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The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations by its resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989.

This was the end of a process which had begun with the preparations for the 1979 International Year of the Child. That year, discussions started on a draft convention submitted by the Government of Poland.

Children had been discussed before by the international community. Declarations on the rights of the child had been adopted by both the League of Nations (1924) and the United Nations (1959). Also, specific provisions concerning children had been incorporated in a number of human rights and humanitarian law treaties. Nevertheless, some States argued that there was a need for a comprehensive statement on children's rights which would be binding under international law.

That view was influenced by reports of grave injustices suffered by children: high infant mortality, deficient health care, limited opportunities for basic education. There were also alarming accounts of children being abused and exploited in prostitution or in harmful jobs, of children in prison or in other difficult circumstances, and of children as refugees and victims of armed conflict.

The drafting of the Convention took place in a working group set up by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Government delegates formed the core of the drafting group, but representatives of United Nations bodies and specialized agencies, as well as a number of non-governmental organizations, took part in the deliberations. The original draft submitted by the Polish Government was extensively amended and expanded through the long discussions.

The unanimous adoption of the Convention by the General Assembly paved the way for the next stage: ratifications by States and the setting up of a monitoring committee, the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Within less than a year, by September 1990, 20 States had legally endorsed the Convention, which thereby entered into force.

In the same month, the World Summit for Children was held in New York on the initiative of UNICEF and six States (Canada, Egypt, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan and Sweden). The Summit encouraged all States to ratify the Convention. By the end of 1990, 57 had done so, thereby becoming States parties. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights held at Vienna declared that the goal was universal ratification by the end of 1995. By 31 December 2015, 196 countries had ratified or acceded to the Convention. Only one State is missing in order to reach universal ratification. This number is unprecedented in the field of human rights.

General principles

There are four general principles enshrined in the Convention. These are meant to help with the interpretation of the Convention as a whole and thereby guide national programmes of implementation.

  1. Non-discrimination (article 2): States parties must ensure that all children within their Jurisdiction enjoy their rights. No child should suffer discrimination. This applies to every child, "irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status". The essential message is equality of opportunity. Girls should be given the same opportunities as boys. Refugee children, children of foreign origin, children of indigenous or minority groups should have the same rights as all others. Children with disabilities should be given the same opportunity to enjoy an adequate standard of living.
  1. Best interests of the child (article 3): When the authorities of a State take decisions which affect children, the best interests of children must be a primary consideration. This principle relates to decisions by courts of law, administrative authorities, legislative bodies and both public and private social-welfare institutions. This is, of course, a fundamental message of the Convention, the implementation of which is a major challenge.
  1. The right to life, survival and development (article 6): The right-to-life article includes formulations about the right to survival and to development, which should be ensured "to the maximum extent possible". The term "development" in this context should be interpreted in a broad sense, adding a qualitative dimension: not only physical health is intended, but also mental, emotional, cognitive, social and cultural development.
  1. The views of the child (article 12): Children should be free to have opinions in all matters affecting them, and those views should be given due weight "in accordance with the age and maturity of the child". The underlying idea is that children have the right to be heard and to have their views taken seriously, including in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting them.

Under article 44 of the Convention, States parties accept the duty to submit regular reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the steps they have taken to put the Convention into effect and on progress in the enjoyment of children’s rights in their territories.