The Rights of the Child

In 1990 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was opened for signing and ratifying by UN member states. In the same year, this international treaty entered into force, marking the shortest interval between signature and ratification for any UN treaty except the UN Charter. But how did the idea of “children’s rights” become a central concern for the global community, and what are the major categories of children’s rights that impact on contemporary life?

Protection Rights

The concept of “children’s rights” emerged in the nineteenth century when social reformers began advocating protection for children in the workplace and the first theorists of children’s rights articulated principles for the treatment of children based upon their status as a vulnerable class. Swedish educator Ellen Key (1849-1926) argued in The Century of the Child (1900) that the education of children required transformation so that it focused on the nurturing of the child’s personality and the cultivation of their potential to do good. An early advocate of day care for children, Key believed that women could maintain roles in the economy while still helping children realize their potential as human beings. In a similar vein, Polish doctor and educational theorist Janusz Korczak authored major works which emphasized the dignity and respect that children should expect from adults based upon a thorough understanding of the child’s individual characteristics and unique emotional needs.

Implementing his educational reforms at the two Warsaw orphanages he directed, Korczak argued in TheChild’s Right to Respect (1929) that reforming the educational system would require that adults relinquish total control and power over children. At the two Warsaw orphanages he directed, Korczak implemented his educational vision, helping children develop their own system of self-government and a public forum for their writing in a weekly supplement to the Jewish daily Nasz Przeglad.

In the United States progressive thinkers such as John Dewey published major works that reflected a deep commitment to child-centered education, beginning with The School and Society (1899) and continuing for decades to come. Like Key and Korczak, Dewey contended that children learned best in an environment where their interests and needs could be explored and nurtured over time, based upon the work of educational psychologists who contended that children developed in distinct and observable stages. This concept of the “right to develop” became a bedrock principle of the earliest efforts in articulating children’s rights and has remained a core element of children’s rights theory and practice since its origins in the late nineteenth century.

Protection of children in the workplace had been a major concern of social reformers beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century when governmental commissions in Great Britain examined the horrific working conditions faced by children in factory environments, eventually leading to passage of the Factory Acts by Parliament in 1833. Middle-class reformers in Europe and the United States made important strides during the period 1890-1920 to protect children from dangers in the workplace, documenting in print and photographs the dangerous and debilitating working conditions for children in both agricultural and industrial settings. Their efforts also focused on helping poor children and their families improve their quality of life through the passage of minimum wage laws, maternal health legislation, and laws that regulated the hours and conditions of work for children, most of them at the state level in the United States. Beginning as efforts to “save children” from what reformers saw as breeding grounds for criminal behavior and from patterns of abuse and neglect in emerging industrial slums, the field of child advocacy became a more “professional” endeavor by the first two decades of the twentieth century when social reformers applied ideas and principles from education, psychology, and sociology to their work on behalf of children. Creation of the US Children’s Bureau in 1912 was a landmark event in this developing professionalism, signaling the commitment of the US federal government to systematic study and advocacy of children at the national level.

Juvenile justice was another major area of child protection work, and the first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899. By removing children from the consequences of the adult justice system, particularly incarceration with adults in jails and prisons, the juvenile justice reform movement argued that children who had broken the law required special, differentiated treatment because they were juveniles who were still in the process of development and had not yet become adults. Protection of juveniles through the creation of a separate justice system thus furthered the perception that children possessed rights separate from, but no less important than those of adults.

Provision Rights

By the 1920s international organizations had been formed that advocated the development of international treaties in the field of child protection. Between 1919 and 1922, the International Labour Organization (ILO) developed and opened for signature by states-parties three conventions (treaties) regarding child protection: The ILO Convention Fixing the Minimum Age for Admission of Children to Industrial Employment (1919), the Convention Regarding the Night Work of Young Persons Employed in Industry (1919) and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children (1922). These were the first international treaties that expressly addressed the protection of children, and they drew their inspiration from efforts in individual countries (and in individual US states) to protect children in the workplace and to support their development into productive, healthy adults.

Simultaneous with the movement towards international standards for workplace protections, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were created to specifically advocate on behalf of children. Although social reformers in specific countries had organized NGOs on behalf of children since the nineteenth century (for example, the Children’s Aid Society in the United States), the first major international organization whose mandate was focused primarily on securing universal rights for children was the Save the Children Fund. Founded by British philanthropist Eglantyne Jebb, Save the Children originated in Jebb and her supporters’ efforts to relieve famine for victims of the First World War. Between the period 1919 and 1924, Save the Children attempted to rally support for famine relief efforts on behalf of between four and five million children in Europe, the Soviet Union and the former Ottoman Empire. From the outset Jebb was an untiring advocate for the universal rights of children, which she developed into a “children’s charter” in 1923. By 1924, following the creation of the Save the Children International Union, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the children’s charter had been retitled the “Declaration of the Rights of the Child,” which stands as the first major statement of universal children’s rights and which became the forerunner for all subsequent international children’s rights conventions and treaties. Included in the Declaration are rights guarantees that move beyond protection and encompass the second major category of children’s rights, namely provision. Here are the five universal rights which the Declaration contends all children should be guaranteed, with the appropriate rights category indicated in parentheses following the rights statement:

  1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually (provision);
  2. The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored. (protection and provision);
  3. The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress. (provision);
  4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation. (provision and protection)’
  5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow-men. (protection).

