The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an international treaty – an agreement between all the countries that have signed it – which was developed specifically for children. Children also have all the rights in other international human rights treaties, but the UNCRC includes additional rights which only children need because of their age and development. When a country ratifies (signs up to) a treaty, it takes on legal obligations under international law. The UNCRC is the most ratified human rights treaty in the world.
The UNCRC is made up of 54 articles and applies to all those aged 18 years and under. It includes the right to education, the right to play, the right to food, health and housing, the right to respect for privacy and family life and the right to be free from violence and abuse. It has four guiding principles (General Principles) which are rights in themselves but also the framework through which all the rights in the UNCRC should be interpreted.
- non-discrimination (article 2);
- the best interests of the child (article 3);
- survival and development (article 6); and
- respect for the views of the child (article 12).
You can read about the rights protected by the Convention here.
All children should be able to enjoy all the rights in the UNCRC, without discrimination on the basis of disability, sex, race, religion, age or sexual orientation, and whatever the circumstances in which they live or are cared for.
The UK ratified the UNCRC in December 1991. It has not been made part of domestic law, so not all the protections included in the UNCRC are included in British laws, and children cannot go to court and claim their rights by relying only on the UNCRC. However, as international law, governments are supposed to implement the UNCRC, so all public bodies and those who make decisions and policies that affect children should consider the UNCRC when doing so.
The UNCRC also has 3 ‘Optional Protocols’ (OPs). These contain rights in addition to the UNCRC. Optional Protocols are treaties in their own right, so states can sign and ratify them like other human rights treaties.
This OP aims to prevent the use of children in armed conflict and to increase their legal protection. It states that the minimum age for children to take part in hostilities should be 18. It also prohibits the compulsory recruitment by governments forces of any child under 18, and asks governments to raise the minimum age for the voluntary recruitment into armed forces to above 15 years of age, and to implement safeguards when the voluntary recruitment of children under 18 years is allowed. Its ultimate aim is to stop the recruitment and use of children as soldiers. The UK government signed up to this OP in 2003.
This OP prohibits acts relating to the sale, trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation of children. It includes minimum standards for protecting child victims in criminal justice processes and recognizes the right of victims to seek compensation. It encourages stronger international cooperation and assistance and extra-territorial legislation. The UK government signed up to this OP in 2009.
This protocol, usually known as OP3 CRC, is a ‘complaints procedure’ which allows a child or a group of children, or their representatives, to bring a complaint directly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child if their rights have been violated and if they cannot find a remedy in their own country. The Committee can then investigate the claims, issue a decision and ask governments to take action.
The UK has not yet signed up to OP3 CRC, but CRAE and other children’s rights organisations have been asking it to. An international coalition of child rights organisations are campaigning for all states that are signatories to the UNCRC to ratify OP3.
For more information on OP3 CRC, go to the Child Rights Connect mini-site.
Implementing the UNCRC
The UNCRC says that states have to take legal, administrative and other measures to implement the rights in the Convention. Legal measures are necessary so that decisions that go against children’s rights can be challenged in court. Non legal measures, such as carrying out Child Rights Impact Assessments, are needed to ensure that children’s rights are taken into consideration when making policy and budgetary decisions.
The UNCRC also states that governments have to disseminate information on the UNCRC, so it is widely known and understood, by both adults and children, and that government reports on children’s rights should be made public. These actions are referred to as ‘General Measures of Implementation’ (GMI). Read about the policy and campaigning work we do on GMIs here.