are obligated to amend and create laws and policies to fully implement the Convention; they must consider all actions taken in light of the best interests of the child. The task, however, must engage not just governments but all members of society. The standards and principles articulated in the Convention can only become a reality when they are respected by everyone —within the family, in schools and other institutions that provide services for children, in communities and at all levels of administration.
Addressing the needs of children
© UNICEF/HQ93-0407/LeMoyne Birth registration is a simple way to help children realize their rights throughout life.
Governments must be sensitive to the rights of all their citizens—not just to those of children—but the world community recognizes that priority should be given to protecting children’s rights. There are many reasons for singling out children's rights in a separate human rights Convention: Children are individuals.Children are neither the possessions of parents nor of the state, nor are they mere people-in-the-making; they have equal status as members of the human family. Children start life as totally dependent beings. Children must rely on adults for the nurture and guidance they need to grow towards independence. Such nurture is ideally found in adults in children's families, but when primary caregivers cannot meet children's needs, it is up to society to fill the gap.
The actions, or inactions, of government impact children more strongly than any other group in society. Practically every area of government policy (for example, education, public health and so on) affects children to some degree. Short-sighted policymaking that fails to take children into account has a negative impact on the future of all members of society by giving rise to policies that cannot work. Children's views are rarely heard and rarely considered in the political process. Children generally do not vote and do not otherwise take part in political processes. Without special attention to the opinions of children—as expressed at home and in schools, in local communities and even in governments—children's views go unheard on the many important issues that affect them now or will affect them in the future. Many changes in society are having a disproportionate, and often negative, impact on children. Transformation of the family structure, globalization, shifting employment patterns and a shrinking social welfare net in many countries all have strong impacts on children. The impact of these changes can be particularly devastating in situations of armed conflict and other emergencies. The healthy development of children is crucial to the future well-being of any society. Because they are still developing, children are especially vulnerable—more so than adults—to poor living conditions such as poverty, inadequate health care, nutrition, safe water, housing and environmental pollution. The affects of disease, malnutrition and poverty threaten the future of children and therefore the future of the societies in which they live. The costs to society of failing its children are huge. Social research findings show that children's earliest experiences significantly influence their future development. The course of their development determines their contribution, or cost, to society over the course of their lives.
Promoting and protecting rights for children
© UNICEF/HQ04/1202/Vitale Families have the primary responsibility for raising children, but governments must help those needing assistance.
While the Convention on the Rights of the Child is addressed to governments as representatives of the people, it actually addresses the responsibilities of all members of society. Overall, its standards can be realized only when respected by everyone—parents and members of the family and the community; professionals and others working in schools, in other public and private institutions, in services for children, in the courts and at all levels of government administration—and when each of these individuals carries out his or her unique role and function with respect to these standards.
The role of governments, families and children
Governments are obliged to recognize the full spectrum of human rights for all children and consider children in legislative and policy decisions. While many States are beginning to listen seriously to children's views on many important issues, the process of change is still in its earliest stages. Children have a right to express their opinions and to have their views taken seriously and given due weight. But children also have a responsibility to respect the rights of others, especially those of their parents.
The Convention specifically refers to the family as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of its members, particularly children. Under the Convention, States are obliged to respect parents' primary responsibility for providing care and guidance for their children and to support parents in this regard, providing material assistance and support programmes. States are also obliged to prevent children from being separated from their families unless the separation is necessary for the child's best interests.
Fulfilling obligations: putting principles into practice
Under the Convention, State Parties have an obligation to amend and create laws and policies to fully implement the Convention. As a result, the Convention has inspired a process of national legal implementation and social change in all regions of the world. Local and national governments have amended laws to take into consideration the best interests of the child and adopted social policies that promote realization of children’s rights. Individuals, including children, and communities have actively voiced their views and called for change. UNICEF has undertaken advocacy, cooperated with governments and organizations and provided technical assistance to further implementation of the Convention. Other United Nations agencies, such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR); the World Health Organization (WHO); and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) actively promote the rights embodied in the Convention. And many non-governmental organizations work for better implementation of the Convention. For more information on how the rights and principles in the Convention are put into practice, see the ‘Implementation’ page in the ‘Using the Convention and Protocols’ section on the left menu.
