United Nations and Children's Rights

Summary: An introduction to the UN system and how children's rights can be promoted at the international level, together with a guide to CRIN's webpages on the various UN mechanisms (including the Universal Periodic Review and Special Procedures).

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A guide to CRIN's pages on the UN system

In addition to pressing for children's rights at the national level, the UN system presents an opportunity for child rights advocates to raise issues at the international level.

Through our overview below and our webpages covering the various areas of the UN system, CRIN aims to illustrate how the UN system works and how child rights advocates can engage with the various mechanisms.

You can also click on the links below to access our pages on each of the areas. 

The United Nations and Child Rights

What is the United Nations?

The United Nations was formed on 24 October 1945 by 51 countries committed to preserving peace through international cooperation and collective security. Today, nearly every nation in the world belongs to the UN: membership totals 193 countries. When States become members of the United Nations, they agree to accept the obligations of the UN Charter, an international treaty that sets out basic principles of international relations. 

According to the Charter, the UN has four purposes:

  • to maintain international peace and security;
  • to develop friendly relations among nations;
  • to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights;
  • and to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations.

The United Nations is not a world government and it does not make laws. It does, however, provide the means to help resolve international conflicts and formulate policies on matters affecting all of us.

At the UN, all the Member States - large and small, rich and poor, with differing political views and social systems - have a voice and a vote in this process. Although some voices are invariably louder, and more listened to, than others.

Visit the United Nations website

What does it do?

The United Nations aims to help solve problems that challenge humanity, and so its diverse range of organisations do many different things. You can see a map of all the separate UN bodies here. The UN and its family of organisations work to promote respect for human rights, protect the environment, fight disease and reduce poverty.

UN agencies define the standards for safe and efficient air travel and help improve telecommunications and enhance consumer protection. The United Nations leads the international campaigns against drug trafficking and terrorism. Throughout the world, the UN and its agencies assist refugees, set up programmes to clear landmines, help expand food production and lead the fight against AIDS.

How is it structured?

The United Nations has six main organs. Five of them - the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat - are based at UN Headquarters in New York. The sixth, the International Court of Justice, is located at The Hague in the Netherlands. The United Nations aims to help solve problems that challenge humanity. Cooperating in this effort are more than 30 affiliated organisations, known together as the UN system, which are related to, or managed by, the six main organs mentioned above. For example, the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly.

View a map of the UN system to understand better

What work does it do on human rights?

Through UN efforts, governments have concluded many multilateral agreements to make the world a safer, healthier place with greater opportunity and justice for all. It has produced a large body of international law, including human rights law, for example the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1948, sets out basic rights and freedoms to which all women and men are entitled — among them the right to life, liberty and nationality; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to work and to be educated; the right to food and housing; and the right to take part in government.

These rights are legally binding by virtue of two International Covenants, to which most States are parties. One Covenant deals with economic, social and cultural rights and the other with civil and political rights. Together with the Declaration, they constitute the International Bill of Human Rights.

The Declaration laid the groundwork for some 80 other Conventions and declarations on human rights, including the two International Covenants. Children's rights feature in a number of these Conventions and declarations as will be illustrated below.

With its standards-setting work nearly complete, the UN is shifting the emphasis of its human rights efforts to the implementation of human rights laws. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, who coordinates UN human rights activities, works with governments to improve their observance of human rights, seeks to prevent violations, and works closely with the UN human rights mechanisms.

The UN Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body. The Council holds public meetings to review the human rights performance of States, adopts new standards and promotes human rights around the world. The Council also appoints independent experts — "special rapporteurs" — to report on specific human rights abuses or to examine the human rights situation in specific countries.

The Council holds three regular sessions each year (usually in March, June and September), where UN Member States discuss human rights issues. Furthermore, the Council holds Special Sessions from time to time, when an issue needs urgent attention.

Other areas with a human rights focus

Peacekeeping - A number of UN peacekeeping operations have a human rights component. They help strengthen national capacities in human rights legislation, administration and education; investigate reported violations; and assist governments in taking corrective measures when needed.

Development - Promoting respect for human rights is increasingly central to UN development assistance. In particular, the right to development is seen as part of a dynamic process which integrates civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, and by which the well-being of all individuals in a society is improved. Key to the enjoyment of the right to development is the eradication of poverty, a major UN goal.

Humanitarian Law / Tribunals - Massive violations of humanitarian law during the fighting in the former Yugoslavia led the Security Council in 1993 to establish an international tribunal to try persons accused of war crimes in that conflict. In 1994, the Council set up a second tribunal to hear cases involving accusations of genocide in Rwanda. The tribunals have found several defendants guilty and sentenced them to prison. The Rwanda Tribunal in 1998 handed down the first-ever verdict by an international court on the crime of genocide, as well as the first-ever sentence for that crime. A key United Nations goal — an international mechanism to impose accountability in the face of mass violations of human rights — was realised in 1998 when governments agreed to establish an International Criminal Court. The Court provides a means for punishing perpetrators of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

The UN has also contributed to the elaboration of conventions relating to international humanitarian law, such as the 1948 Convention on Genocide and the 1980 Inhumane Weapons Convention (concerning weapons which are excessively injurious or have indiscriminate effects).

What work does it do on child rights? How can NGOs use the mechanisms?

1. Treaty Bodies: the work of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

As part of the UN's work on human rights, the field of child rights is becoming an increasingly integral element of the organisation's work following the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is a treaty body made up of Independent Experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by its State parties (i.e by those who ratified it). It also monitors implementation of two Optional Protocols to the Convention, on involvement of children in armed conflict and on sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, and will examine complaints under the communications procedure adopted at the 66th session of the General Assembly once the Optional Protocol providing for this mechanism enters into force.

Day of General Discussion: Once a year, at its September session, the Committee holds a Day of General Discussion (DGD) on a provision of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to issue more detailed recommendations to governments.

2. The UN General Assembly

The General Assembly is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, and is the main deliberative organ. Comprising all 193 Members of the United Nations, it provides a forum for discussion and has been called the closest thing to a world parliament Once a year, the CRC Committee submits a report to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, hears a statement from the CRC Chair and the GA adopts a Resolution on the Rights of the Child.

Further reports to the GA

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict and the Special Representative on Violence against Children report to the General Assembly once a year. More here.

3. The UN Human Rights Council

In June 2006, the Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights as the main UN body in charge of monitoring and protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. The Council holds three regular sessions per year (each lasting four weeks), where the broad range of human rights issues are discussed and debated. (Read more about the Commission on Human Rights and child rights)

There are a number of avenues in which to promote children's rights in the Council, including:

Special Procedures

Although the tasks given to Special Procedure mechanisms vary, their role is to examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories (called country mandates, eg Independent expert on the situation of human rights in Burundi), or on major themes (called thematic mandates e.g. Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children)

Universal Periodic Review (UPR) The UPR is a mechanism under which the Human Rights Council examines the human rights situation in every Member State of the UN. Each State will be examined once every four and a half years.

4. The UN Security Council

The work of the Security Council on child rights focuses on children in armed conflict. More details about this here.

 The Security Council may refer a case to the International Criminal Court, even though the ICC is technically independent from the UN. More here.

Visit CRIN's page on children's rights and the UN Security Council.

5. Other organisations working on children

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is explicitly concerned with promoting and protecting the rights of the child. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is the lead UN organisation working for the long-term survival, protection and development of children. In some 150 countries, UNICEF's programmes focus on immunisation, primary health care, nutrition and basic education. (website: www.unicef.org)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is concerned with children's right to health (website: www.who.org).

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) formulated ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and ILO Convention No. 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work.

Other UN organisations

Amongst other UN organisations whose work directly affects children, the following are all examples of bodies which protect and further children's rights: The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

How to submit complaints to the UN

There are a number of ways that individuals, including children or adults acting on their behalf, can make use of mechanisms of the UN to challenge breaches of their rights. Complaints can be submitted to the Treaty bodies, Special Procedures and the Human Rights Council.

Treaty Bodies

There are number of Committees that will receive complaints from individuals, groups or their representatives (including children) who claim that their rights have been violated by a State that is a party to a convention or covenant provided that the State has recognised the competence of the committee to receive such complaints.

Existing ones: http://www.crin.org/law/CRC_complaints/#info

How to complain: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/petitions/individual.htm

Special Procedures. The process, in general, involves sending a letter to the concerned Government requesting information and comments on the allegation and, where necessary, asking that preventive or investigatory action be taken. There is a minimum of information that must be provided before a decision is made as to whether or not to follow up on a request. For details go here.

Human Rights Council On 18 June 2007, the Human Rights Council adopted the present text entitled "UN Human Rights Council: Institution Building" (resolution 5/1) by which a new Complaint Procedure is being established to address consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms occurring in any part of the world and under any circumstances.


Further information


    Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.