United Nations
Background Note

Children's Rights

There is no way to thoroughly enumerate the various ways in which children around the world are economically exploited and physically mistreated. But the numbers are great -- and the suffering widespread. Behind the hideous imagery -- of children beaten or sexually abused by parents; ravaged beyond their years by hard living and drug abuse on the streets; maimed by landmines or turned into killers by war; stricken with AIDS -- are the all-too-common struggles against disease, hardship, and family or social traditions that compromise children's humanity or subject them to physical and emotional suffering.

While victims of injustice and poverty have always had trouble being heard, none have had more trouble, historically, than children. Whether exploited as child labourers or prostitutes, drafted as young teenagers into armed forces, forced as young girls into a lonely life as domestic workers, deprived of an education to work on the family farm, or denied adequate nutrition and health care, children need help and protection from an adult world that perpetrates most of the abuse.

The Special Rapporteur's Role

To highlight the existence of the most egregious violations of international human rights law and encourage Governments to investigate particular cases, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has appointed a Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. The Special Rapporteur, an expert in the field, works to gather and analyse facts for the Commission.

The condition most common to children who suffer, or are deprived of, opportunity is the poverty resulting from economic injustice. "The most perverse form of denial of child rights is poverty, because poverty makes it impossible to satisfy those needs that are basic rights", says Tereza Albenez, Special Advisor to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

According to figures compiled by UNICEF -- the United Nations organization most directly concerned with children's issues -- there are now well over a dozen countries in which conditions for children are far below the norms to be expected for their levels of economic development. This includes such gauges as malnutrition levels; under-five mortality rates; percentage of children reaching the fifth grade of primary school; and low literacy rates for women.

In many poor countries, children work to supplement meagre family income or otherwise to help the family business. Although they may not always work under the most desirable conditions, most are not being intentionally exploited by their families. The real issue in such cases is not whether the children work or not, but whether the conditions under which they work are just, and whether they are being denied other basic rights because of their work -- such as the right to education, to freedom from abuse, and to proper health care.

Solving a Complex Dilemma

A number of those working on behalf of child rights have come to realize that in many of the poorer countries, if children are to stop working, some form of financial compensation must be found for their families.

One creative response to this kind of complex dilemma has come from Bangladesh. In reaction to United States Congressional legislation mandating a boycott of companies in the garment industry that use child labour, companies in the garment industry in Bangladesh began ousting children from their jobs -- as many as 50,000 in a four-month period. The result was that many of the children were worse off than they had been when they were working, having taken other, less desirable jobs or living in the street -- but not going to school.

In July 1995, after negotiations with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as UNICEF and the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding stipulating that BGMEA would ask "that no underaged worker will be terminated until the appropriate school programmes for the workers can be put in place".

UNICEF has committed itself to supporting the education of the children, and the ILO has pledged to contribute money and technical assistance to the establishment of a labour inspection system to monitor implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding. Under the agreement, stipends will be provided to child workers attending the school programmes. All parties also agreed to take steps "to create positive public awareness" with respect to issues of child labour and education.

Injustices Perpetrated by Adults

But the more direct injustices perpetrated largely by adults -- and manifested in the large numbers of children exploited as labourers and prostitutes or maimed by war -- require further public exposure and protective laws that are actually enforced.

In the last decade, an estimated two million children have been killed in armed conflict, many of them by some of the 100 million landmines thought to be concealed in 62 countries. A total of perhaps four to five million more have been disabled as a result of their experience in war, and more than 12 million have been made homeless.

As for child labour, while experts agree that there are few accurate statistics available, the best estimates from the ILO are that there are nearly 80 million children under 15 working as labourers. It is also estimated that the number of children under 18 involved in prostitution exceeds two million, one million of whom are in Asia and 300,000 in the United States.

"Poverty cannot be accepted as a pretext and justification for the exploitation of children," wrote Vitit Muntarbhorn, until 1995 the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. "It does not explain the huge global demand with, in many instances, customers from rich countries circumventing their national laws to exploit children in other countries. Sex tourism has spread its illicit wings wide, and paedophiles search for their victims in all parts of the globe. The problem is compounded by the criminal networks which benefit from the trade in children, and by collusion and corruption in many national settings".

Victimizing the Marginalized

"It has become increasingly obvious that many children used for labour and sexual exploitation are lured from particular racial or social groups, rather than from the well-endowed groups in power," the Special Rapporteur went on, in a January 1994 report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. "In South Asia, it is the children of the 'untouchables' who are most often victimized in child labour situations".

