Smiling children 8‘CHILDREN’S rights’ are human rights for children and people under the age of 18. A separate set of rights has been established for children and young people in recognition of the fact that childhood is a special time in our lives. It’s a time when we do a lot of growing and learning; when we need others to look after us and help keep us safe; when we should be enjoying ourselves.


In 1989, the United Nations agreed that children need a special convention of their own. This set of rights for children and young people is called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It states that people under 18 have all the rights it contains, whatever their race, religion or abilities, whatever they think or say, and whatever type of family they come from.


Convention on the Rights of the Child

On 20th November 1989, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It is now an international agreement that countries sign up to and, once they ratify it, are legally required to fulfil. It is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights. All the countries of the world have ratified it except Somalia and the United States of America. Somalia has been unable to proceed to ratification as it has no recognised government. By signing the convention, the United States has signalled its intention to ratify — but has yet to do so.


Under the convention, children have the right to have their basic needs met: survival, protection, health care, food and water. They also have the right to opportunities to help them reach their full potential: education, play, sports, freedom to express opinions and involvement in decisions that affect them.


The convention emphasises that all children have the same rights and that all rights are interconnected and of equal importance. It also refers to the responsibility of children to respect the rights of others, especially their parents.


The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has 54 articles; each outlines a different right. These rights are divided into four groups; survival, protection, development and participation.

Survival rights recognise the child’s right to life and the needs basic to existence. These include nutrition, shelter, an adequate standard of living and access to health care.

Development rights outline what children need to reach their full potential; for example, education, leisure, cultural activities, access to information, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Protection rights require that children be protected from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation. They cover issues such as special protection for refugee children, safeguards for children in employment, and protection and rehabilitation for children who have suffered any form of abuse or exploitation.

Participation rights recognise that all children should be enabled to play an active role in their communities and societies. These rights include freedom to express opinions and to have a say in matters affecting their lives. As their abilities evolve, children should also have increasing opportunities to participate in their societies, in preparation for responsible adulthood.


Four of the convention’s 41 substantive articles have been given special emphasis because they are basic to the implementation of all rights contained in it. Known as the convention’s ‘general principles’, these articles are:


  • Article 2: All rights guaranteed by the convention must be available to all children without discrimination of any kind.
  • Article 3: The best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children.
  • Article 6: Every child has the right to life, survival and development.
  • Article 12: The child’s view must be considered and taken into account in all matters affecting him or her.


Two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have been created in recent years:




The convention reflects a new vision of the child and childhood. Children are neither the property of their parents nor the helpless objects of charity.  They are human beings and the subject of their own rights. The convention offers a vision of the child as a strong, competent 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 recognising children’s rights in this way, the convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.

Committee on the Rights of the Child

Governments that ratify the convention must report regularly to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the body of experts charged with monitoring how states implement the convention. These reports outline the situation of children in the country and explain the measures taken by the state to realise their rights. In its reviews of states’ reports, the CRC urges all levels of government to use the convention as a guide in policymaking and implementation. Since protecting human rights is by nature an endless process, there is always room for improvement.
The creation of a body of rights for children and the question of what children’s rights really mean and how they can best be realised continues to be contested. Promotion of children’s rights is based in part on a recognition that awareness of children’s vulnerability and thus need for special protection has not prevented them from suffering as a consequence of decisions made in the adult world around them. Compassion for the plight of children has often led to their being viewed collectively and treated as objects of charity rather than as individual human beings with their own strengths and abilities, their own needs and rights.


As a consequence, the issues surrounding children have often been deemed non-political and have failed to be addressed. The basic principle of the rights of the child is that society has an obligation to satisfy the fundamental needs of children and to provide assistance for the development of children’s personalities, talents and abilities.


The creation of a convention on the rights of the child reflects a generally accepted rule that the greater the awareness of rights, the more chance there is of securing them. Through the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the human rights of the child are clear, coherent and comprehensive. The defining of children’s rights in this way is a pre-condition for their being respected and adhered to.

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