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Children's Rights

Universal Standards On The Rights Of Children

In 1959, the United Nations approved a modest but much-cited ten-point Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In the early 1970s, writers John Holt and Richard Farson both promulgated bills of rights for children, as did New York attorneys Henry Foster and Doris Jonas Freed.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the United Nations proclaimed 1979 the International Year of the Child and embarked on a decade-long project to place into international treaty form the values contained in the declaration. What emerged in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is a comprehensive compilation of rights of children—including civil-political, economic-social-cultural, and humanitarian—for all nations of the world to use as a common agreement on the minimum rights that governments should guarantee to children. The Convention represented a turning point in how children are viewed. It shifted the emphasis from simply protecting children and serving their needs to respecting their individual rights. The basic rights outlined in the Convention are presented in Table 1.

Prior to this, there had been more than eighty international legal instruments developed over a sixty-year period that in some way addressed the special status of children. However, the new convention is the ultimate articulation of children's rights in the sense that when nations ratify it they become bound by its provisions. The many articles of the convention stress the importance of actions being in the best interests of the child; recognize the child's evolving capacities; provide protection to the child from abuse, neglect, and exploitation; address the child's civil rights and rights in the juvenile justice system; affect the child's ability to be heard and represented meaningfully in official actions; focus on the child's right to an adequate education, standard of living, health and rehabilitative care, mental health, adoption, and foster care services; place importance on the child's access to diverse intellectual, artistic, and recreational resources; and protect children from involvement in armed conflict.

By 2001, the Convention had been ratified by all but two member nations of the UN, including almost all the world's democracies. The two member states that have not ratified the treaty are Somalia and the United States. In February 1995 the United States signed the Convention and then passed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for consideration. Consent for ratification has been delayed in the Senate because of a lengthy legal and constitutional review process and concerns by some over the Convention's social impact. Those opposed to ratification suggested that the Convention would weaken U.S. national and state sovereignty, and would lessen the authority of parents by allowing international bodies such as the UN to dictate how children in the United States should be raised. Roger Levesque (1996) argued that the Convention would be divergent with current U.S. jurisprudence and social policy and would represent a radical new view of children and families. Others asserted that the Convention is sufficiently protective of U.S. federal and state law and that it does emphasize the importance of family authority.


TABLE 1 Rights covered in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
Family environment
Rights to live with parents; rights to be reunited if separated from parents; rights to be provided with alternative care if necessary
Basic health and welfare
Rights of disabled children; rights to health and healthcare; rights to social security, rights to childcare; and rights to an adequate standard of living
Education and cultural activities
Rights to education; rights to play; rights to leisure and participation in cultural life and the arts
Civic rights and freedom
Rights to a name and nationality; rights to access to information; rights to freedom of expression, of thought, and of association; right not to be subjected to torture
Special protections
Rights of refugees, rights of children caught in conflict, rights of children in juvenile justice system; rights of children deprived of their liberty or suffering economic, sexual, or other exploitation

Although by 2001 the Convention had been officially ratified by 191 nations, at that time few countries had developed concrete plans for its implementation. This has caused some to worry that the Convention will have more symbolic than practical impact. The treaty has spurred the construction of a variety of other children's rights documents around the world. For instance, in 1990 Africa signed the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children. This document covers the same domain of rights as the Convention on the Rights of the Child but adds some specific articles that deal with local African concerns such as protections against child trafficking and prohibitions against apartheid. The African Charter was officially ratified by sixteen African states in 1999. In 1990 the Riyadh Guidelines were also signed. These guidelines emphasize the importance of an active voice for children in decision making. A variety of legal and institutional reforms concerning children's rights have also been put in place since the passage of the Convention in areas as diverse as Sri Lanka, Rwanda, South America, and Europe. For instance, in 1988 Brazil passed the Statute on the Child and Adolescent that promoted children's rights to protection, freedom from harm, and participation in society. In October of 1996, Jamaica and sixteen other countries in the Caribbean areas signed a Commitment to Action to improve national capacities to support children.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodChildren's Rights - Historical Roots Of The Children's Rights Movement, Universal Standards On The Rights Of Children