On 20 November 2019, it will be exactly 30 years since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly, with a view to recognising and protecting the fundamental rights of the children of the world.

Bygone Years

During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, people did not make much of childhood. Children were still considered mini-adults.

In the mid-19th century, the idea of specific protection for children emerged. The concept was pioneered in France. A body of law relating to minors gradually developed.

From 1841, recognition of children’s interests emerged. Bit by bit, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, legislation was passed to protect children in the workplace.

From 1881, French law on children’s education developed.

In the early 20th century, child protection began to be established. This included medical, social and court protection, among other things. The principle of child protection spread from France to other European countries.

In 1919, came a watershed moment. The League of Nations set up a Child Welfare Committee, which increased recognition of children’s rights by putting them in the international spotlight.

The Geneva Declaration

On 26 September 1924, the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration, the first international text to recognise the rights particular to children and specify the responsibilities of adults.

The Geneva Declaration was inspired by the work of the Polish doctor Janusz Korczak, who talked about respect for children’s identity and dignity.

In 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund was set up. UNICEF was born and, in 1953, it was made a permanent international organisation. UNICEF, whose primary purpose was to come to the aid of child victims of the Second World War, which essentially meant European children, has expanded its mandate worldwide since 1953 and it now has programmes in developing countries through aid programmes for children centred around education, health care and access to food and water.

From 1948 to 1959

On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It acknowledges that “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance”.

On 20 November 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The Declaration sets out 10 principles for children’s rights and makes a child a true subject of law. Although it had no binding force, it paved the way for universal recognition of children’s rights.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the UN General Assembly adopted two texts to support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

From 1979 to 1989

In 1979, came another milestone: the United Nations proclaimed it International Year of the Child.

This year saw a new and profound awareness, expressed through Poland’s proposal of creating a working group within the Commission on Human Rights. That working group came to a successful conclusion with the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), comprising 54 articles, which was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly on 20 November 1989. The Convention lays down children’s civil, economic, social and cultural rights. To date, the UNCRC has been ratified by 196 of 197 member countries, the exception being the United States.