The Special Rapporteur said a field visit to Nepal showed that "it is primarily girls from hill-tribe groups in that country who are tricked and sold into prostitution, both local and transnational. The pattern is repeated in other parts of the world, where the children of minorities, migrant workers and/or indigenous peoples, who are already marginalized, are often the main victims of such exploitation".

The Special Rapporteur -- Mr. Muntarbhorn was succeeded by Mrs. O. Calcetas-Santos -- has often had difficulty obtaining information from Governments in response to queries about such matters as the sale and abduction of children; bonded labour; child prostitution; or sale of child organs. But in certain cases the Rapporteur's inquiries have added an international level of accountability in otherwise domestic cases.

Abuses Against Street Children

In August 1993, to cite one example, the Special Rapporteur communicated with the Brazilian Government concerning allegations of the exploitation and abuse of street children by law-enforcement officials. The officials were alleged to have killed eight street children and injured others in Rio de Janeiro in July 1993. The allegation followed a long list of others noted in the Special Rapporteur's report on Brazil submitted to the Commission on Human Rights in 1992.

The Brazilian Government responded by acknowledging the charge. "As pointed out in your communication, this incident is not an isolated case", the Government said in its response. "The Brazilian Government is well aware that the killings of street children are not a new phenomenon and that certain elements of the policy may be implicated in the actions of 'death' squads". Three policemen and a fourth man were in prison awaiting trial for murder, and the commander of the Fifth Police Corps in Rio de Janeiro, to whom the three policemen were subordinated, was dismissed from his post.

Non-governmental organizations have played an important role in pressuring Governments to respect both international law and in many cases similar laws in their own countries, particularly when it is clear that they have been partly or largely responsible for violations of those laws.

Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization with offices in Europe and the United States, has investigated numerous allegations. These include trafficking of women and girls from Nepal into India for use as prostitutes; the conditions of bonded labourers in Pakistan, many of whom are children; and the improper detention of juveniles by the criminal-justice system in Jamaica. Human Rights Watch recently released reports on India and Pakistan in mid-1995 that were highly critical of Government complicity.

In the United States, new tools for fighting sexual abuse of children overseas and international child pornography have been incorporated into the Mann Act, a 1910 Act of Congress originally aimed at prohibiting the interstate transportation of women "for immoral purposes". The amendments, approved after several years of lobbying by voluntary agencies, make it illegal for American citizens and resident aliens to travel abroad to engage in sexual acts with minors. The measures would bring the law into line with US domestic policy. The law -- part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was signed into law by President Clinton -- also pertains to those who conspire to commit such acts, such as sex-tour operators.

A 1986 amendment to the Mann Act made it a crime to transport a person under 18 between states or abroad with the intention of having the young person engage in sexual activity.

Halting Unlawful Jailings

In response to an earlier report on conditions in Jamaica, where juvenile offenders were being unlawfully locked up with adults, some of the children were released. Local Government agencies and organizations began to explore alternatives to imprisonment for juvenile offenders, and training programmes on the rights of juveniles was begun for guards.

"If you get people out of custody or get Governments to change their policy", says Lois Whitman, Director of the Children's Rights Project at Human Rights Watch, "that is progress".

It was not until recently that children have become a constituency in their own right, on whose behalf a number of international organizations, Government laws and human rights decrees have been created to advocate more equitable treatment for children under existing laws and for a more equitable share of resources and opportunities.

Prior to the 20th century, children were for the most part regarded as inferior and subordinate to adults, and childhood was a period of life that was often brief and regarded as a stage of passage to adulthood. Now, in the latter half of the century, childhood is regarded as a relatively sacred part of life among many of the more affluent. But it is still a period of great struggle and deprivation for children in most of the rest of the world.

Children have been included, either directly or indirectly, in most of the nearly 80 treaties and decrees on human rights in this century. The first major step on behalf of children taken by the United Nations was UNICEF's creation in December 1946.

Two years later, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly. The provisions of that Declaration and its two International Covenants on human rights, adopted in 1966, recognized that child rights need protection.

The 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child was the first United Nations statement devoted exclusively to the rights of children, but served more as a moral rather than legally binding framework. The special plight of girls was addressed in part by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted in 1979. The Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery annually addresses such issues as child labour and debt bondage.

A Global Pact on Children's Rights

It took until the 1990s, however, for all of the pieces to come together in the form of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1989. The Convention's 54 articles cover everything from a child's right to be free from sexual and economic exploitation, to the right to his or her own opinion, and to the right to education, health care, and economic opportunity.

By September 1995, 178 countries had ratified the Convention. A dozen more, some of which had been created since the Convention was adopted six years earlier, were considering it. As a result of this growing support, according to Ms Albenez of UNICEF, childhood is coming to be widely seen not as "some kind of probation period before becoming an adult". Instead, she said, "the child emerges as an individual with dignity who has all the rights of a full human being."

