Children’s Rights – Do They Really Exist?

A lot of people seem to agree that children are a special class of human being who merits special regard. This is why they are often viewed as a vulnerable group, who need to be protected and nurtured. This is why most jurisdictions accord them legal rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has been put into place. This is why the United Nations recognises child rights as fundamental to human dignity.

But there are also arguments that children do not have rights at all. One such argument says that children are not capable of having or defending their rights, and therefore cannot be regarded as rightful holders of them. This can be a legitimate objection. But the problem is that denying rights to children on this basis is self-confirmatory. It reveals a mistaken view of what children are like or of what relationships they do or ought to stand in to adults, and it would be wrong to ignore such a mistake.

It is also possible to argue that although children lack the capacity for some rights, they still have capacities for other rights which are a matter of urgency, such as their need to be protected against exploitation and violence. It could also be argued that a distinction can be made between ‘rights-in-trust’ and ‘rights-in-deed’. Rights in trust can be granted by virtue of a state’s moral obligation to treat its citizens with humanity, and rights in deed are given by virtue of a state’s obligation to protect its citizens.

Finally, it is possible to argue that it is unfair to distinguish between different types of rights based on the competence required for their granting. It would be inconsistent to grant a right to choose a doctor or a career only to deny that same right to someone who has a terminal illness and will never become an adult. In short, it makes sense to grant rights to all, irrespective of whether they are mature enough for certain kinds of rights or not.

The CRC contains over 40 different children’s rights covering parental guidance, survival, development, nationality, identity, freedom of expression and thought, privacy and education, amongst others. Its individual rights interact with each other and are dynamically linked, which means that they are not ranked in order of importance. Instead they are interdependent, and each right is connected to a set of corresponding obligations that states parties must meet.

This is overseen by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, a body of 18 independent experts on children’s rights from around the world. This body monitors the implementation of the CRC by its member states and issues concluding observations each year. They include recommendations on how to better respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all children. These are then shared with all countries and can be referred to by the international community in cases of violations. The CRC is the only UN body that has this function and it is a vital part of the global fight for children’s rights.