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Children & youth

Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
National Protection and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources


Children's rights are comprehensively protected by a wide-ranging set of international and regional instruments spanning human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Children benefit from the rights contained in general treaties. In addition, a number of specialist instruments have been created to accord extra protection to children given their particular vulnerabilities and the importance to society as a whole in ensuring the healthy development and active participation of its young members.

The over-arching framework for children's rights is the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This was the first treaty specifically concerned with the rights of children and marked an important shift in thinking towards a "rights-based approach" which held governments legally accountable for failing to meet the needs of children. The Convention created a new vision of children as bearers of rights and responsibilities appropriate to their age rather than viewing them as the property of their parents or the helpless recipients of charity.

Children's rights cover four main aspects of a child's life: the right to survive; the right to develop; the right to be protected from harm, and the right to participate.

Who is a child?
The definition of a child under the CRC covers all human beings under the age of 18 unless the relevant national law recognises an earlier age of majority. However, the Convention emphasises that the substitution of an earlier age of majority must be in conformity with the spirit of the Convention and its guiding principles and thus should not be used to undermine the rights of a child.

There are no definitions of other terms used to describe young people such as "adolescents", "teenagers" or "youth" in international law. Some organizations have adopted working definitions to facilitate their programmatic work. The World Health Organisation, for example, has adopted the following working definitions: "adolescent" refers to any individual aged between 10-19 years; "young person" refers to any individual between 10-24 years; and "youth" to persons between the ages of 15-24 years.

In everyday language, the word "children" usually implies small children, especially those under ten years of age. It is important to note however that the CRC refers to all children by this term including those that one might normally refer to by other terms e.g. adolescents. The extensive provisions of the CRC apply to all persons under 18 but it may be that certain articles are of more relevance to small children e.g. basic survival while others are more significant for older children e.g. protection from sexual exploitation and military recruitment.

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Rights at Stake

Children's rights cover every aspect of the lives of children and adolescents and can be broken down into the following main categories: 

  • Survival rights: the right to life and to have the most basic needs met (e.g., adequate standard of living, shelter, nutrition, medical treatment).
  • Development rights: the rights enabling children to reach their fullest potential (e.g. education, play and leisure, cultural activities, access to information and freedom of thought, conscience and religion). 
  • Participation rights: rights that allow children and adolescents to take an active role in their communities (e.g., the freedom to express opinions; to have a say in matters affecting their own lives; to join associations).
  • Protection rights: rights that are essential for safeguarding children and adolescents from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation (e.g., special care for refugee children; protection against involvement in armed conflict, child labour, sexual exploitation, torture and drug abuse).

  • Specific issues:

    Child labour - children work for a variety of reasons in differing cultural, social and economic circumstances. Whether work is defined as exploitative will depend on a range of factors including the work itself, the work environment, the presence of particular hazards, the perceived benefits of work and the nature of the employment relationship. Gender also plays a role as girls and boys may be subjected to different forms of exploitative labour. Another important consideration is how work interferes with the right of a child to education. Some forms of child labour have clearly been identified as harmful and are often referred to as the "worst" forms of child labour e.g. sexual exploitation, military recruitment.

    Sexual exploitation - children and adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation given their dependency on others and their limited ability to protect themselves. Sexual abuse and exploitation can take a variety of forms including rape, commercial sexual exploitation and domestic abuse. Sexual exploitation has far-reaching effects for the physical and mental health of a child. It is estimated that 1 million children (mainly girls but also a significant number of boys) enter the multi-billion dollar sex trade each year.

    Military recruitment - An estimated 300,000 children and adolescents are engaged in armed conflict and are often forced into committing extremely brutal acts of violence. Children have a right to specific protection in situations of armed conflict.

    Juvenile justice - Children and adolescents held in custody for crimes may suffer torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, they may be unlawfully detained and be denied their right to a fair trial. They may be given sentences which damage their well-being and prevent their successful re-integration into society. The administration of juvenile justice is carried out in accordance with the best interests of the child.

    Rights granted to children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child must be implemented with regard to three key principles:

    Best interests - In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

    Non-discrimination - Each child's rights are ensured without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

    Participation - Children who arecapable of forming his or her own views have the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.


    Key Assistance Agencies

    Child rights are so broad and all encompassing that efforts to ensure their implementation are undertaken by a cross-section of organisations working in collaboration including governments, inter-governmental organisations, non-governmental organisations and private companies.

    United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
    Created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 to help children after World War II in Europe, UNICEF was first known as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. In 1953, UNICEF became a permanent part of the United Nations system, its task being to help children living in poverty in developing countries. Its name was shortened to the United Nations Children's Fund, but it retained the acronym "UNICEF," by which it is known to this day.

    UNICEF helps children to get the care and stimulation they need in the early years of life and encourages families to educate girls as well as boys. It strives to reduce childhood death and illness and to protect children in the midst of war and natural disaster. UNICEF supports adolescents, wherever they are, in making informed decisions about their own lives, and strives to build a world in which all children live in dignity and security.

    Working with national governments, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), other United Nations agencies and private-sector partners, UNICEF protects children and their rights by providing services and supplies and by helping shape policy agendas and budgets in the best interests of children.

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    International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

    International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is "signed" by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

    When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

    The binding treaties can be used to force governments to respect the treaty provisions that are relevant for the rights of children and youth. The non-binding instruments, such as declarations and resolutions, can be used in relevant situations to embarrass governments by negative public exposure; governments who care about their international image may consequently adapt their policies.

    The following international instruments protect and promote the rights of children and youth:


    Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
    The very first commitment to children's rights was the Declaration on the Rights of Child, known as the "Declaration of Geneva", which adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. The Declaration of Geneva was further revised and extended in 1948 and in 1959 led to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Child, which was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly of the United Nations (20 November 1959). This declaration was expanded and developed ultimately resulting in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989.

    The CRC contains 54 articles and is a comprehensive instrument setting out rights that define universal principles and norms for the status of children. It is the only international human rights treaty which covers the whole spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It includes economic and social rights with the recognition that these are progressively realisable and depend on the resources available to the state party.

    The CRC offers the highest standards of protection and assistance for minors compared to any other international instrument; For example, protection standards go beyond the usual guarantees of health, education and welfare, to guarantees which relate to the child's individual personality, rights to freedom of expression, religion, association, assembly, and the right to privacy.

    The Convention on the Rights of Child It is the most widely ratified of all human rights treaties. As of March 2003, it had been ratified by all countries in the world except the two: the United States which has signed but not ratified; and Somalia which does not have a recognised government able to ratify.

    Two optional protocols have been added in recent times and expand the protection accorded to children on two issues.

    Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (2000)
    This optional protocol is designed to criminalize activities that involve the sale and illegal adoption of children as well as child prostitution and child pornography. The protocol entered into force on 18 January 2002.

    Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (2000)
    This optional protocol states that 18 is the age at which direct participation in armed conflict is permitted. It also bans compulsory recruitment under the age of 18. However, it falls short of banning voluntary recruitment under 18 but requires States to make a declaration upon ratification stating the age at which national law permits voluntary recruitment and demonstrating the steps taken to ensure that such recruitment is not compulsory. The protocol entered into force on 12 February 2002.

    UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

    The CRC is monitored through a system of reporting by States parties to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This is a body of 18 independent experts who are elected to 4 year terms. It meets three times a year in Geneva and has a small permanent secretariat at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    The role of the committee is to examine progress made by states in fulfilling their obligations. It only has the power to consider information concerning countries which have ratified the convention. Governments are required to submit periodic reports. The Committee examines these reports at an oral hearing and also seeks information from external sources such as non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations. In fact it is the only international treaty giving NGOs an official monitoring role. The Committee does not examine individual complaints.

    Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, child prostitution and child pornography

    The UN Commission on Human Rights appointed in 1990 a Special Rapporteur on the Sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography who is responsible for preparing annual reports for the Commission, carrying out field visits and preparing country-specific reports.

    ILO Convention (138) concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (1973)
    This convention agreed in 1973 and upheld by the Committee on the Rights of the Child as an appropriate standard, provides principles which apply to all sectors of economic activity. Ratifying States are to fix a minimum age for admission to employment or work, undertake to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour, and raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level suitable with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons.

    Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with special reference to Foster Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally (1986)
    This declaration lays down important guidelines for the fostering and adoption, including inter-country adoptions, of children who lack appropriate parental care.

    ILO Convention (182) concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999)
    Various international conventions have been agreed under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation to protect labour rights. ILO Convention 182 bans the worst forms of child labour including slavery, sale and debt bondage, forced labour, recruitment for armed forces, prostitution, drug trafficking or other illicit activities, or other work which harms the health, safety or morals of children.

    Other UN human rights treaties and treaty bodies also apply to children. Some treaties and treaty bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination make specific reference to children. Other provisions apply equally to the protection of children's rights as they do those of adults.

    International humanitarian law and international refugee law

    The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their optional protocols which lay down the standards of international humanitarian law contain both specific and general provisions which protect the rights of children in conflict situations. The 1951 Refugee Convention likewise protects child asylum seekers and refugees.

    Under "norms of customary international law", all children can be protected, amongst other things, against: slavery and the slave trade; torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; systematic racial discrimination; prolonged arbitrary detention.

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    AFRICAN UNION (FORMERLY ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY, OAU) African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Child (1990)
    The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is an important regional instrument to protect an promote the rights of children. An African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child has recently beend established. This Committee will be empowered to receive state reports as well as communications from individuals, groups or non-governmental organizations recognised by the African Union, a member state or from the United Nations.  


