Human rights law defines a child as any human being below the age of 18. In 2014, UNICEF estimated the total number of children in the world at 2.2 billion (The State of the World’s Children 2014 In Numbers: Every Child Counts).
Children are human beings, so they have exactly the same human rights as adults. However, children have been recognised as being in particular need of care and assistance, and for that reason they also have their "own" human rights treaty – the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The CRC was adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and entered into force on 2 September 1990. The CRC applies to all children under the age of 18 in those countries that have accepted it – and nearly every country in the world has done so. Only the United States of America and Somalia have failed to ratify the Convention.
Why is the CRC important?
The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights instrument in the world. It stands as a landmark in the history of children's rights because it was the first legally binding international instrument adopted specifically to protect the rights of children.
The CRC does not offer children any more rights than other human beings, but it does recognise that additional guarantees may be necessary in order to make sure that children are able to access the human rights which are possessed by everyone. It is notable among international treaties for containing the full spectrum of human rights: civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.
The CRC marked a shift in the way children are viewed, as the CRC considers children as individuals with rights and responsibilities that reflect their evolving capacities. Furthermore, the CRC has set a specific framework for claiming rights for children.
If every child, regardless of their sex, ethnic origin, social status, language, age, nationality or religion has these rights, then they also have a responsibility to respect each other in a humane way. If children have a right to be protected from conflict, cruelty, exploitation and neglect, then they also have a responsibility not to bully or harm each other. If children have a right to a clean environment, then they also have a responsibility to do what they can to look after their environment.1
Question: Why are some rights harder for children to access than for adults?
How does the CRC work?
Every 5 years, country signatories to the CRC have to report back to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on progress made in ensuring respect for the rights included in the Convention. Other organisations are also encouraged to submit reports, and NGOs will very often pick up on possible violations of the Convention which have not been mentioned in the Government's official report.
The Committee is made up of independent experts and after it has considered all submitted reports – the government's, and those submitted by NGOs – and held a session in Geneva to question representatives of the government, it issues a series of Concluding Observations. These are intended to be recommendations which countries should implement in order to correct or improve on areas where the Committee feels the Convention is not being respected properly. They will check back on whether these recommendations have been implemented next time the government submits its report.
Question: What would you report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on children's rights in your country?
Optional protocols to the CRC
There are two optional protocols to the CRC, both adopted in May 2000, which are also monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The first is the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict; the second is the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.
In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the draft of a third Optional Protocol on a communications procedure for children's rights violations. The new protocol will enable the Committee on the Rights of the Child to examine communications from children and their representatives alleging violations of their rights.
Essential features of the CRC
The CRC has 54 articles that include the full and wide range of rights – civil, political, cultural, social and economic, and they all serve as a framework for the protection of the rights of human beings under 18 years of age. The CRC is based on 3 categories of rights and is guided by four main principles.
The three "P"s
The rights-protecting articles in the CRC can be grouped under three categories, often known as the "three Ps" – participation, protection and provision.
The participation element was (and still is) highly innovative, and reflects the Convention's understanding of children as subjects, rather than objects of law. Many adults, and many societies, tend to treat children as if they were incapable of independent thought, and as if their preferences or feelings were of little consequence – at least in relation to decisions about their welfare. However, the Convention promotes the idea of children as people, whose wishes do need to be taken into account. The Convention says that children are entitled to be respected and treated with dignity simply because they are human, whatever their age. Part of that "treating them with dignity" is allowing them to be autonomous beings, allowing them to express their wishes and thoughts as soon as they are capable of doing so, and for those wishes and thoughts to be an important factor in decisions concerning them.
In addition to acknowledging the rights of children to participate, the Convention also recognises that children may be in need of special protection, for example against abuse, violence, exploitation and cruelty.
The third "P", for provision, covers the rights necessary for the basic survival and for the full development of the child, for example, the right to adequate food, clean water, shelter, formal education, and health care.
