United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in recognition of the special needs of children throughout the world.

Summary of Event

The primary guardians of children traditionally have been families. However, families often are unable or unwilling to protect and preserve the rights of children, so society must be ready to assume that role when circumstances require. With the growth of international awareness of human rights and of agencies dedicated to their promotion in the twentieth century, increasingly international efforts to preserve the rights of children, which more often than not will imply working with the families of children, have taken root. Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, U.N. (1959)
United Nations;children
[kw]United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (Nov. 20, 1959)
[kw]Declaration of the Rights of the Child, United Nations Adopts the (Nov. 20, 1959)
[kw]Rights of the Child, United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the (Nov. 20, 1959)
[kw]Child, United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the (Nov. 20, 1959)
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, U.N. (1959)
United Nations;children
[g]North America;Nov. 20, 1959: United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child[06250]
[g]United States;Nov. 20, 1959: United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child[06250]
[c]United Nations;Nov. 20, 1959: United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child[06250]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 20, 1959: United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child[06250]
[c]Human rights;Nov. 20, 1959: United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child[06250]
Anderson, Charles W.
Jebb, Eglantyne

Indeed, the concept of children’s rights began to develop early in the twentieth century. One of the later highlights of this development was the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. This event brought before the members of the United Nations for the first time the idea that, just as adults had human rights simply by virtue of being human, so children had special rights simply by virtue of being children, over and above any civil rights that a government might give them.

The concerns of children throughout the world were becoming better known because children’s advocates were demanding changes to benefit children. In some agricultural societies, children were expected to contribute to household and agricultural chores almost from the time they could walk. In urban societies, the Industrial Revolution brought different but equally harsh conditions for children. They worked long hours in mines and factories at difficult and strenuous work, often under unsanitary and dangerous conditions. Additionally, many children endured neglect, exploitation, and physical and sexual abuse. Some ended up in orphanages, prisons, or other institutions that provided little improvement in their lives.

The prevalence of these conditions paved the way for laws to protect children. The International Labor Organization International Labor Organization (ILO) was the first to adopt an international law on children’s rights in 1919. The Minimum Age (Industry) Convention Minimum Age (Industry) Convention (1919) prohibited the employment of children under the age of fourteen in industry. During this same year, Eglantyne Jebb, an Englishwoman who was especially concerned about the effects of the war on children, founded the Save the Children International Union Save the Children International Union (SCIU) with strong support from the Red Cross and the Swiss Committee for the Protection of Children. Jebb believed strongly that all children caught in the ravages of war, regardless of country, should be helped; she maintained that there was no such thing as an “enemy child.”

In 1923, the SCIU drafted and adopted a charter of children’s rights, the first such document of its kind. In the following year, it was presented to the League of Nations, where it was officially adopted and became known as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Declaration of the Rights of the Child, League of Nations (1923) or the Geneva Declaration Geneva Declaration (1923) . This first declaration was a simple document of only five principles and a brief preamble that stated that humankind owes to the child the best it has to give.

Partially because the world was plunged into World War II, almost nothing was done about children’s rights until after the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Children’s advocates pressed to have the United Nations officially adopt the Geneva Declaration, but it was much more concerned about drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in those early years, when it seemed proper, after such a devastating war, to make a statement declaring the rights of all human beings. After the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, however, children’s advocates pointed out that a number of the articles did not really apply to children and that the Geneva Declaration was now somewhat outdated.

The SCIU, which had merged with the International Association for the Protection of Child Welfare to form the International Union of Child Welfare International Union of Child Welfare , was one of the strongest groups to exert pressure on various committees of the United Nations. In 1946, it had already added three principles to the original five of the Geneva Declaration—one, that children should be protected regardless of race, nationality, or creed; another, that the family of a child must be respected; and a third, that children should enjoy full benefits of social security and welfare programs.

Even with the pressure exerted, however, it was not until the years between 1957 and 1959 that the U.N. committees involved gave their full attention to the question of children’s rights. During this time, the U.N. Social Commission, Economic and Social Council, and Commission on Human Rights all worked on a draft of a declaration based on the eight principles of the earlier Geneva Declaration. The final draft of ten principles, approved by the three groups, was submitted to the General Assembly’s Third Committee, Third Committee, U.N. where it was discussed extensively over a period of three months.

One of the discussions related to the document’s being a declaration rather than a convention, which would have included provision for implementation of the principles. The United States delegate, Charles W. Anderson, pointed out that the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) proved that a document did not have to be legally binding to be effective. The Universal Declaration had not only served well as a goal for all countries but had also been incorporated into the constitutions of several new countries and had become a model for national legislation. He believed that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child would also serve as a model for legislation and a guide for action on the local and national levels with respect to the well-being of children. Several countries agreed, and the document remained a declaration until it was revised twenty years later.

During the discussion, a number of more substantive questions were raised. One was whether the declaration should state in more positive terms the needs of the unborn for special protection. Italy recommended that the phrase “from the moment of his conception” be added to the statement, noting that children need special safeguards, including legal protection. Those opposed to this amendment pointed out that countries with legalized abortion would find this difficult to accept, and, since it was such a controversial issue, the amendment could not be included if the declaration was to be universally acceptable. In place of the proposed amendment, a compromise suggested by the Philippines—the phrase “the child, before as well as after birth, needs special safeguards”—was substituted.

Another question dealt with the role of the state and the family in taking primary responsibility for the child’s welfare. The Soviet Union argued that only the state could guarantee many of the rights set forth in the declaration and proposed that all states should bring their legislation into conformity with the principles of the declaration. The majority argued that the family should take the primary responsibility for the child’s welfare, so the proposal was rejected, as were several similar proposals made by the Soviet Union. The group did, however, broaden the responsibility for the child’s welfare by calling on parents, individuals, voluntary organizations, local authorities, and national governments to recognize children’s rights and strive for their implementation.

Another proposal that was discussed was one to include the right to grow up in the religious faith of one’s parents, a proposal supported primarily by Guatemala and Israel. This was not approved, because many of the delegates believed that it might pose difficulties in states of many religions and might also present problems in the case of parents of different religions.

On a more positive note, