The 30 Years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: What next?

Children Playing

Gamze Erdem Türkelli on the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We are celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC is the most widely, in fact almost universally (with the notable and only exception being the United States), ratified human rights convention in the world. 30 years ago, it became the first binding legal instrument codifying children’s rights. It was later joined by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) of the African Union.

A brief history

The CRC is often portrayed as a natural extension of the 1924 Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 1959 UN Declaration. Born out of the experience of World War I, the 1924 Declaration is quite concise in the way it focuses on children’s rights. Its main concern is rights on protection and provision: to be given the means requisite for children’s material and spiritual development, to be provided for with food, healthcare, assistance for disability, opportunity for rehabilitation in case of conflict with the law, and assistance for orphaned or homeless children. The 1959 Declaration, which followed from both the 1924 Declaration and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, balances protection and provision rights for children with accents on physical, mental, moral, spiritual and social development alongside freedom and dignity. The idea put forth in the 1924 Declaration and repeated again in the 1959 Declaration that “mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give” did not make its way into the text of the CRC, it was echoed in the UN General Assembly when the CRC was adopted. The CRC of course went much further than the two declarations in tackling issues linked to children’s rights with respect not only to protection and provision but also participation and empowerment.

The CRC and its Optional Protocols are central to children’s rights as they are globally codified. The CRC espouses global normative standards on children’s rights that are binding for States and relevant for other actors in the children’s rights landscape, including parents, legal guardians, extended family, the broader community, institutions and organisations working with children. The idea of children’s rights transforms power relationships and accords children access, voice and the possibility to claim individual or collective entitlements, particularly in legal processes.

The spirit of the CRC is a holistic one that addresses the protection, provision and participation rights of children concurrently. Yet, as a legal instrument, the CRC has its inherent challenges. It is particularly important to remember that the elaboration of legal norms on children’s rights has taken place in a top-down and adult-driven fashion. This means that we should expect a divide between children’s real-life experiences informing their agency and their legal rights. It is equally important to recognize that the realisation of children’s rights in the political, social and economic spheres will often require a change in power relations beyond the act of ratification of the CRC and its Optional Protocols.

What next for the CRC and its OPs?

In the course of the last thirty years, the world has undergone major transformations which bring new topical children’s rights issues to the fore. These include children as a part of the broader discussions on sustainability, including in relation to the climate emergency and to environmental sustainability, the rights of children in migration, the rights of children in street situations, the rights of LGBTQI+ children and children in assisted reproduction settings. The CRC does not explicitly reference many of these areas. Yet, children themselves have been at the forefront of claiming their rights in some of these areas. For instance, children -including some younger children – are plaintiffs in climate change litigation cases. Children have taken to the streets to urge decision-makers to act to halt the climate emergency.

Article 45 paragraph C of the CRC speaks to the need to deal with new problems or developments which are not covered by the Convention. There is a need to interpret the provisions of the CRC and its Protocols in light of recent developments, transformations at the global, social and family levels. What is ultimately promising is that the CRC can accommodate the growing accent on children’s agency and the need to facilitate that agency politically, socially, economically and legally. The focus on the evolving capacities of the child and the ever-increasing recognition of children’s autonomy and self-deployed agency allows for this. One other very important contribution to empowerment that the CRC has undeniably made is the legal codification of the principle of non-discrimination with respect to children. This has opened the door for the inclusion of issues of intersectionality in children’s rights, empowering -at least on the legal realm- children who may be disenfranchised because of their class, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Ultimately, the CRC and its Optional Protocols as instruments allow us to rethink how we evaluate children’s place in society and create the legal space for children to claim their place and rights.

(This blog post draws on the Introduction chapter of Children’s Rights: A Commentary on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Protocols by Wouter Vandenhole, Gamze Erdem Türkelli and Sara Lembrechts (Elgar Commentaries, 2019) as well as the Keynote Introduction delivered by Gamze Erdem Türkelli entitled “”30 Years of the CRC: From a Protected to an Empowered Childhood?” at the “From A Protected to An Empowered Childhood: 30 Years of The Convention On The Rights Of The Child” Conference organised in Leuven, Belgium on 21-22 November 2020.)

Vandenhole Children's

Wouter Vandenhole, Professor of Human Rights and Children’s Rights, Law and Development Research Group, University of Antwerp, Belgium, Gamze Erdem Türkelli, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Fundamental Research at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) (File Number: 12Q1719N) and Sara Lembrechts, Children’s Rights Knowledge (KeKi), Belgium and a member of the Personal Rights and Property Rights Research Group, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Children’s Rights: A Commentary on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Protocols is out now.

Read the Introduction free on Elgaronline



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One Comment on “The 30 Years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: What next?”

  1. Prof. Prem raj P Says:

    Prof Prem raj Pushpakaran writes — 2019 marks the 30th year of signing of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child!!!


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