Children's and young people's rights

International human rights agreements to protect children and young people

Children in Nepal

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 the UN stressed that children have a right to "special care and assistance". Their fundamental rights are enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989. In addition, young people’s special need to be protected and encouraged in their development has now been incorporated into numerous other international agreements and declarations.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989) explicitly elevates children’s rights to the status of human rights and makes them binding under international law. The Convention applies to all children and young people under the age of 18. It comprises 54 articles that set the standards applicable across the world regarding what constitutes a child-friendly society and also describes the tasks a state and society must fulfil to enforce these rights.

According to UNICEF the ten fundamental children’s rights are:

  1. The right to equality
  2. The right to health
  3. The right to education
  4. The right to rest and play
  5. The right to freedom of expression and access to information
  6. The right to freedom from violence
  7. The right to protection and freedom from war
  8. The right to protection from economic and sexual exploitation
  9. The right to parental care
  10. The right to special care for disabled children

Around the world, 196 states, including Germany, have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child regularly reviews government reports on the status of implementation, which must be submitted every five years by the countries that are signatories to the Convention. Furthermore, the Committee regularly adopts General Comments on the interpretation and implementation of individual rights.

In addition, the Human Rights Council has appointed a Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, whose findings are documented in annual reports that are accessible to the public. Moreover, the UN Secretary-General has appointed two Special Representatives: one on Violence against Children and one for Children and Armed Conflicts. Since 2013, the UN has also had an Envoy on Youth.

Optional Protocols to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Children in Tienfala, a community in Mali

Two important optional protocols from the year 2000 supplement the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The first Optional Protocol covers measures to protect children against becoming involved in armed conflicts. It prohibits the conscription of children under the age of 18, who must be prevented from taking part in hostilities. The second Optional Protocol prohibits the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, and obligates states parties to take preventive measures against the sexual exploitation of children and young people and to rehabilitate affected children. The Federal Republic of Germany has ratified both these optional protocols.

The UN General Assembly adopted a third Optional Protocol in December 2011. It gives individuals the right to lodge complaints if children’s rights are being abused. Germany was one of the first countries to ratify this third protocol. It entered into force in April 2014.

Other international human rights agreements

Some children’s and young people’s rights are enshrined in other international human rights agreements:

Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states, for example, that the death penalty may not be applied if the crimes have been committed by young people below 18 years of age. Article 24 says that all minors have a right to the protection of their family, society and the state.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) calls on its parties to protect children and young people from economic and social exploitation. Furthermore, the parties should undertake measures to lower child mortality and ensure the healthy development of children (right to health, Article 12). Articles 13 and 14 deal extensively with the right to education.

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) contains, among other things, a comprehensive definition of the right of women and girls to equal access to education (Article 10); Article 16 states that child betrothals and marriages have no legal effect.

Various articles in the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities point out that children with disabilities are entitled to the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children.

ILO conventions

A boy watering corn in a field at the edge of Bangui in the Central African Republic.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted two agreements for the elimination and regulation of child labour:

ILO Convention No. 138 adopted in 1973 obliges member states to ensure the abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons.

ILO Convention No. 182 adopted in 1999 obliges member states to take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour.

Germany has signed and ratified both these ILO conventions.

The Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda

In the 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda, the needs and concerns of children and young people are enshrined across the different sectors. Child poverty, under- and malnutrition, child mortality, access to sanitation facilities, education, child marriage, child labour and youth unemployment, birth registration and protection against all form of violence and exploitation are just a few of the areas covered by the 2030 Agenda that are related to children’s rights.

"Leave no one behind", the guiding principle of the Agenda, is, furthermore, a call to champion the human rights principles of fostering equal opportunities and non-discrimination. Young people are specifically named as one of the target groups that are particularly disadvantaged and must therefore receive extra support. In section 51 of the preamble to the 2030 Agenda, young people are explicitly recognised as key players for political and social change, and for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

World Programme of Action for Youth

The World Programme of Action for Youth approved by the UN General Assembly in 1995 and expanded in 2007 has the aim of improving living conditions for young people and increasing their participation in society and its processes.

The Programme is divided into 15 thematic priority areas: education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities, girls and young women, participation in decision-making, globalisation, information and communications technology, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict and intergenerational issues.

European Union

The European Union (EU) has recognised the rights of children in its Charter of Fundamental Rights. Furthermore, the EU has formulated a range of guidelines and standards for the protection of children’s rights. The revised Guidelines for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Child of 2017, for example, help to ensure that account is always taken of the rights of children in the context of EU policies and measures. In the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2019), one of the 34 actions addresses the promotion, protection and fulfilment of children’s rights.

In the revised EU Consensus on Development of 2017, too, the EU sets itself the goal of giving attention to children’s needs, rights and aspirations, and improving the protection of children, the nurturing environment they need and their participation. The EU Commission, in collaboration with UNICEF, has published a practical toolkit Integrating Child Rights in Development Cooperation, which offers guidance on implementing children’s rights.

Regional initiatives

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which was modelled on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, entered into force in 1999. Many articles in the two conventions are similar. There is, however, no right to social security in the African charter on children’s rights. Instead it guarantees some other rights, for example prohibiting harmful cultural practices that are prejudicial to children’s health (Article 21).

In 2006, the African Union adopted the African Youth Charter. It entered into force in 2009 and requires state parties to promote and protect the rights of young people between the ages of 15 and 35. At the same time it makes reference to the responsibilities of young people towards their families, society, the state and the international community.

The Pacific Youth Charter of 2006 and the Ibero-American Convention on Rights of Youth of 2008 are also modelled on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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