2. What are children’s rights?
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child marked a turning point, recognising worldwide that children are not only subjects of protection but also holders of civil and political rights.
Maud de Beur-Buquicchio,
Deputy Secretary General, Council of Europe1
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) provides an ideal approach for children to learn about their human rights. Because it specifies human rights especially relevant to children, everyone, but especially children, parents and adults who work with children, should be familiar with this important component of the international human rights framework. Compasito frames children’s rights within the broader context of human rights as a whole and seeks to help children understand that along with all other members of the human family, they too are rights-holders.
The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 after nearly a decade of compromise and negotiation among member states and wide consultations with NGOs. Since then more countries have ratified the so called Children’s Convention than any other human rights treaty and with fewer reservations, which are formal exceptions taken to parts with which a state may not agree.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (also called the Children’s Convention) defines a child as anyone below the age of eighteen and affirms the child as fully possessed of human rights. It contains 54 articles of children’s rights that can be divided into three general categories, sometimes known as the ‘three Ps’:
- Protection, guaranteeing the safety of children and covering specific issues such as abuse, neglect, and exploitation;
- Provision, covering the special needs of children such as education and health care;
- Participation, recognising the child’s evolving capacity to make decisions and participate in society as he or she approaches maturity.
The Convention contains several groundbreaking approaches to human rights. Children’s right to participation constitutes an area not previously addressed in the UDHR (1948) or the Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959). Another innovation of the Convention is the use of the pronouns he and she rather than the generic he to include both males and females.
The Convention strongly emphasizes the primacy and importance of the role, authority and responsibility of the child’s family. It affirms the child’s right not only to the language and culture of the family, but also to have that language and culture respected. The Convention also exhorts the state to support families are not able to provide an adequate standard of living for their children.
While acknowledging the importance of family to a child’s well-being, the Children’s Convention also recognizes children as right-bearing individuals, guaranteeing them, as appropriate to their evolving capacity, the right to identity, to privacy, to information, to thought, conscience, and religion, to expression, and to association.
The Convention has had enormous worldwide impact. It has intensified the child-rights efforts of UN agencies such as UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation (ILO); it has affected subsequent child-rights treaties (e.g. Hague Convention on Inter country Adoption, which speaks of a child’s right to a family rather than a family’s right to a child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities); it has focused international movements to stamp out pervasive forms of child abuse such as child prostitution and child soldiers, both of which are now the subjects of optional protocols (amendments to the CRC).
Children’s rights in the CRC reflect four general principles:
- Non-discrimination (Article 2): All rights apply to all children without exception. The state has an obligation to protect children from any form of discrimination.
- The child’s best interest (Article 3): The determining factor in all actions dealing with any child should be his or her best interest. In all cases, the best interests of the child take precedence over the interests of the adults concerned (e.g. parents, teachers, guardians). However, the question of how to decide on the best interests of the child remains difficult to determine and open to discussion.
- The rights to life, survival and development (Article 6): the right of the child to life is inherent, and it is the state’s obligation to ensure the child’s survival and development. This means that children cannot be subject to the death sentence or to termination of life.
- Respect for the views of the child (Article 12): The child has the right to express an opinion and to have that opinion taken into account in any matter affecting him or her.
QUESTION: The child’s best interest is a fundamental principle of the Children’s Convention. However, who decides what is best for a child? What happens when parents, teachers, authorities or the child have conflicting opinions about what is ‘best’ for the child?
The Children’s Convention is a powerful instrument, which by its very nature engages young people in an examination of their own rights. It is also an effective tool to assist people of all ages in identifying the complex responsibilities that go with ensuring these rights for children. Using the convention in this way will teach children how to advocate on their own behalf.
Like all human rights treaties, the Convention on the Rights of the Child contains articles that establish how governments’ compliance with the treaty will be monitored. Part II, Articles 42-45, of the Convention sets up these procedures and requirements:
- It requires that governments make the rights in the Convention widely known to both adults and children (Article 42);
- It establishes the Committee on the Rights of the Child, an body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by its State parties (Article 43);
- It requires states to report every five years on their efforts to implement the Convention (Article 44).
- It encourages international cooperation in the implementation of the Convention, especially with specialized UN agencies such as UNICEF (Article 45).
These mandatory reports, usually prepared by a government agency specializing in children’s issues, indicate who is not enjoying which rights, identify the constraints and obstacles to realising the rights and what the government intends to do to overcome these challenges. The report is presented to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, where the Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights is based, which reviews it and makes recommendations for future action.
QUESTION: What government agency prepares the report on implementation of the Children’s Convention in your country? How do they acquire their information?
QUESTION: Has your country reported regularly on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
The monitoring and reporting process also provides an opportunity for civil society institutions, NGOs, specialist agencies, children and young people, and other people dealing with children, to participate actively. They may produce an alternative or shadow report that challenges government claims or raises issues that may have been missed in the official report.2
QUESTION: Have alternative or shadow reports been submitted from your country? If so, who made them? On what issues did they differ from the government?
Monitoring children’s rights
The UN often appoints an expert to serve as a Special Rapporteur to gather information on a critical issue or country. In response to international concern about the growing commercial sexual exploitation and the sale of children, in 1990 the UN General Assembly created the mandate for a rapporteur to gather information and report on the sale of children, child pornography and child prostitution.
A number of non-governmental organisations also monitor how the Children’s Convention is being implemented. Some of these are large international children’s advocacy organisations such as Save the Children and Child Rights Information Network (CRIN). Others operate at the regional and national levels. In Europe, for example, the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children (ENOC) investigates, criticises and publicises administrative actions that might be violating the CRC. The ombudsman can intervene separately from legal representatives, parents or guardians to represent the child’s rights in a variety of civil or criminal cases where children are directly or indirectly involved. The Network includes representatives from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden and Wales.3
Civil society, children, teachers, parents and other agencies can play a major role in awareness raising and lobbying for action to promote child rights. To ensure that everyone who works with children as well as children themselves are aware of these rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be available in school libraries and read and discussed in classrooms and with parents.
One of the most important ways to promote the Convention is through systematic human rights education, beginning in the early years of childhood. Every child has a right to know his or her rights and those of others!
- Eide, Asbjørn and Alfredsson, Guthmundur, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A common standard of achievement: Martinus Nijhof, 1999.
- Franklin, Bob, Handbook of Children’s Rights: Routledge, 2001.
- Hodgkin, Rachel and Newell, Peter, Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child: UNICEF, 2002.
- Amnesty International:
- Children’s Rights Information Network:
- Council of Europe:
- Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe:
- European Children’s Network (EURONET):
- European Network of Ombudspersons for Children:
- Human Rights Watch:
- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:
1 Speech made at the Conference on International Justice for Children, 17 September 2007.
2 Action for the Rights of Children (ARC), CD by UNICEF & Save the Children Alliance, 2003.
3 See www.ombudsnet.org