The Recognition of Children’s Rights

The rights of children are being recognised more and more around the world. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) accords to children a wide range of rights including, most centrally, ‘the right of a child who is capable of forming his or her own views to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child’. In a number of jurisdictions this right is being exercised, bringing into question the traditional roles of parents and the family and leading to changes in legal systems as they try to balance the rights of the child with the obligations of the state and the needs and interests of society as a whole.

The development of the recognition of children’s rights has reflected concerns over the living conditions of children and the ways in which they are influenced by external factors such as poverty, hunger, disease and war. It has also been influenced by the perception that the growing up of a child is fundamental to the development of future adults who will contribute to their societies.

Children’s rights concern the basic human needs of every child, such as the right to parental guidance, survival and development, a decent standard of living, protection from violence, abuse and neglect, education, healthcare and freedom of thought and expression. They also include the right to rest and relaxation, cultural and artistic activities, sports and leisure time and participation in community life, as well as protection from discrimination, harmful work or the sale or exploitation of children.

Children also have the right to be raised by their parents or other adult responsible for them in a way that respects their religion, language, culture and traditions. Governments are obliged to protect children from neglect or violence by those who look after them. They should also protect them from the sale or exploitation of children, including the sex trafficking of children for commercial purposes.

A significant concern is that the rights that are accorded to children in international law are in many instances dependent on an arbitrary and vague notion of capacity. Capacity is defined in various ways and there are debates about what kinds of activity or decision making it entails. It is possible to defend the liberationist claim that children do have a right to their own view about what they should do with their lives, but it is difficult to reconcile this with the idea that this can be exercised without being subject to any external constraints or limitations.

In practice, determining what is best for a child can involve considerable judgement and this is why it is important that those who have responsibility for raising children should be given the information and support they need to do so. This includes information on the impact of their choices, whether they be in regard to health and education or employment. It is also important that children have the opportunity to express their views, provided that it does not prevent others from enjoying their rights.