Understanding the Convention on the Rights of the Child
© UNICEF/ HQ990849/LeMoyne The Convention applies to everyone equally, with special protections for particularly vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minority children.
The principles outlined in the international human rights framework apply both to children and adults. Children are mentioned explicitly in many of the human rights instruments; standards are specifically modified or adapted where the needs and concerns surrounding a right are distinct for children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child brings together the children’s human rights articulated in other international instruments. This Convention articulates the rights more completely and provides a set of guiding principles that fundamentally shapes the way in which we view children. This compilation and clarification of children’s human rights sets out the necessary environment and means to enable every human being to develop to their full potential. The articles of the Convention, in
addition to laying the foundational principles from which all rights must be achieved, call for the provision of specific resources, skills and contributions necessary to ensure the survival and development of children to their maximum capability. The articles also require the creation of means to protect children from neglect, exploitation and abuse. All children have the same rights. All rights are interconnected and of equal importance. The Convention stresses these principles and refers to the responsibility of children to respect the rights of others, especially their parents. By the same token, children's understanding of the issues raised in the Convention will vary depending on the age of the child. Helping children to understand their rights does not mean parents should push them to make choices with consequences they are too young to handle. The Convention expressly recognizes that parents have the most important role in the bringing up children. The text encourages parents to deal with rights issues with their children "in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child" (article 5). Parents, who are intuitively aware of their child's level of development, will do this naturally. The issues they discuss, the way in which they answer questions, or the discipline methods they use will differ depending on whether the child is 3, 9 or 16 years of age.
Rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child
© UNICEF/HQ03-0535/Pirozzi A man embraces his young grandson in Togo, a State party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first instrument to incorporate the complete range of international human rights— including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights as well as aspects of humanitarian law. The articles of the Convention may be grouped into four categories of rights and a set of guiding principles. By clicking on any of the categories below, you can link to a plain-language explanation of the applicable articles in the Convention. Additional provisions of the Convention (articles 43 to 54) discuss implementation measures for the Convention, explaining how governments and international organizations like UNICEF will work to ensure children are protected in their rights. You can see the full text of the Convention by clicking on the link in the box on the right. Guiding principles (pdf): The guiding principles of the Convention include non-discrimination; adherence to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and the right to participate. They represent the underlying requirements for any and all rights to be realized. Survival and development rights (pdf): These are rights to the resources, skills and contributions necessary for the survival and full development of the child. They include rights to adequate food, shelter, clean water, formal education, primary health care, leisure and recreation, cultural activities and information about their rights. These rights require not only the existence of the means to fulfil the rights but also access to them. Specific articles address the needs of child refugees, children with disabilities and children of minority or indigenous groups.
Protection rights (pdf): These rights include protection from all forms of child abuse, neglect, exploitation and cruelty, including the right to special protection in times of war and protection from abuse in the criminal justice system. Participation rights (pdf): Children are entitled to the freedom to express opinions and to have a say in matters affecting their social, economic, religious, cultural and political life. Participation rights include the right to express opinions and be heard, the right to information and freedom of association. Engaging these rights as they mature helps children bring about the realization of all their rights and prepares them for an active role in society. The equality and interconnection of rights are stressed in the Convention. In addition to governments’ obligations, children and parents are responsible for respecting the rights of others—particularly each other. Children’s understanding of rights will vary depending on age and parents in particular should tailor the issues they discuss, the way in which they answer questions and discipline methods to the age and maturity of the individual child.
Human rights provisions
© UNICEF/HQ990825/LeMoyne Two children return home from school in Viet Nam, which is a State party to most of the core human rights treaties.