The Declaration of Geneva made plain the need for provision rights, particularly those which helped children who otherwise would not have the capacity to either survive or develop normally. Informed by the European acceptance of the idea of “social security,” provision rights came into their own in the United States during the post-World War I period, when the New Deal embraced the concept of provision rights in the 1935 Social Security Act, which also included provisions for disabled children.

Provision rights became even more critical in the aftermath of the widespread destruction resulting from World War II, when millions of children had suffered from the ravages of war and genocide. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the subsequent protocols of 1977 included articles dealing with protection and provision, as had the Declaration of Geneva. Children were now recognized as a general category of victims of war in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and as a targeted population in the 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions. With the creation of the United Nations in 1945, substantial resources and political support were leveraged on behalf of children, not only by individual world governments, but by UN agencies such as UNICEF and many other non-governmental organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. With broad-based international support, the United Nations and its constituent agencies worked systematically to provide for the needs of children, whether they were refugees (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), suffering from debilitating diseases (World Health Organization) or lacking fundamental social services, such as medical care, immunizations and access to public education (UNICEF). By the late 1970s the momentum for creation of an international treaty that would address the broad range of children’s rights (protection, provision, and participation) had resulted in the presentation by the government of Poland to the UN Commission on Human Rights of a draft treaty concerning the rights of children. Based in part on the 1959 U. N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child, but moving substantially beyond that limited statement of ten key principles, the draft Convention on the Rights of the Child would require ten years of work before being submitted to the UN General Assembly for debate.

Participation Rights

During the ten-year period when the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was drafted (1979-1989), the Convention’s authors recognized that this new international treaty needed to move beyond the traditional categories of protection and provision rights if children were to become actively involved in not only asserting their fundamental human rights, but in creating societies where the broad range of human rights would be guaranteed. Participation rights, meaning those that allow the child to develop into an active citizen in a democratic society, had been conceptualized to some degree earlier in the twentieth century, when theorists such as Janusz Korczak had implemented model structures of self-government that respected the rights of children to make decisions that affected them directly and that prepared them for assumption of adult citizenship responsibilities. In the USA decisions of the United States Supreme Court during the 1950s and 1960s, notably those which supported full access of all children to education under the 14th amendment (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas) and others which advocated rights to freedom of expression under the first amendment (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District) lent weight to expansion of children’s participation rights. During the drafting of the CRC, the treaty’s authors interpreted participation rights as referring to children as a group (i. e., the children of a specific world state, or ethnic/cultural group) and to individual children (i. e., a child who is orphaned, or an individual refugee child). For the first time in an international human rights instrument dealing with children, the authors included an article that requires that the child be listened to regarding matters that affect the child’s welfare (Article 12 of the CRC). Thus, whether the issue concerns child protection, provision by the state of fundamental social services to children, or guarantees of participation in the child’s process of development into adulthood, states-parties who have ratified the CRC have committed themselves to participation by children in deliberations about their welfare that for centuries had been the sole prerogative of adults.

Drafting the Children’s Convention

The drafting process for the CRC was conducted in a unique manner because the drafting group agreed that all articles of the Convention should be approved by consensus. Any article in the draft treaty that was objectionable to one of the drafting nations was either rewritten or dropped in an effort to develop a final document that would be acceptable to all nations and constitute a set of broad international standards applicable across the globe. That being said, the CRC must be viewed as a set of minimum standards in the area of children’s rights, and the treaty’s authors recognized that in individual UN member states, higher standards may have already been attained in the area of national or international legal rights. Article 41 of the CRC recognizes that situation and makes clear that nothing in the CRC should be interpreted as leading to a reduction in rights guarantees already in place in any UN member state.

Since 1990 when the Convention entered into force following its ratification by a sufficient number of UN member states, three optional protocols for the Convention have been developed addressing specific children’s rights issues:  the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (entry into force in 2002), the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (entry into force in 2002), and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure (not yet ratified by sufficient UN member states to enter into force).  The development of these protocols is clear evidence that the international community views children’s rights as an evolving, dynamic set of rights which must be responsive to emerging issues and problems in the global community.


The fifty-four articles in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child constitute the broadest set of international human rights standards ever developed for children. As evidence of its worldwide significance, only one world government has not ratified the CRC: the United States of America. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body created to monitor the CRC, has established a systematic process for gathering and responding to reports from UN member states concerning progress these states have made towards meeting the standards set forth in the convention. The reports prepared for the Committee on the Rights of the Child as well as the commentaries by non-governmental organizations on individual country reports are available at, the web site of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.[1]

(This summary is an edited version of the content prepared by William R. Fernekes for the curriculum module on children’s rights available on the Global Citizen 2000 website, available at 


Related Human Rights Instruments

[1] [1]For further discussion of the rights of the child, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 277: