Explainer: What is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and why is it important?
20 November 2023
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has helped transform children’s lives.
What is the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
In 1989 something incredible happened. Against the backdrop of a changing world order, world leaders came together and made a historic commitment to the world’s children. They made a promise to every child to protect and fulfil their rights, by adopting an international legal framework – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Contained in this treaty is a profound idea: that children are not just objects who belong to their parents and for whom decisions are made, or adults in training. Rather, they are human beings and individuals with their own rights. The Convention says childhood is separate from adulthood, and lasts until 18; it is a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.
The Convention establishes in international law that States Parties must ensure that all children – without discrimination in any form – benefit from special protection measures and assistance; have access to services such as education and health care; can develop their personalities, abilities and talents to the fullest potential; grow up in an environment of happiness, love and understanding; and are informed about and participate in, achieving their rights in an accessible and active manner.
The Convention went on to become the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history and has helped transform children’s lives.
What has the Convention achieved?
The Convention is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. It has inspired governments to change laws and policies and make investments so that more children finally get the health care and nutrition they need to survive and develop, and there are stronger safeguards in place to protect children from violence and exploitation. It has also enabled more children to have their voices heard and participate in their societies.
Despite this progress, the Convention is still not fully implemented or widely known and understood. Millions of children continue to suffer violations of their rights when they are denied adequate health care, nutrition, education and protection from violence. Childhoods continue to be cut short when children are forced to leave school, do hazardous work, get married, fight in wars or are locked up in adult prisons.
And global changes, like the rise of digital technology, climate change, prolonged conflict and mass migration are completely changing childhood. Today’s children face new threats to their rights, but they also have new opportunities to realize their rights.
How was it decided what should go into the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
The standards in the Convention on the Rights of the Child were negotiated by governments, non-governmental organizations, human rights advocates, lawyers, health specialists, social workers, educators, child development experts and religious leaders from all over the world, over a 10-year period.
The result is a consensus document that takes into account the importance of tradition and cultural values for the protection and harmonious development of the child. It reflects the principal legal systems of the world and acknowledges the specific needs of developing countries.
How does the Convention on the Rights of the Child define a child?
The Convention defines a “child” as a person below the age of 18, unless the relevant laws recognize an earlier age of majority. On some issues, States are obliged to provide for minimum ages, such as the age for admission into employment and completion of compulsory education; but in other cases the Convention is unequivocal in prohibiting life imprisonment without possibility of release or capital punishment for those under 18 years of age.
What are the Convention’s guiding principles?
The guiding principles of the Convention are: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child as a primary consideration in all actions concerning children; the child’s inherent right to life, and State Parties’ obligation to ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child; and the child’s right to express his or her views freely in all matters affecting the child, with those views being given due weight.
What is the vision of the child in the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
The Convention provides a universal set of standards to be adhered to by all countries. 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 a member of a family and a community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. Recognizing children’s rights in this way firmly sets a focus on the whole child.
How is the Convention on the Rights of the Child special?
Is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history – in force in virtually all countries of the world, thus providing a common ethical and legal framework for the realization of children’s rights.
Was the first time a formal commitment was made to ensure the realization of child rights and monitor progress on the situation of children.
Indicates that children's rights can no longer be perceived as an option, as a question of favour or kindness to children or as an expression of charity. Children’s rights generate obligations and responsibilities that we all must honour and respect.
Has been recognized by non-state entities.
Is a reference for many organizations working with and for children – including NGOs, and entities within the UN system.
Reaffirms that all rights are equally important and essential for the full development of a child and that each and every child is important.
Reaffirms the notion of State accountability for the realization of human rights and the values of transparency and public scrutiny that are associated with it.
Promotes an international system of solidarity designed to achieve the realization of children's rights. Donor countries are called upon to provide assistance in areas where particular needs have been identified; recipient countries are called upon to direct overseas development assistance to that end too.
Highlights the role of society, communities and families to promote and protect children's rights.
How many countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history – 196 countries – including Myanmar in 1991 - have become State Parties to the Convention. Only the United States of America has not ratified the Convention. However, by signing the Convention, the United States has signalled its intention to ratify, but has yet to do so.
How does the international community monitor and support progress on the implementation of the Convention?
The Committee on the Rights of the Child, an elected body of independent experts that monitors the Convention's implementation, requires governments that have ratified the Convention to submit regular reports on the status of children's rights in their countries. The Committee reviews these reports and makes recommendations to States. Where necessary, the Committee calls for international assistance from other governments and technical assistance from organizations like UNICEF.
What steps do the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Rights of the Child encourage governments to undertake?
Through its reviews of country reports, the Committee urges all levels of government to use the Convention as a guide in policy-making and implementation, including: having a national plan for children, monitoring how much of the budget is spent on children, conducting regular impact assessments throughout every government department using reliable data about children’s lives, and having an independent children’s ombudsman.
What are some of the areas in which the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been most effective?
In the 30 years since the adoption of the Convention, the lives of millions of children have been improved through the progressive realization of rights and fulfillment of obligations enshrined within the Convention and its three Optional Protocols.
The Convention has inspired changes in all parts of the world, including:
Incorporating child rights principles into legislation
Establishing interdepartmental and multidisciplinary bodies to address child rights
Developing national agendas for children
Promoting ombudspersons for children or commissioners for children’s rights
Restructuring of budgetary allocations for the realization of children’s rights
Interventions targeting child survival and development
Addressing discrimination and other barriers to the realization of child rights including socio-economic disparities among children
Creating opportunities for children to express their views and be heard
Expanding partnerships for children
Assessing the impact of measures on children.
How does UNICEF use the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
UNICEF is the UN organization mandated to protect the rights of every child, everywhere, especially the most disadvantaged. As expressed in its Mission Statement, “UNICEF is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly 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 by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and strives to establish children's rights as enduring ethical principles and international standards of behaviour towards children.”
UNICEF is the only organization specifically named in the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a source of expert assistance and advice. The Convention provides UNICEF with guidance as to the areas to be assessed and addressed and is a tool to measure the progress achieved in those areas. In addition to maintaining a focus on child survival and development, UNICEF must consider the situation of all children, analyse the economic and social environment, develop partnerships to strengthen the response (including the participation of children themselves), support interventions on the basis of non-discrimination and act in the best interests of the child.