After sixty years of advocacy and a decade of consultation with various stakeholders, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. The United Kingdom signed the Convention in April 1990, ratified it in December 1991 and it came into force for the UK on 15 January 1992.

The basic premise of the Convention is that children (all human beings below the age of 18) are born with fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of all human beings but with specific additional needs because of their vulnerability. The UNCRC is sometimes spoken of as the most complete of the international human rights instruments as it includes civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as well as incorporating aspects of humanitarian law.

The UNCRC makes children the holders of over 40 fundamental rights while respecting individual traditions and cultures in child care. It is written in such a way that it makes implementation possible in a diverse range of countries with different legal systems. Its language is universal and can be broadly applied.

The UNCRC has been ratified more quickly and by more governments than any other human rights instrument. The USA and Somalia are the only two countries yet to ratify the Convention. By ratifying the UNCRC, countries 'accept an obligation to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the enumerated rights' – including by adopting or changing laws and policies that implement the provisions of the Convention.

Many governments have enacted legislation, created mechanisms and put into place a range of creative measures to ensure the protection and realisation of the rights of those under the age of 18.

Evolving capacities

Children face a confusing array of minimum ages at which they are deemed capable of making decisions for themselves – some of them potentially life-changing. The age at which children can have a say in their medical treatment, for instance, or get married or vote, or choose or reject a religious belief or faith, varies significantly across and even within cultures. The legal minimum age may or may not reflect what children themselves feel they are capable of.

These age-based restrictions are founded on two main assumptions made by adults: first, that children lack the capacity to take responsibility for many decisions about their lives and must therefore be protected from the consequences of bad decisions; and second, that age limits are a crude but simple way to achieve that protection – even if some children might attain competence at a younger age, and others attain competence later.

But are rigid age limits the best way of determining children's competence? Age-based approaches rely heavily on adults’ perceptions of children's competence. In some societies, children are already taking on responsibilities for decision-making that would be exceptional elsewhere; other societies protect children to the point where they are given little scope for independent decision-making.

So what are the alternatives? The concept of "evolving capacities", as set out in Article 5 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child addresses these dilemmas by introducing the idea that children should be able to exercise their rights as they acquire the capacity to do so, rather than when they reach a certain age. It requires parents or legal guardians to guide children appropriately and respect the extent to which they can exercise their rights for themselves. The emphasis is shifted from simple parental authority to include parental responsibility to help children realise their rights and to provide appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise of those rights. This does not undermine the rights of parents. In fact, the principles of the UNCRC recognise the family as 'the natural environment for the growth and well being of its members'.

The structure of the UNCRC

The UNCRC contains 54 sections or 'Articles'. The Articles provide a complete framework of standards, principles and implementation guidance tailored to the specific needs of childhood. Together these articles provide, for the maximum possible, children's survival and development.

Part 1 - Articles 1-41 contain the Substantive Provisions of the Convention

Part 2 - Articles 42-45 are concerned with the Implementation and Monitoring of the Convention

Part 3 - Articles 46-54 contain the Final Clauses

So why is the UNCRC so important?

  • It lists all children's rights in one document covering the full range of human rights
  • It helps us to understand that children need to have access to all their rights if they are to survive and develop fully
  • It makes adults see children as individuals with rights
  • It applies to all children and young people every where
  • 192 countries have ratified it - there is almost universal support for realising the rights of children and more acceptance for this Convention than any other Convention
  • It gives us an internationally accepted framework for children's rights that we can use to campaign for children's rights in Wales
  • People who know their rights are better able to claim them. So promoting this internationally accepted framework and making its provisions widely known are therefore essential steps in respecting children's rights
  • The reporting process – whereby the UN Committee measures how well governments are actually doing helps to put pressure on governments to make sure children's rights are respected

Useful links

This bilingual rap about the UNCRC was put together by a group of young people from the Vale of Glamorgan. To learn more about the group of young people who put this rap together click here.


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