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Key dates

4 June
International Day of Innocent Child Victims of Aggression

12 August
International Youth Day

20 November
Universal Children's Day

Background Information on the Global Themes > Children


At a rough estimate, there are two thousand million children in the world today, 79 million in the European Union, and 25 million in the countries that are candidates to join the EU.

In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has been ratified by all the countries except the United States of America and Somalia. This convention is a landmark in the history of the rights of the children since it is the first compulsory international instrument adopted in this field.

Why is the Convention on the Rights of the Child so important?

The convention has brought a lot of changes in the field of the protection of the rights of children.

"Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself... You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."

Kahlil Gilbran

  1. It is the most widely ratified human rights instrument in the world.
  2. The convention promotes the "3p's". Firstly, it promotes the participation - according to their age condition and maturity - of children in matters that affect their destiny, such as judicial processes or processes of adoption, with regard to their families and to society as a whole. It also states rights for their protection against all forms of abuses, violence and practices that can violate their rights. Finally, similar to any other convention, it provides for rights which are meant as safeguards against potential violations.
  3. It considers the children as subject of law instead of object of law. Traditionally, the vast majority of adults have been educated to perceive children as objects that have to obey adults unconditionally - teachers, priests, parents, doctors, etc. Instead, the convention promotes the idea of children as people with rights that have to be respected by adults, society and all the institutions that deal with children's affairs. Children are entitled to be respected and treated with dignity simply because they are human, whatever their age.
  4. The best interests of the child should guide all decisions taken - judicial, administrative, etc. - involving a child. It is a hard concept to define and there is a lot of controversy about its exact meaning. In practice, it implies that if, for example, a judge has to decide who will have the custody of a child, they have to examine several aspects of the child' life and the adults concerned. In all cases, the best interests of the child are more important than the best interests of the adults concerned.
  5. The content of the CRC refers to a wide range of fields - administrative, judicial, educational, legal, etc., where the rights of children have to be respected. For example, a child that has not been properly registered at birth does not exist in the eyes of the law. Thus they do not exist for the school authorities that refuse to accept them as a student and, as a result, they cannot attend school. This is a common problem affecting thousands of children in many countries. The refusal of the school authorities to accept the child as a student because they "do not exist administratively and legally" clearly violates the child's right to education.

Child participation

1. "Participation is essential for bringing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into life;

2. [it] is a decisive factor for securing social cohesion and for living in a democracy

3. [it] is a necessary process in the development of the child...1"

The convention has had a practical impact in many countries, which have been obliged, by ratifying the CRC, to amend and/or reform part of their existing legislation.

Do you think children should always obey adults unconditionally for their own good?

The state of children: facts and figures

Even if the convention is a giant step in favour of the cause of children, the facts prove that the rights of children are being violated in most regions of the world.

Children in Europe...

  • There is a striking increase in the number of women and children being trafficked. Estimates suggest that up to 120000 women and children being trafficked into western Europe from central and eastern European countries each year.
  • In Bulgaria, there are reports that prostitution has become a principal source of income for a substantial number of 14- to 18-year-old girls and that very often they may be part of an organised network. What is also worrying is the growth in the numbers of young male prostitutes.
  • In Estonia, prostitution involving very young girls has been noted in the wider context of a growing foreign market for sex tourism. In Latvia, very young girls have also been identified as prostitutes (as young as between 8 and 10 years old).

Who is a child?

As defined by Article 1 of the convention, "a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier."

This means that every person under 18 years old, including adolescents, is covered by the convention

  • In the UK, research indicates that there are many thousands of street children, primarily, though not exclusively, in the major cities and towns. The population of street children is split evenly between males and females. It is estimated that approximately 40000 children run away from home every year.
  • In France, the phenomenon of street children began to constitute a significant problem in the 1980s. Some authorities consider that there might be as many as 10000 street children, although others estimate that the number is much lower.
  • In general, there is a growing population of young people living homeless on the streets in eastern and central Europe. In Bucharest alone, there are an estimated 1500 children and young people living out on the streets
  • In Poland and Hungary over a third of children under the age of fifteen live in poverty. A recent study in Poland (UNDP, 1999) found that 60% of children suffer from some form of malnutrition with 10% permanently malnourished. In the Russian Federation, the prevalence of stunted growth among children under two years old increased from 9.4% in 1992 to 15.2% in 1994.

