In most cultures children are considered vulnerable and defenseless, and therefore deserving of special protection and treatment. However, throughout history millions of children have suffered or died due to starvation, disease, poverty, exploitation, or war. The emphasis on the protection of children started at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it is still evolving. The creation of international governmental organizations (IGOs), specifically the United Nations (UN) and its subagencies, religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), was propelled by the tragedy of the two world wars, primarily to provide humanitarian food and assistance to children in need. In 1950 there were only a handful of organizations working together to contribute to the improvement of the lives of children; today there are thousands.
The Emergence of IGOs
The League of Nations was established as an attempt to provide collective international security after World War I. However, the League's Covenant, adopted in 1920, did address some children's issues, such as providing humane labor conditions and halting the trafficking of women and children. The League failed to achieve its objectives, however, and disbanded when the victors of World War II created the United Nations in 1945.
The initial task of providing emergency aid to several hundred million people at the end of World War II, especially the housing and feeding of children, was given to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In 1945, these functions were progressively transferred to newly created specialized UN agencies, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the International Refugee Organization (which became the UN High Commission for Refugees in 1951). The UN International Children's Emergency Fund (now called the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF), was created in 1946 and, with offices in 126 countries, is now the principal UN agency for promoting and advocating children's rights. UNICEF works with UN agencies and NGOs to provide millions of children with food, medicine, and basic education.
Two new units created in the 1950s also work on programs targeting children: the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). UNHCR has helped an estimated fifty million people since it began operations in 1950, and it continues working with approximately 20 million refugees annually, 80 percent of whom are women and children. UNDP began in 1959, and is today one of the most important UN agencies. It provides multilateral and development aid to developing nations. Several IGOs, including UNICEF and UNHCR, and one NGO, the International Red Cross, have earned Nobel Peace Prizes for their efforts to promote and protect children.
There has been significant progress on children's rights issues since the League of Nations and UN were founded. IGOs and NGOs have worked together to help codify international laws and legal norms that define the legal rights of the child.
The first legal instrument specifically targeting children was the Minimum Age Convention in 1919. Two years later the League of Nations passed the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children. The basic rights of children, including protection from exploitation, were first stated in the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was created to help Balkan children refugees.
After the League of Nations dissolved, the UN became the primary vehicle for the creation of international laws to protect the basic needs of children. This is done either through global conventions hosted by the UN or through UN General Assembly resolutions.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This declaration outlines basic political, economic, and social rights for all people. Among the children's rights that are included are those guaranteeing a free elementary education, an adequate standard of living, and social protections. These rights are meant to include those born out of wedlock, which is still controversial in many cultures.
A 1954 UN resolution and a 1962 treaty on marriage both declare that child marriages are illegal if the participants have not reached the age of puberty. The Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959) calls upon governments and civil society to provide children with access to education, health care and good nutrition. In 1965, the UN specified that the minimum age for marriage should be fifteen years old or older (with some exceptions).
In the 1970s, treaties and children's services began to reflect the child's perspective, rather than that of the parents or the state. For example, the UN Declaration on Foster Placement and Adoption (1986) gives children rights over their parents if their physical and emotional needs are not met. In 1988 the plight of child refugees unaccompanied by adults led UNHCR to establish its Guidelines on Refugee Children.
By far the most important treaty protecting children is the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This is the most ratified convention in the world, and it is the first to combine economic, political, civil, and social rights for children. Two optional protocols, one eliminating the sale of children, child prostitution, and childpornography, and the other dealing with the involvement of children in armed conflicts, were added in 2002. It is estimated these new laws impact over 300,000 children serving as soldiers, servants, or sex slaves.
A UN review of the progress on children's rights during the 1990s shows progress in some areas and deterioration in others. Positive developments include millions of additional children in school; increasing gender equality, especially in education and health; the near eradication of polio; and children living longer and healthier lives. Violations of children's rights are increasingly gaining government and public attention, thanks to the passage of the CRC and the work being done by international organizations, NGOs, and the media. For example, multinational companies have faced public protests and boycotts as a result of their employment of child laborers.
However, at the beginning of the new millennium, 100 million children were still out of school (60 percent of them girls). Fifty million children were working in intolerable forms of labor, while 30 million more were being trafficked for sexual exploitation. In addition, 10 million children die annually from preventable causes; 150 million children suffer from malnutrition; and HIV/AIDS has infected millions of children. It is estimated that 30 million children will be orphaned by AIDS by 2010.
Despite efforts to provide assistance to children, and the many legal instruments that protect them, children living in poverty, in conflict zones, or in developing countries face many difficulties. Millions live in pervasive poverty, lacking access to proper sanitation, drinking water, education, or hope for a future. War, corruption, and foreign debt often prevent governments from financing the basic needs of children. Unfortunately, international organizations lack adequate funding to provide protection to all children.
See also: Child Labor in Developing Countries; Child Labor in the West; Juvenile Justice: International; Soldier Children; War in the Twentieth Century; Work and Poverty.
United Nations. 2002. We the Children: End-Decade Review of the Follow-up to the World Summit for Children. New York: United Nations Publications.
Van Bueren, Geraldine, ed. 1993. International Documents on Children. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Ziring, Lawrence, Robert E. Riggs, and Jack C. Plano. 2000. The United Nations: International Organization and World Politics. Orlando, FL: Harcourt College Publishers.
UNICEF. 2002. "About UNICEF." Available from <www.unicef.org/uwwide>.
UNICEF. 2002. "United Nations Special Session on Children." Available from <www.unicef.org/specialsession.html>.
United Nations. 1997. "Convention on the Rights of the Child." Available from <www.unhcr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm>.
Sonja L. Taylor