    Neither the Organization of American States nor the European human rights system have specific instruments relating to children but a number of regional human rights instruments are as applicable to children as they are to adults, such as European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


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    National Protection and Service Agencies

    Countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) have agreed to review their laws relating to children and adolescents and to assess their social services, legal, health and educational systems as well as funding commitments to ensure that the best efforts are being made to meet their obligations under the convention. In some instances this has involved changing the law or creating new laws to conform with the requirements of the CRC. The Convention also specifically provides that where a country already has a higher standard than that set forth in the CRC, the former will prevail: "States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the present Convention. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources, and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation". (article 4 CRC) Governments have taken the following types of measures to implement the convention at national level:
    - Developed comprehensive national agenda
    - Developed permanent bodies or mechanisms for promote coordination of all sectors of government, monitoring and evaluation
    - Taken steps to ensure that all legislation is fully compatible with the CRC by incorporating it into domestic law or ensuring that its principles take precedence in cases of conflict with national legislation.
    - Carried out child impact assessments to ensure children are taking into account in planning and policy decisions
    - Analysed government spending to determine the portion of public funds spent on children and to ensure that these resources are being used effectively.
    - Carried out data collection
    - Raised awareness and disseminated information about the CRC
    - Involved civil society including children in the process of implementing and raising awareness of child rights.
    - Set up independent statutory offices - ombudspersons, commissions or other institutions - to promote and protect children's rights. Progress on implementation by particular countries can be found in the country reports submitted to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Two world summits on children, one in 1989 shortly after the Convention was agreed and the latest one in May 2002, have been convened to help governments work towards a practical plan of action to translate the Convention into a practical reality.

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    Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

    For advocates

    Children's Rights in the UN System of Human Rights Protection (Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights-Poland)
    The subject of this lesson plan is the catalogue of rights found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the functions of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the obligation of the State Parties to submit periodic reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the state of children's rights in the said country.

    The New ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999 (Anti-Slavery International)
    The publication outlines Convention 182 which defines the situations classified as the worst forms of child labour, as well as what governments must do to prohibit and eliminate them. Case studies of Togo and Guatemala are also illustrated in order to show how civil society groups can maximize action in eliminating child labour.

    For employers

    Employers' Handbook on Child Labour: A Guide for Taking Action (International Organization of Employers)
    This handbook is a reference manual for employers and their organisations to implement policies and programs in accordance with the International Labour Organization.

    For educators

    Children's Rights Here and Now (Amnesty International-USA)
    This lesson plan can be used to examine the situation regarding children's rights, using the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    Fields of Hope: Educational Activities on Child Labor. Teacher's Guide (American Center for International Labor Solidarity, AFL-CIO)
    This guide includes eight lessons intended for ages 12-15 (grade levels 6-8). The lessons are intended to enhance students' knowledge and understanding of child labor issues internationally, to develop skills in organising and using the information contained in the Fields of Hope web site and other sites devoted to child labor, and to foster attitudes of social responsibility.

    Lesson plan on refugee children (UNHCR)
    Lesson and Unit plan for teachers on refugees developed by UNHCR for ages 9-11 for civics.

    Raising Children With Roots, Rights & Responsibilities: Celebrating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (by Lori DuPont, Joanne Foley, Annette Gagliardi)
    This guide for a 12-week human rights curriculum builds on the power of the parent-child relationship. Themes of the sessions are: sharing a vision; whole child; equality; name and nationality; adequate standard of living; special protections; consideration and care; free education; play and culture; protection; expression and association; ratification and review.

    Teaching for Human Rights: Pre-school and Grades 1-4 (Ralph Pettman, with Joan Braham, Lynette Johnston, Elke Muzik, Kath Lock, Stephanie O'Laughlin Peters, Diana Smythe)
    This teacher manual provides specific suggestions, proven in practice, of what to do and why, for pre-school and lower primary teachers who want to foster children's feelings of self-esteem and social tolerance.

    Teaching for Human Rights: Grades 5-10 (Ralph Pettman, with Colin Henry)
    This teacher manual provides specific suggestions, proven in practice, of what to do and why, upper primary and secondary teachers who want to foster children's feelings of self-esteem and social tolerance.

    Ten messages about children with disabilities (UNICEF)
    Practical tips for to help children with disabilities learn in a safe and equitable environment.

    Our Book of Child Rights (Human Rights Education Programme-Pakistan)
    This colourful picture book is based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is intended to be used by students and teachers as an introduction to children's rights and responsibilities.

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    Other Resources

    Courses and training opportunities about children's rights

    International Day of the African Child (16 June)

    Universal Children's Day (20 November)

    World Day Against Child Labour (12 June)

    Organisations that promote and protect the rights of children & youth     



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    Key terms

    child - all human beings under the age of 18 unless the relevant national law recognises an earlier age of majority (Convention on the rights of the child)

    development rights - rights enabling children to reach their fullest potential

    participation rights - rights that allow children and adolescents to take an active role in their communities

    protection rights - rights that protect children and adolescents from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation


    Historical dates

    1924 - League of Nations adopts the Declaration on the Rights of Child

    1946 - United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, UNICEF, established (renamed to United Nations Children's Fund in 1953)

    1959 - Declaration on the Rights of the Child unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 November

    1989 - Convention on the Rights of the Child

    1990 - UN Special Rapporteur on sale of children, child prostition and child pornography appointed

    1990 - African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child adopted by the Organisation of African Unity


    This guide was developed by Asmita Naik.

    Copyright © Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), 2003. All rights reserved.


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