Child poverty rates in Europe2

Children in the world...

  • More than 10 million children under the age of five still die each year from preventable causes.
  • More than 100 million children are still not in primary school, the majority being girls.
  • There are an estimated 300000 children engaged in combat.
  • 149 million children are malnourished, two thirds of them in Asia.
  • Last year alone, some 31 million refugees and displaced persons, mostly women and children, were caught up in war conflicts and were forced to flee from their homes and become refugees.

European issues related to children and adolescents

There are specific issues related to the rights of the children that are particularly relevant to European institutions as well as to European governments. As a result, there is a clear will to promote measures aimed at protecting children against practices and phenomena that clearly violate their rights.

In the light of the statistics above cited on sexual trafficking, prostitution and pornography in Europe, the Council of Europe and its members have become increasingly concerned and, as a result, they have adopted several recommendations, including:

  • Recommendation 1065 (1987) on the traffic in children and other forms of child exploitation;
  • Recommendation No. R (91) 11 on sexual exploitation, pornography and prostitution of, and trafficking in, children and young adults;
  • Resolution 1099 (1996) on the sexual exploitation of children.

Once these recommendations are adopted, states have to take practical measures to ensure their implementation. Examples of such measures are3:

"The soul is healed by being with children."

Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. At the initiative of the Belgium Minister for the Interior, on 23 November 1992, a unit specialising in countering such traffic was set up within the Gendarmerie's Central Office for Missing Persons. On 11 September 1995, the Minister for Justice ordered the creation of a Missing Children Unit within the same office. This unit is responsible for the co-ordination and provision of support and expertise relating to the disappearance of minors in circumstances giving cause for concern.
  2. In Luxembourg, a special juvenile protection section has been formed in the police force. Police headquarters in Luxembourg City has a juvenile protection section in its research division. There is a telephone help-line for children (KannerJugendtelefon).

Why is it difficult to eradicate this kind of trafficking?

Child labour is...

... work done by children full-time under the age of 15

... work that prevents children from attending school

... work that is dangerous for children and hazardous to their physical, mental or emotional health.

The reasons behind this practice are sometimes very complex and range from cultural practices to situations of poverty where the parents and family need the wages brought home by the child.

In terms of consequences, in addition to depriving children of a proper education and impairing their physical and mental development, child labour can lead to severe health problems such as muscular-skeletal deformation, chemical poisoning, cuts and other bodily injuries, respiratory diseases, serious burns, etc.

Examples of goods made by children include carpets, bricks, matches, sugar, clothing, shoes, cigarettes (beedis), fireworks, houses and other buildings, pencils, leather goods. They are also employed in crop picking, factory work, carrying heavy things, fishing and basic domestic services.


The Internet and pornography

Children can be exposed to a wide range of risks when they use the Internet. Some of them are exposure to inappropriate material (violent pictures, racist and xenophobic propaganda, etc.), harassment and paedophile activity. There is growing evidence that there are networks dedicated to the exchange of information (names, pictures, etc) of child pornography. In recent years, individuals have been arrested in Europe and other continents for being implicated and/or promoting this kind of illegal and immoral activities.

Some suggested solutions for individuals involved with matters relating to children, such as social workers, teachers, psychologists, etc., and parents are:

  • taking individual actions such as reporting, complaining or asking when they become aware of a child being exposed to such risks or when they discover illegal or dangerous Internet material;
  • empowering children through informing them and discussing the matter with them;
  • empowering parents, who need to become aware of the dangers of the use of the Internet and to inform themselves about the issues.
The World Summit for Children

In September 1990, the World Summit for Children adopted the Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children and a Plan of Action for Implementing the Declaration. A series of goals was set up relating to child mortality, malnutrition, children's access to basic education worldwide, etc. to be met by the year 2000.

