United Nations International Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989

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Last modified: 12/10/18 Author: In-house law team

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The United National International Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a major treaty regarding the human rights provisions for children, containing 54 Articles which together establish that children are recognised as having inalienable civil, political, social, health, economic, and cultural rights. At current the UNCRC has been signed by 140 countries, although 196 countries are party to it, meaning that they recognise and acknowledge the effect of the majority of the contents of the UNCRC.

Why Introduced

During a time which saw heavy focus on the developing concept of universal and inalienable human rights, there was disagreement between countries as to how such rights could be recognised and formalised. The UNCRC represents one such step in creating more universal rights, by recognising the rights of minors, obligating signatories to protect the interests of children and recognising that, by virtue of their young age, children are entitled to ‘special care and assistance’ (UNCRC Preamble). The UNCRC was intended to provide a framework in international public law for giving rights and protections to children, regardless of any disparities.


The UNCRC provides that although parents are allowed to choose how they raise their children, all children possess basic rights such as the express right to life, the right to survive and develop, the right to a unique identity and name, and the right to receive protection from any abuse or exploitation by others.

Furthermore, the UNCRC provides that children have the right to possess and express an opinion, the right that such opinions should be reasonably listened to, the right to receive an education, the right to privacy, the right to free thought, conscience and religion, and the right to a relationship with both of their parents (regardless of their living circumstances or the parents’ relationship with each other, unless such a relationship would run contrary to the best interests of the child).

Alongside these specific provisions of rights to children, the UNCRC aims to facilitate a suitable environment for children, for instance by encouraging signatories to provide assistance in childcare to working parents, ensuring that the social welfare system and social services in the state are competent and effective, providing proper healthcare to the child and their carers, and by promulgating child-appropriate media.

Notably, three optional protocols have been added to the Convention since it first came into effect: the first restricts the use of children in armed military conflicts; the second bans child slavery and the sale of children, and further prohibits child involvement in prostitution or pornography; the third regards the communicative procedures for the making of complaints in relation to the Convention.


Although most countries generally recognised the need to have specific protections in place for children, the UNCRC provided a formal and wide-ranging document. Significantly, it is this Convention that elevated children’s rights. The degree to which the UNCRC altered the specific laws of a state is entirely dependent on the nature and extent of the state’s pre-existing child protection provisions, however many view that this Convention had a greater impact in several less economically developed countries where there may be cultural differences regarding perceptions of the capacity of children to work.

Moreover, some view the UNCRC as prohibiting the application of the death penalty to children, as Article 19 requires that ‘all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures [be taken] to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence’ which was interpreted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2006 as including violence in the form of capital punishment.

The United Nations is currently the chief party responsible for overseeing the UNCRC’s operation. However, notably, the UNCRC is considered relatively unique amongst international treaties in that it directly recognises the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in ensuring the implementation and monitoring of the UNCRC, as per Article 45(a).

Key Sections

Article 1 defines a child as any person under the age of eighteen years, unless the state has legislation in place recognising an alternative age of majority (the age at which a person is recognised as a legal adult and receives full legal control and responsibility).

Article 2(!) expressly provides that all the protections found in the UNCRC ought be given to all children, ‘without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.’ Per Article 2(2), it is similarly prohibited for such discrimination to occur ‘on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members’.

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