Children and young people have the same basic general human rights as adults and also specific rights that recognise their special needs. Because the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) brings together rights articulated in other international treaties there are many parallels between the Convention and other treaties. The five other core human rights instruments are: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Torture Convention); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Race Discrimination Convention); and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Women’s Convention). Among other rights found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and shared with one or more of these instruments are:
Non-discrimination (Article 2): All human rights instruments prohibit any discrimination— distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference—in the provision, protection and promotion of rights. In other words, everyone has the human rights in these treaties, irrespective of their race, sex, religion, national origin or any other trait. The Race Convention wholly prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin or ethnicity and outlines steps that governments must take to end it. The Women’s Convention likewise calls for an end to discrimination, based on sex, and outlines specific areas of life in which women must be treated equally in order to eliminate discrimination; Right to life (Article 6): also found in Article 6 of the ICCPR;
Right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 37): outlined for everyone in the Torture Convention and also included as Article 7 of the ICCPR; Right of detained persons to be treated with dignity (Article 37): Article 10 of the ICCPR broadly states this right and the Convention on the Rights of the Child specifies that children in this situation must be treated in a way that takes their age into account; Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 14): found in Article 18 of the ICCPR; Right to freedom of opinion and of expression (Article 13): found in Article 19 of the ICCPR; Right to adequate standard of living (Article 27): found in article 11 of the ICESCR; Right to health and health services (Article 24): found in Article 12 of the ICESCR; and Right to education (Article 28): found in Article 13 of the ICESCR.
Many Articles of both the ICCPR and the ICESCR call attention to the special needs of families and children. These include Article 24 of the ICCPR (calling for the protection of children and registration at birth of their name and nationality) and Article 10 of the ICESCR (calling for specific attention, protection and assistance to children). These examples show that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is founded on rights inherent to everyone, but that it also builds on concerns for the specific needs and vulnerabilities of children. For the text of any of the human rights conventions, see the box at right.
UNICEF in action
© UNICEF/HQ05-0544/Estey A UNICEF protection officer helps a boy laugh again following an earthquake in Indonesia.
UNICEF's work for the overall protection of childhood is guided by the principles and standards established by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In advocating to protect children's rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential, UNICEF helps to change the legal and policy framework of States parties and to improve understanding of the Convention itself at all levels of society. Among other activities, UNICEF works in nearly 160 countries to support ratification and implementation of the Convention and the Optional Protocols on the involvement of children in armed conflict and on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. UNICEF draws attention to the duties of governments, families, communities and individuals to respect those rights and supports them in doing so. UNICEF also supports the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors implementation of the Convention and Optional Protocols by States parties. UNICEF is given a special role under the Convention with respect to monitoring. In addition to contributing advice and assistance to the
Committee, UNICEF facilitates broad consultations within States to maximize the accuracy and impact of reports to the Committee.
What you can do
UNICEF, government authorities and relief groups support education for children in Sudan.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been used around the world to promote and protect children’s rights.In the years since its adoption the world has seen significant advances in the fulfilment of children’s rights to survival, health and education through the provision of essential goods and services, and a growing recognition of the need to create a protective environment to shield children from exploitation, abuse and violence. However there is still much to be done to create a world fit for children. Progress has been uneven, with some countries lagging considerably behind others in giving child rights its deserved prominence on national agendas. And in several regions and countries some of the gains appear in danger of reversal from threats like poverty, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS. Every one of us has a role to play in ensuring that every child enjoys a childhood. If you are a parent, teacher, social worker or other professional working with children, raise awareness of the Convention on the Rights of the Child among children. If you are a member or employee of an organization working for children’s rights, raise awareness of the Convention and its Optional Protocols, research and document governmental actions and policies and involve communities in promoting and protecting children’s rights. If you are a member of the media, promote knowledge and understanding of children’s rights and provide a forum for children’s participation in society. If you are a parliamentarian, ensure that all existing and new legislation and judicial practice is compatible with your country’s international obligations, monitor governments’ actions, policies and budgets and involve the community—including children—in relevant decisionmaking. Everyone can participate in respecting, protecting and fulfilling children’s rights. And UNICEF can help. Whoever you are and wherever you are, contact your local UNICEF office or National Committee to see what you can do.