UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

In 1959, the United Nations followed the League of Nations' precedent by adopting a Declaration of the Rights of the Child. However, the declaration's articles advocating the well-being of children in education, health, and protection were nonbinding; states were not legally accountable for their treatment of children. Inspired by the United Nation's International Year of the Child (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the General Assembly in 1989 and went into effect the following year. The first CHILDREN'S RIGHTS instrument to obligate states to legally comply with its provisions, the Convention became the UN's most ratified treaty, with 191 states becoming party to its provisions. Only two, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified it. To monitor treaty compliance, ratifying states are required to supply scheduled reports to an expert committee, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which reviews the state's fulfillment of its obligations. Further strengthening international law regarding pressing issues of children's rights, the General Assembly adopted two Protocols to the CRC in 2000: the Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Pornography, and Child Prostitution.

Defining a child as every individual below the age of eighteen, the CRC addresses the child's well-being in forty articles and establishes certain rights, prohibitions, and procedural guidelines. The Convention's fundamental requirement is that the state primarily consider the child's best interests in all its actions concerning children. Among the Convention's provisions are a child's right to life and healthy development without discrimination; to a name and nationality; to free compulsory education; to freedom of expression, thought, conscience, and religion; to the right to enjoy one's own culture, language, and religion; and the general right to receive information. The Convention also confirms the primary rights of parents or guardians concerning their child's care, healthy development, and moral direction; the state is nevertheless obligated to safeguard the child against physical or mental violence, neglect, and exploitation, including sexual abuse.

The Convention expands a state's responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of a child, ranging from improving adoption procedures to encouraging the mass media to disseminate information socially and culturally beneficial to the child. States must also ensure the child's access to the highest attainable standard of health and treatment of illness, including action to reduce infant and child mortality, eradicate certain diseases, guarantee appropriate maternal prenatal and postnatal health care, and provide special protection to children exposed to armed conflict. Under the CRC, states recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development. The Convention also establishes rights regarding children accused or convicted of crime, including prohibitions against torture and degrading punishment, the right to due process and the presumption of innocence, and the abolition of capital punishment or life imprisonment without possibility of parole for crimes committed before the age of eighteen.

See also: Child Abuse; International Organizations; Juvenile Justice: International.


Andrews, Arlene Bowers, and Natalie Hevener Kaufman, eds. 1999. Implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Standard of Living Adequate for Development. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Harris-Short, Sonia. 2003. "International Human Rights Law: Imperialist, Inept and Ineffective? Cultural Relativism and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child." Human Rights Quarterly 25: 130–181.

Holmström, Lei, ed. 2000. Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: Third to Seventeenth Session, 1993–1998. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute Series of Intergovernmental Human Rights Documentation, vol. 1. The Hague; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Schabas, William A. 1996. "Reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child." Human Rights Quarterly 18: 472–491.


Defense for Children International. 2003. Available from http://defence-for-children.org/.

Human Rights Watch. 2003. Available from www.hrw.org.

United Nations. 1989. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available from www.hri.ca/uninfo/treaties/index.shtml.

United Nations. 2003. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights–Children's Rights. Available from www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/isschild.htm.