International Law and Children’s Rights

Unlike adults, children are powerless to protect themselves against exploitation, poverty, abuse and war. As a result, they need special help from those who can care for them: parents, legal guardians, teachers and social workers. This is why there is a mass of international law, both treaty and’soft’ law, that recognises the distinct status and particular requirements of children and requires that governments respect their rights and well-being.

The first of these is the right to survive – to have enough food, water and housing to be healthy. Children also need access to good quality healthcare and education, including free primary schooling. And they should have the freedom to express their views about all matters affecting them – including religion, culture and language.

Children must be protected from harmful work that is bad for their health, safety or education – and from being forced into jobs like prostitution and child pornography. They should be able to rest and play, and take part in cultural activities. They have the right to have their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing checked by a doctor on a regular basis – especially when they are away from home.

They should have the freedom to choose their own language and religion, unless this is against public order or national security (ordre publique ou sécurité nationale) or health or morals. They have the right to freedom of expression – which includes writing, speaking and publishing – but this must not infringe upon the rights of others or damage their property or privacy.

Governments must ensure that children have a permanent place to live with their parents or other relatives. They must not separate them from their parents unless it is in the best interests of the child and done through a court procedure. If they are separated from their parents, they must be allowed to visit them.

Finally, they have the right to be told about and to be protected against any dangers to their life or wellbeing, including trafficking, corporal punishment, sexual exploitation and violence, harmful detention, war and other armed conflict, emotional abuse, neglect, sex trafficking, ill-treatment by people in authority and unfit parenting. They have the right to complain to a third party about this and get legal help, as well as the right to a fair trial when accused of crimes.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines these rights in more detail and sets out how countries should implement them. This is a powerful set of requirements that many countries have signed up to, but there is still much more to be done to end violence against children; protect orphans and street children; stop military use of children; and make schools safe spaces for learning. You can join our campaign to change this by signing the petition here.