None of the goals have been achieved, but does this mean that this summit was useless?


Many NGOs are organising themselves through a network of concerned people who monitor and report websites containing illegal materials4.

The Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime was adopted on 8 November 2001. When in force, this convention will be the first international treaty on crimes committed via the Internet and other computer networks, dealing particularly with computer- and Internet-related crimes including child pornography. Its main objective is to pursue a common criminal policy aimed at the protection of society against cybercrime, especially by adopting appropriate legislation and fostering international co-operation. Article 9 of the Convention is devoted to combating paedophilia and child pornography over the Internet.

In Europe, the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children (ENOC) was set up in 1997. This includes representatives from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden and Wales.

The Russian Ministry of Labour and Social Development has initiated a pilot project, establishing Commissioners for Children in 5 "oblasts" (states). The Commissioners have all been established by decree and are mandated to improve the protection and promotion of children's rights.

Can we take measures to control the use of the Internet by children without violating their freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds? (art.13 , CRC)

The Ombudsman for Children

The word 'ombudsman' comes from the Scandinavian word "ombud", which means ambassador, delegate or messenger. It has come to mean a person who deals with complaints from a defined group (in this case. children), who speaks on behalf of that group and who tries to improve conditions for individuals from that group as well as for the group as a whole.

The first ombudsman for children was established in Norway in 1981. The ombudsman is an independent, non-partisan agent, spokesperson, arbitrator or referee, ensuring that ministries and others fulfil their legislative duties by suggesting measures for improvements in issues related to children. The ombudsman protects the needs, rights and interests of minors, works for the application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and supports its dissemination. The ombudsman has the power to investigate, criticise and publicise but not to reverse administrative action or revoke administrative decisions. The ombudsman intervenes separately from legal representatives, parents or guardians to represent the child's rights in all sorts of civil or criminal cases where children are directly or indirectly involved.

In some countries, the ombudsman is responsible for adopting assessment methods, such as the "child impact assessment" in order to evaluate and identify all possible consequences on children of various legislative proposals, regulations and any other measures. According to the Swedish NGO Radda Barnen, twenty countries have so far set up ombudsman for Children.

International and regional instruments and children

1. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

2. The World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children

3. The Plan of Action for Implementing the World Declaration, 1990

4. The Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1460(2000) on Setting up a European Ombudsman for Children, Council of Europe, Strasbourg 2001.

5. The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1286, 1996, on a European Strategy for Children

6. The European Convention on the Exercise of Children's Rights, Council of Europe, Strasbourg 1996



Asquith, S., Juvenile Justice and Juvenile Delinquency in Central and Eastern Europe - A Review - Centre for the Child and Society, University of Glasgow.

Final report of the study group on street children, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, April 1994.

Flekkoy, M., A Voice for Children - Speaking as their Ombudsman, UNICEF, 1991.

The Global Movement for Children,

Human Rights Education Newsletter, No.29, Centre for Global Education, University of York, UK, 2001.

Setting up a European Ombudsman for Children, doc.8552, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 1999.

The State of the World's Children, UNICEF, 2000.

"Trafficking in women, a comprehensive European strategy", information sheets, European Commission.


1. Recommendation No.8 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to the member States, adopted on 18 September 1998.

2. The EU figures in general relate to the early 1990s. The rates displayed are the percentage of children living in households with income below 50% of the national median. Source: Bradbury and Jäntti (1999, Table 3.3) in Micklewright, J., Stewart, K., Child Well-Being in the EU and Enlargement to the East, Working Papers, UNICEF, Innocenti Centre, 2000.

3. Implementation of recommendation No. R (91) 11 on Sexual Exploitation, Pornography and Prostitution of,

and Trafficking in, Children and Young Adults; Strasbourg, 8 April 1999

4. Bilson, A., Child safety on the Internet, a child rights approach, Centre for Europe's Child,