The initiative for the Convention came from the Government of Poland, which submitted a Draft Convention to the Commission on Human Rights in 1978, prior to celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of the Child during the International Year of the Child in 1979. That led to a decade of collaboration between a small group of non-governmental organizations, including Radda Barnen of Sweden, the International Child Catholic Bureau, and Defense for Children International, and United Nations human rights experts.

After a lengthy period of careful negotiations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in November 1989 by a vote of the General Assembly. By September of the following year, the Convention had obtained the 20 ratifications required for its entry into force as international law. Its importance as a foundation of modern human rights law was later underscored at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.

Human Rights and Development

By the late 1980s, progress in attracting support for the Convention had drawn the attention of UNICEF. While the organization has always devoted itself to the improvement of social and economic conditions for children, primarily in the fields of health and education, it was not until then that it saw the potential for integrating human rights objectives with more traditional development programmes.

While UNICEF originally included the Convention as one of a number of its programme and advocacy concerns, by late 1994 UNICEF's Executive Director, James P. Grant, announced that the Convention would become the framework for all of UNICEF's programming. In May 1995, UNICEF announced a new procurement policy on child labour, pledging to purchase materials and supplies only from companies that do not exploit child labour. The UNICEF Representative in each country is required to assess the local situation and evaluate the child labour practices of local companies.

Historically there had been a conceptual divide between those who acted as advocates on behalf of human rights and those who pursued the development of economic and social policies and social welfare programmes. Because the Convention on the Rights of the Child covers so much ground, it has provided a conceptual and legislative umbrella for both traditions. The child-protection issues normally associated with human rights are included -- among them those of sexual and economic exploitation, of refugee status, and of juvenile justice.

Making Needs a Matter of Rights

Advocacy for many things that had previously been considered as needs and dealt with by Government programmes, the success of which often depended upon political considerations -- such as food, shelter, and access to education and health care -- can now be fortified by their inclusion as one of a larger number of human rights.

"Needs you can't claim," says Ms Albenez of UNICEF. "Rights you can claim. Now you have claims for each of those needs."

Social reformers and human rights lawyers have defended individual children's rights or pursued political or policy objectives deemed advantageous to children for many years. But with the Convention the concern can now be regarded as universal.

The ratification of the Convention by so many countries means that its articles and principles are now being adapted to, and becoming part of, national laws. The World Conference on Human Rights called for universal

ratification of the Child Convention by 1995. While the recent intensification of interest and concentration of resources devoted to child rights following adoption of the Convention has not yet yielded particularly dramatic or even measurable results directly affecting the daily lives of most of the world's children, it has spawned efforts at legislative reform in countries around the world -- particularly in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

A Catalyst for National Action

"The Convention is our essential framework," says Mrs. Raadi-Azarakhchi of the Centre for Human Rights who serves as the Secretary of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, a United Nations body. "It's really a catalyst for action at national level. It provides universal standards -- but there are ways it can be interpreted that can be suited to various cultural situations."

The Committee on the Rights of the Child was established by the Convention as a means of monitoring and aiding Governments in bringing their national laws and practices into conformity with the treaty. By late 1995, the Committee, which consists of 10 international members with backgrounds in law, education and social work, had reviewed some 40 reports on implementation plans since 1993 from countries that had ratified the Convention. Reports are required within two years of ratification, and are used as a means of opening a dialogue between members of the Committee, the Government of a ratifying state, and the public in that country.

Non-governmental organizations are invited to contribute information or comment, and in over 20 countries have published alternative reports that either add to or take issue with the Government reports. The Committee reviews the reports and releases its recommendations, which the Government is subsequently obligated to make public. A follow-up report from each Government is required five years later. It has provided one way of measuring just how serious a Government is about honouring the Convention with legislative or social policy reform.

A Lag in National Reports

According to UNICEF's 1995 Progress of Nations, by the end of February 1995 there were 35 countries that were more than two years late in submitting their reports, and 21 that were more than a year overdue. About one-third of the 174 countries that had ratified the Convention by April 1995 had done so while lodging reservations about certain provisions with the Secretary- General of the United Nations.

In some cases countries have felt the Convention doesn't go far enough. Several countries have stated that it would be better for the Convention to stipulate 18 rather than 15 as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. Other countries have expressed reservations about matters such as the precise definition of a child and freedom of conscience and religion. Still others have more sweeping and potentially problematic reservations, such as those of several Islamic countries that reserve the right not to apply articles in the Convention that are incompatible with shariah law.

