Human rights treaties are often followed by 'Optional Protocols'. These are additional legal mechanisms that complement and add to the treaty after its original adoption. They can be used either to further address something in the original treaty or to address a new or emerging concern. They provide more detail and expand the obligations beyond those under the original treaty. The Optional Protocols must still be guided by the principles of non-discrimination, best interests, child participation and survival and development.
A protocol is 'optional' because it is not automatically binding on States that have already ratified the original treaty. The obligations in the protocol are additional and may be more demanding than those in the original Convention, and so States must independently choose whether or not to be bound by a protocol. If a State agrees to be bound by the Optional Protocols, the obligations in them become legally binding for the State.
Optional protocols have their own ratification mechanism independent of the Convention. Generally, only States that have already agreed to be bound by an original treaty may ratify its optional protocols. The Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child do however permit non-States parties to ratify or accede to them. For example, the United States, which has not ratified the Convention, has ratified both of the Optional Protocols which are discussed below.
In response to the growing exploitation of children around the world the UN General Assembly adopted, in 2002, two Optional Protocols as additions to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
These Optional Protocols increase the level of protection of children from involvement in armed conflicts and from sexual exploitation.
The Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography 18 Jan 2002
This protocol draws special attention to the criminalization of these serious violations of children's rights and emphasizes the importance of fostering increased public awareness and international cooperation in efforts to combat them.
The Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict 25 May 2002
This protocol establishes 18 as the minimum age for compulsory recruitment into a State’s armed forces and requires States to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a direct part in hostilities.
The UK and the Optional Protocols
In June 2003, the UK ratified the Optional Protocol on children involved in armed conflicts.This means that from that date, the additional obligations in that Optional Protocol became binding on the UK.
In February 2009 the UK Government ratified the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.