Topic 6 Who created children’s rights?

Westerners tend to perceive the existence of rights as an eternal status quo. We rarely look back to find out how humanity came up with the recognition of human rights. Concerning children’s rights, this contemplation is even rarer.

The recent refugee crisis, the war between Russia and Ukraine and other similar geopolitical events, reminded us of the relativity that can impact human rights, especially rights of the most vulnerable: children.

It is highly important for students to understand that they should never take their rights for granted. For a simple reason: their rights are the result of very recent social evolution.

Source: UNICEF/UN0605554/Remp

On the other hand, various authors doubt the universality of children’s rights, despite the attempt of the UNCRC signatories to establish them as such.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) assumes that children’s rights are universalisable, but the question being raised here is whether child-specific rights can be universalised given the diverse experiences of childhood across the world .’’: let us think for example Yemen’s starving children, let to die during the ongoing civil war and abused children hosted within Iceland’s high profile social welfare system.

In other words ‘’it is a mark of the ubiquity of rights thinking that a body such as the United Nations, whose member states espoused conflicting ideologies and possessed widely different cultures, should nevertheless have been able to promulgate such a declaration [as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights]’’ while ‘’it is hard to think of any idea which has achieved a similar stature amongst the international community […] Few states are willing to flatly reject the idea of human rights and few governments are willing to present themselves openly to the world as violators of human rights .’’

Source: WFP/Annabel Symington
Source: Arctic Adventures

Historical background

Αncient Greece

In Αncient Greece, even in the homeland of democracy, Athens, children were not seen as subjects. For example, the father who was the leader of ‘’oikos’’ (what we would today call ‘’household ’’) had the right to ‘’expose ’’ a child of his that he would recognize, meaning that ‘’he had the right to let it die or hope that someone else would take care of him/her ’’


European Middle Ages

In the European Middle Ages ,‘’there was no such thing as childhood ’’. An Italian wandered in England of 15th century remarked that ‘’the want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children, for after having them at home until they reach the age seven or nine, they board them out to service in the homes of other people .’’


17th century

Only in the 17th century ‘’childhood came to be regarded as a separate stage of life. John Locke, a 17th-century English thinker, saw the mind of a newborn child as a blank sheet, to be filled in by its elders and betters ’’.


19th century

In the 19th century, France became the living laboratory of children’s rights. In 1841, the first laws on child labour were put in force while in 1881 children get the right to education by law.


World War I

After World War I, the League of Nations, the ancestor of the United Nations, adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (The Geneva Declaration of 1924). This is the first international instrument which is dedicated to children’s rights.

World War II

The horror of World War II and the Holocaust, gave birth to UNICEF (1947) and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948) which stipulates that ‘’motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance’’ (Article 25)


In 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) upgrade and specialise the provisions of the Universal Declaration of 1948. Among other, they protect children from exploitation and they acknowledge once again the right to education.


The United Nations declare the year 1979 International Year of the Child


In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed      and entered into force one year later. From then on, children’s rights become a systematic field of legal interest, studies and interventions.


The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention is signed in 1999 and the optional protocol to the International Charter of the Children’s rights regarding the participation of children in armed conflicts in 2000



In 2007, the Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (‘’Lanzarote Convention’’) is adopted by the Council of Europe.


In its preamble, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence of 2011 (‘’Istanbul Convention’’) recognizes that ‘’children are victims of domestic violence, including as witnesses of violence in the family’’