In some cases, Government reports have been challenged as insufficient. In the Philippines, the Government report was challenged by both the National Coalition of NGOs for Monitoring the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee noted "a lack of reliable qualitative and quantitative data, a shortcoming of means for programs of implementation, and a lack of indicators and mechanisms to evaluate the progress and impact of policies adopted." The Committee ultimately encouraged the Government to support wider participation of governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations in the process of bringing their national laws into line with the provisions of the Convention.

The Power of Moral Suasion

Much of the power of the Convention comes from mutual example and pressure from the public and from donor countries rather than any real enforcement power. Those that fail to take action or do not take it seriously enough can be admonished by Governments that have taken steps to abide by the Convention.

But more persuasive pressure may come from those countries that ratify the Convention and, in turn, receive donor funding for various national initiatives, or assistance with the drafting of laws or establishment of child-advocacy bureaus.

"We have seen enough in five years to know that this approach works," writes Hoda Badra, Chairperson of the International Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1995, in UNICEF's Progress of Nations. "When the Government of Viet Nam, for example, accepted that we were more interested in helping than criticizing, they submitted an open and self-critical report. Subsequently, Viet Nam acted: laws covering the protection, care and education of children have all been passed."

Others countries have done the same. The Government of Tunisia has made an unusual effort. The Council of Ministers adopted a Code for the Protection of the Child on 17 May 1995, and a delegate for child protection has been appointed in each of the 23 governorates to oversee implementation of the Convention at the sub-national level. Since July 1991, education has been mandatory for children from 6 to 16 years old, and legal action can be taken against parents who do not comply.

Progress in National Programmes

The Indonesian Government has increased budget allocations for health services to mothers and children during a period of austerity, developed manuals for law enforcement training on the Convention, and established a Child Protection Institute.

In Costa Rica, a new Legal Code for Minors is being developed using the Convention as the framework. In response to comments from the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the great number of national and international child adoptions in Costa Rica, the Legislature has started reviewing the Hague Convention on international adoption.

In Jamaica, the Government has started a legislative review and, despite heavy debt payments, is increasing its expenditures for children.

In Nicaragua, the Government report to the Committee has been made public, a basis is being established for a Child and Adolescent legal code, and a public policy for children is being considered.

And in 1991, the Government of Colombia created the State Information Agency for Child Rights.

Listening to Children's Voices

In the best spirit of the Convention, the Government of Nepal is seeking input from children as part of its preparation for reporting to the Committee. In April 1995, 29 children participated in a four-day workshop on the Convention sponsored by a consortium of NGOs and UNICEF. Included were working children, a street boy, a disabled girl, children from refugee communities and those from both urban English-language schools and Nepali schools. Ultimately, they took discussion of the Convention back to their communities and met with the Prime Minister.

Even in countries where both the legality and morality of human rights covenants have been abandoned or repeatedly violated, efforts are being made in the name of the Convention. In Sudan, UNICEF and Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) partners have solicited support for the Convention from the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM), the rebel movements in control of much of southern Sudan. This is happening in an area where there are no national laws, and where military rule prevails. Relations between OLS and political authorities are governed by ground rules which OLS recently rewrote to include a statement of humanitarian principles.

These principles include a statement of support both for the Convention and the Geneva Convention, according to the Report from Sudan.

"Both rebel movements have signed the ground rules", the Report said. "This is an important step forward since it is the first time the movements have made such pledges toward child rights and will provide UNICEF/OLS with a much better opportunity to address breaches and violations."

But the realities in much of the world are that despite national laws that conform to a United Nations Convention, enforcement will be the determining factor in whether or not children's rights are protected. Even in countries with sophisticated legal systems the lack of enforcement is a problem.

"In India," according to the Special Rapporteur, "despite laws prohibiting children under 14 from working in hazardous industries, violations are widespread. They include transgressions in industries such as those producing matches, fireworks, glass and bricks, in diamond cutting and lock making, and in stone quarries."

The hope is that the Convention will continue to stimulate the kind of debate that often leads to attitudinal change. Child rights need to be actively respected rather than simply acknowledged, and advocates admit that more than the passage of laws and publicizing of the Convention will be required. "It really is a matter of a change of mentality," says Mrs. Raadi-Azarakhchi of the International Committee on the Rights of the Child.

"We believe the Convention is a wonderful instrument," says Ricardo Domenici, secretary-general of the NGO group Defense of Children International and an advocate of the Convention for more than a decade. "But unless there are really socially conscious policies in the country, the Convention won't make that much of a difference. It is still true that things are not very good for children."


Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information * DPI/1765/HR--December 1995