Question: How much do you listen to and respect the wishes of the young people you work with?
Children's parliament in Finland
A virtual parliament building has been constructed online for the use of the Finnish Children's Parliament. This virtual building provides representatives with a place, independent of time and location, to interact and further their activities.
The Board and Committees of the Children's Parliament meet weekly online in chat rooms, and discuss issues and prepare for future plenary sessions.
The members of the Children's Parliament discuss issues online in their own discussion forums, respond to surveys submitted by decision makers, and hold a two-week online plenary session. The Board and all of the children also meet in person. http://www.lastenparlamentti.fi
The four principles
Underlying the whole of the Convention is a set of four guiding principles, or general requirements for all rights contained in the treaty. These principles also feature as separate articles in the treaty. When the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child drew up Guidelines for reporting on the Convention, these principles were listed as separate items to be reported on.
Principle 1: Non-discrimination (Article 2)
The non-discrimination article is open-ended: it prohibits discrimination on the grounds listed, but also disallows for other forms not mentioned explicitly. Girls should be given the same possibilities as boys, able-bodied the same as disabled children, Muslim the same as Hindu the same as Christian, rich the same as poor, and so on.
Principle 2: The best interests of the child (Article 3)
This principle is related to the point about children being fully-fledged human beings, whose interests are important. Yet it goes even further: it does not merely say that children's needs are significant; it says that they should be the primary consideration in making decisions about the child. That may not necessarily mean doing exactly what the child wants on every occasion, because sometimes an outsider is a better judge of a child's interests, particularly over the long term.
Question: Who do you think should decide about what is best for the child: the parents, the child or public authorities?
Principle 3: The right to life, survival and development (Article 6)
This principle is a great deal broader than it first appears: it imposes obligations on states signatories to the CRC to pay attention not only to the physical development of children, but also to their mental, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development. Governments are supposed to "create an environment" which is best suited to prepare each child for an individual life in a free society.
Principle 4: Respect for the views of the child (Article 12)
This principle has already been partly addressed under "participation", above. When State Parties report back to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, they are supposed to outline the opportunities for children to express views in the context of family life, school life, places of institutional and other forms of care, as well as in asylum-seeking procedures.
The CRC was a giant step forwards in beginning the process of formalising governmental obligations and providing some form of accountability. However, it was, just the beginning of a process. In every country of the world, children's rights have a long way to go before they can meet the standards outlined in the Convention.
Children in the world
Of the 2.2 billion children in the world, 600 million live in extreme poverty. This means that one in four children lives on less than one euro a day.2
Every year, almost 9 million children under the age of five die from largely preventable causes. However, this number was much higher 20 years ago and continues to decrease.3
17,000 children die of hunger every day.
The UN estimates that some 250,000 children – boys and girls under the age of 18 – are associated with armed groups or armed forces.
More than 100 million children of primary school age are not attending schools, with more girls than boys missing out.
Children in Europe
There are many issues facing children in Europe, and the following statistics represent a small selection. Other sections in these chapters provide further detail on some of the specific issues.
Children's rights in Europe
- Many children suffer violence within the family, in the community, in residential care and in other settings. In Central and Eastern Europe, 35% of schoolchildren responding to a survey said they had been bullied during the last two months previous to the interview, with the percentage ranging from 15 to 64%.
- 19% of children in the EU are at risk of poverty.
- More than 626,000 children live in residential institutions in the 22 countries that make up Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, CEE/CIS.
- Some groups of children suffer discrimination, often on multiple grounds. For instance, Roma children frequently experience exclusion from education, and their access to healthcare may be poor. Many disabled children regularly experience prejudice or lack of awareness, and are routinely excluded from participating in decisions that affect them.
- Despite the European Union being one of the wealthiest regions in the world, children across the region continue to live in poverty. 9% of children under 14 live in households where no adult is in paid work. Child poverty and social exclusion have increased significantly in some EU countries during the past twenty years, with younger children facing a higher risk of relative poverty than any other group.
