United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

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United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child


By: United Nations General Assembly

Date: November 20, 1989

Source: United Nations General Assembly. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. United Nations, November 20, 1989.

About the Author: The phrase "United Nations" was used during World War II (1939–1945) to describe the dozens of nations allied together to fight Germany and Japan, most notably including China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America. These allies decided to develop a new organization to facilitate international cooperation and help prevent future wars. It would replace the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent World War II. They called it the United Nations (UN). The UN Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. In the years since the UN has served as a forum for international negotiation and cooperation on many issues, including international security, human rights, trade and economics, and the environment. The General Assembly is the primary body for deliberation within the United Nations, in which all member nations have a seat.


In response to growing international concerns governing the treatment, handling, and rights of children, the United Nations proposed the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In 1999, the CRC—ratified on November 20, 1989—ranked as the single most endorsed human rights treaty, and as of 2006 the United States and Somalia are the only two countries who have not signed it. The treaty, seeking to provide safe harbor for children, shows a continuation in twentieth-century history to expand and solidify the rights of minors.

The question of children's rights precedes the twentieth century. Though the United States did not have a concise program for children's rights as of 2006, it has taken action throughout its history. In 1852, Massachusetts mandated that children attend school. Also in the mid-1800s, Orphan Trains began transporting parentless children westward across the United States in an effort to keep them off the streets and out of factories. The Orphan Trains subsided in the early twentieth century, but their principles extended to other realms of society. Civic organizations such as the Masons and other groups established homes for orphan children. These group homes also existed in Europe and other areas outside the United States.

Other reforms for child labor concerned restricting the working hours of women and children. The state of Oregon enacted such a law in 1903 that was upheld in the 1908 Muller v. Oregon ruling. But, issues with child labor were not the only prevailing issues concerning the rights of children.

In World War II (1938–1945) and other wars, children fought in the battle zones, acting as couriers, intelligence collectors, and in underground resistance groups. One example of child resisters during World War II can be seen from Poland. Here, children often traveled in large groups, committing acts of violence to denounce Nazi control. A more memorable account of Polish children's wartime activities involved presenting Nazi personnel with flowers containing crushed glass. Pope John Paul II was a child resister in World-War-II-era Poland. In Nazi Germany, children worked to resist the regime, in some instances, but the government also recruited them to work in factories and do courier tasks throughout the country.

These wartime actions are just one realm of the abuses of children. Street children, those deemed homeless or without adequate parental control and guidance, are a large segment of the child population who continually fall outside of mainstream society and civil rights. In countries like Guatemala, Egypt, Brazil, and Columbia, these children are randomly gathered up and confined in jail cells for several days or weeks. Frequently, police or adult prisoners beat them, sexually abuse them, and deny them food and water. Guatemala has established a system to help street children report instances of abuse by police and law enforcement officials, but of three hundred cases, less than half have been brought to prosecution. A variety of other countries have problems with street children, and they are often thought of as anti-social and dangerous.

In an effort to eradicate these crimes against children and to protect children within the global environment, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) consists of independent experts who review reports, examine issues, and propose protocols for change. The first report must be submitted within two years of ascending to the Committee, and then afterward a study must be delivered every five years. It meets in Geneva three times per year.


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In addition to the 1989 treaty, the CRC has enacted two optional protocols. One is for the removal of children in armed conflict; the other is to prevent the sale of children and use of children in prostitution or pornography. All states are required to submit a report on children's rights. These additional sections of the treaty came about in 1996 in response to a special UN report about children in war zones and the recruitment of children under fifteen to serve in militaries. Additionally, the International Criminal Court (ICC) adopted the war statute, and in 1997 the Mine Ban Treaty was ratified. The Mine Ban Treaty also stems from studies of children in war zones, and it directly addresses the issues of children (and adults) encountering land mines left over from previous battles or recently placed ones. The treaty argues that land mines can be more detrimental after a battle has completed because unknowing individuals stumble upon these devices, losing life or limb.

Even though the CRC treaty has been overwhelmingly signed, many violations of children's rights continue to occur. In 2004, a group of children aged two, three, seven, and eight were sentenced to three years in a Waziristan prison. Waziristan is a mountainous region in Northwest Pakistan. The children received jail time because under tribal law immediate family members of criminals can be jailed in their place. In the United States, polygamous unions occur with child brides as young as twelve or thirteen, and in India reports have noted that parents were willing to marry their twelve-year-old daughter to a fifty-year-old man to pay off a debt.

These instances of child mistreatment, and many others, are still prevalent worldwide. The CRC continually looks to expand its scope of power, but although many nations have signed the treaty, not all have fully complied with its statements.



Children's Human Rights: Progress and Challenges for Children Worldwide, edited by Mark Ensalaco and Linda C. Majka. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Guggenheim, Martin. What's Wrong With Children's Rights. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.


Cohen, Cynthia Price, Stuart N. Hart, and Susan M. Kosloske. "Monitoring the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: The Challenge of Information Management." Human Rights Quarterly 18, 2 (1996): 439-471.

Mason, Mary Ann. "The U.S. and the International Children's Rights Crusade: Leader or Laggard?" Journal of Social History 38, 4 (Summer 2005): 955-963.

Pitts, Lewis. "Fighting for Children's Rights: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement." University of Florida Journal of Law and Public Policy 16, 2 (August 2005): 337-360.

Web sites

Cornell Law School. "Children's Rights." 〈http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/index.php/Children's_Rights〉 (accessed May 4, 2006).

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United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child