In 1924, under the auspices of the then League of Nations, the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child was published, but as a mere resolution.
A short five section document, it nonetheless poured a foundation for future documents:
The Second World War, which started in Asia in 1937 and ended in 1945, interrupted the development of internationally recognized rights of the Child.
"By the present declaration of the rights of the child, commonly known as the Declaration of Geneva, men and women of all nations, recognizing that mankind owes to the child the best that it has to give, declare and accept it as their duty that beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed:
- The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
- The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
- The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.
- The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
- The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men."
In 1948, interest was renewed as the 1924 document was dusted off and re-issued, albeit with two new sections one of which was: "The child must be cared for with due respect for the family as an entity."
In 1959, the United Nations issued a Declaration of the Rights of the Child which included, among its 10 principles, the following lofty words:
"(T)he child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.... that he may have a happy childhood...."
"The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration."
"(A) child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother.... (and) shall not be admitted to employment before an appropriate minimum age...."
Work on an updated document started in 1978, at the initiative of Poland.
In 1989, the present Convention on the Rights of the Child was issued.
It defines a "child" as a person below the age of 18 unless a particular state set it as younger.
The 1989 document also reiterated the 1959 "best interests of the child" principle.
The Convention provides:
"States Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child's best interests....
"The right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities
"States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child....
"Both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child....
"The right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall ... make primary education compulsory and available free to all, ... take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates, (and) that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity....
"The establishment of laws, procedures, authorities and institutions specifically applicable to children alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law, and, in particular ... the establishment of a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law...."
"Every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so...."
Oddly, the Convention itself does not prohibit the use of children in armed conflicts, such as by way of military draft and enlistment. In fact, §38 explicitly allows the military recruitment and deployment of a child 15 or older.
Like all international legal documents of the sort, they are of no force or effect in any jurisdiction until and unless particular jurisdictions sign on, usually by legislation of their own which incorporates by reference the international legal document.
Many Muslim countries (eg. Afghanistan) have adopted the Convention but not in the event of any conflict with Muslim (Shari’a) law, a body of law so pervasive as to effectively eliminate most of the Convention rights. In Saudi Arabia, for example, and according to Human Rights Watch, to allow a judge acting under Muslim Law to impose the death penalty on a person under the age of 18, such judges make the discretionary determination as to whether a particular person is, at the time of the crime, an adult or not.
Others, like Argentina, also flash a bit of theocracy by accepting the Convention but asserting that a child "means every human being from the moment of conception...."
Canada reserved as to potential conflict with "customary forms of care among aboriginal peoples."
The United States is the only state to have not ratified the Convention (Somalia is another holdout but their government is unstable). The USA has signed the Convention but it has not ratified it.
The US government’s position? It’s working on it.
In response to some of the reservations, the UN has developed a set of further options, add-ons, on the use of children in armed conflicts and on the sale of children, child pornography and prostitution.
But even other states with federal governments, which have ratified it, face a long politically sensitive process of implementation by provincial or state governments.
- United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at http://www.unhchr.ch/
- Declaration of the Rights of the Child, United Nations General Assembly Resolution #1386 (XIV), 14 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 19, U.N. Doc. A/4354 (1959), published at http://www.cirp.org/library/ethics/UN-declaration/
- Convention on the Rights of the Child published at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm
- Detrick, Sharon, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Guide to the "Travaux Preparatoires" (Amsterdam: Martinus Nojhoff Publishers, 1992).
- Human Rights News, Saudi Arabia: Follow U.N. Call to End Juvenile Death Penalty (Jan 29, 2006), published at http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/01/29/saudia12546.htm
- List of specific state ratification reservations published by the United Nations at http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/B/treaty15_asp.htm