UNICEF has defined three types of street children: street-living children, who have run away from their families and live alone on the streets; street-working children, who spend most of their time on the streets, fending for themselves; and children from street-families, who live on the streets with their families. A report by the Children's Society in the UK found that:
- The number of Moroccan minors entering Spain has risen steadily since the Spanish Interior Ministry registered them for the first time in 1998. From 811 that year, the number more than quadrupled to 3,500 in 2002.
- The number of working street children in St. Petersburg, Russia, is estimated at between 10,000 and 16,000: 20% of those children are involved in prostitution.
- Some orphanages in Ukraine say that 97% of children leaving their institutions become homeless.
- About 2,500 children in Georgia have turned to the street to earn money, either by begging or prostituting themselves.
- 100,000 young people run away in the UK each year: 6.7% of the runaways had both birth parents, 13% had only a single birth parent, 18% had a step family, and 30.8% had "other family form".
Question: Do you know the figures for children on the streets in your country?
Almost every expert believes that trafficking is a growing problem, but one of the difficulties is that there is very little agreement on figures for the number of people concerned. The United States Government estimates that 600,000 – 800,000 people are trafficked each year across international borders. Evidence from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicates that more than 20% of victims of all trafficking, both within countries and across borders, are children.
Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings
The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings entered into force on 1 February 2008. The treaty is based on recognition of the principle that trafficking in human beings constitutes a violation of human rights and is an offence to the dignity and integrity of the human being. It is a comprehensive treaty which aims to:
- Prevent trafficking
- Protect the human rights of victims of trafficking
- Prosecute the traffickers.
It applies to all forms of trafficking, whoever the victim and whatever the form of exploitation.
Violence against children
It is recognised in human rights law that children have a right to protection against all forms of violence, including corporal punishment, at home, at school, and in any other setting. Yet societies throughout the world, including many European countries, still tolerate and even approve certain forms of violence against children, in particular those inflicted in the home.In 1998, the European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark judgment (A v. UK), the first ruling on parental corporal punishment. Child "A", a young English boy, had been beaten by his stepfather with a cane, causing severe bruising. The European Court found that the boy's right to protection from degrading punishment had been breached.
As at June 2011, corporal punishment is unlawful in schools in 117 states, although in only 29 of these are children protected from violent punishment wherever they are, including at home. Twenty-two Council of Europe member states have prohibited violence at home, in schools, in penal systems and in alternative care systems.
Question: Is it right to forbid all forms of corporal punishment on children?
Cyberbullying and sexual abuse images
Children can be exposed to a wide range of risks when they use the Internet, for example, viewing inappropriate material, online bullying and harassment, or becoming victims of abuse and exploitation, for example in the form of child grooming. People working in regular contact with children can take measures to protect them from such dangers by:
Taking individual actions such as reporting, complaining or asking if they become aware of a child being exposed to such risks or when they discover illegal or dangerous internet material
Empowering children through informing them and discussing the matter with them
Empowering parents, who need to become aware of the dangers of the use of the Internet and the possibilities for screening sites that children visit.
The Council of Europe has devised an interactive game for young children called "Wild Web Woods", which helps young children to identify and resist virtual threats, while surfing the web within a safe environment.
Available data suggests that about one in five children in Europe are victims of some form of sexual violence. It is estimated that in 70% to 85% of cases, the abuser is somebody the child knows and trusts. Child sexual violence can take many forms: sexual abuse within the family circle, child pornography and prostitution, corruption, solicitation via the Internet and sexual assault by peers.
Sexual violence against children exists in every country in Europe, but there are many obstacles to obtaining a clear picture of its scope, depth and nature. Most cases go unreported, disclosure can take years, reliable statistics are difficult to obtain and there is no standardised, co-ordinated method for gathering data.
The Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Lanzarote Convention) contains all the measures needed to prevent sexual violence, to protect children and to prosecute the abusers. It is the first international treaty to address all forms of sexual violence against children. Its trademark is the so-called four "P" approach: prevention of violence, protection of child victims, prosecution of offenders, and the promotion of partnerships and participation policies. The Lanzarote Convention notably requests the screening and training of professionals in contact with children, sexuality education and awareness raising, and intervention programmes for potential perpetrators.
ONE in FIVE
Combating sexual violence against children through specific legal instruments and comprehensive awareness-raising actions are two of the strategic objectives of the Council of Europe programme Building a Europe For and With Children. In November 2010, the Council of Europe ONE in FIVE Campaign to stop sexual violence against children was launched. The ONE in FIVE Campaign intends to achieve further signature, ratification and implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse and to equip children, their families / carers and societies at large with knowledge and tools to prevent and report sexual violence against children, thereby raising awareness of its extent.
Read more in www.coe.int/oneinfive
Council of Europe
The Council of Europe and its member states have adopted a number of legal instruments, programmes and recommendations to address some of the problems facing children in Europe today.
Some Council of Europe treaties relating specifically to children include:
The European Convention on the Exercise of Children's Rights (2000)
The Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (2007), the first international legal treaty which criminalises the sexual abuse of children
The European Convention on the Adoption of Children (revised in 2008).
Of course, all human rights treaties apply to children as well.
Building a Europe for and with children
This programme was introduced as a result of the Third Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe (Warsaw 2005). It consists of two closely related stands: the promotion of children's rights and the protection of children from violence. The main objective of the programme is to help all decision makers and players design and implement national strategies for the protection of children's rights and the prevention of violence against children.
The Council of Europe also puts emphasis on awareness raising and campaigning for most relevant issues that affect human rights, also including children's rights.
In 2007, the youth sector of the Council of Europe published Compasito – a manual on human rights education for children. The manual was developed in response to an explicitly growing demand from practitioners to enlarge the focus of human rights education to a young age group. The subsequent dissemination of Compasito throughout Europe has proved that human rights education is very effective with children from the early years of life onwards.
The Education for Democratic Citizenship programme has set guidelines for implementing educational activities that empower children to be citizens and understand the mechanisms of democracy.
European Network of Ombudspersons for Children
The word "ombudsperson" comes from the Scandinavian word "ombud", which means representative or commissioner or delegate. It has come to mean a person who deals with and/or investigates complaints, represents and defends the interests / rights of a defined group, speaks on behalf of that group, and tries to improve conditions for individuals and for the group as a whole. Many countries now have their own Children's Ombudsperson, and in 1997, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) was established. The role of such an ombudsperson is to ensure the full implementation of the CRC whilst maintaining full independence from the government and other public authorities. An ombudsperson for children will usually protect and promote the interests / rights of children in relation to public and private authorities and follow up the development conditions under which children grow up. By 2011 it had grown to include 39 institutions in 30 countries. Its mandate is to facilitate the promotion and protection of the rights of children.
Question: Is there a children's ombudsperson in your country?
In 2006 the European Commission issued the document "Towards an EU strategy on the rights of the child", which gives a new impetus to children's rights on the agenda in the European Union, and included seven objectives concerning the Commission's actions and setting the criteria of the 2011 EU Agenda. The Commission also elaborated in 2010 an action plan for unaccompanied minors and pursues through the DAPHNE programme actions to combat violence against children, young people and women. The EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child aims to reinforce the full commitment of the EU, as enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to promote, protect and fulfill the rights of the child in all relevant EU policies and actions. This agenda includes 11 specific actions where the EU can contribute in an effective way to children's well-being and safety.
Non-governmental organisations not only have a voice in monitoring the CRC, but also contribute to implementing children's rights through their daily work and practice. An important role is also played by child-led organisations. The work of NGOs includes very diverse rights-based actions, from human rights education with children, to research, child protection initiatives, partnership with public authorities for the implementation of child-friendly policies, alternative reports on children's rights, and so on.
Some examples of organisations working in different ways on children's rights are:
Defence for Children International, an international NGO represented in 40 countries, whose work focuses in particular on juvenile justice, both through direct interventions and lobbying, monitoring, and the training of professionals.
ECPAT, an international network represented in more than 70 countries working on the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
The NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child is a network of over 70 national and international NGOs whose mission is to facilitate the promotion, implementation and monitoring of the CRC.
The European Youth Forum, a youth-led platform, representing 98 national youth councils and international youth organisations from across Europe, working on youth participation by representing and advocating their needs and interests and those of their organisations towards the European Institutions, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
The European Confederation of Youth Clubs (ECYC) is a network of youth work and youth club organisations who practise and promote open youth work and non-formal learning through a network of 28 member organisations in 27 European countries.
Save the Children present in 120 countries, is one of the leading organisations in promoting and protecting children's rights and supporting children in need. With a wide range of initiatives, from direct interventions to advocacy and lobby, the organisation's vision is a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation.
The International Falcon Movement – Socialist Educational International (IFM-SEI) is an international educational movement working to empower children and young people, and fight for their rights, through seminars and training courses, international camps, conferences and campaigns, related to education, advocacy and working directly with vulnerable children.
1 UK Committee for UNICEF, leaflet: www.unicef.org/pakistan/rightsleaflet.pdf
2 "State of the World's Children 2008", UNICEF 2008: www.unicef.org/sowc08/docs/sowc08.pdf
3 "The State of the World's Children Special Edition, Celebrating 20 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child", UNICEF, 2010: www.unicef.org/rightsite/sowc/pdfs/SOWC_Spec%20Ed_CRC_Main%20Report_EN_090409.pdf
4 Secretary General's statement, "U.N. chief: Hunger kills 17,000 kids daily", CNN, 2009: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/17/italy.food.summit/
5 "Humanitarian Action Report 2009", UNICEF, 2009: www.unicef.pt/docs/HAR_2009_FULL_Report_English.pdf
6 EFA Global Monitoring Report, "The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education", Oxford University Press, UNESCO, 2011: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001907/190743e.pdf
7 Handbook for Parliamentarians, No. 13, 2007, Eliminating Violence against children, Inter-parliamentary Union and UNICEF: www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/violence_en.pdf
8 See: European Commission Justice Website: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/fundamental-rights/rights-child/index_en.htm
9 "At home or in home? Formal care and adoption of children in Eastern Europe and Central Asia", UNICEF, 2010: www.unicef.org/ceecis/At_home_or_in_a_home_report.pdf
10 See: www.oecd.org/dataoecd/2/17/43198877.pdf
11 World Street Children News, Consortium for Street Children: http://streetkidnews.blogsome.com/ and www.streetchildren.org.uk/news.asp?newsID=73
12 "Street Children Statistics", Consortium for Street Children, 2009: www.streetchildren.org.uk/_uploads/resources/Street_Children_Stats_FINAL.pdf
13 See: http://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/114853/Child_Poverty_and_Housing.pdf
14 "Trafficking in persons Report", U.S Department of State, Office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, 2006: www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2006/65983.htm
15 "Children and corporal punishment: "The right not to be hit, also a children's right", Council of Europe, Issue Paper, 2006: https://wcd.coe.int/wcd/ViewDoc.jsp?id=1237635&Site=CM
16 Newell, Peter. Corporal punishment in schools and Progress towards prohibiting all corporal punishment in Europe and Central Asia, Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2011: www.endcorporalpunishment.org
17 European Legislation: http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/human_rights/fundamental_rights_within_european_union/index_en.htm
18 See: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:52011DC0060:en:NOT
- 15 MayInternational Day of Families
- 4 JuneInternational Day of Innocent Child Victims of Aggression
- 12 AugustInternational Youth Day
- 20 NovemberUniversal Children’s Day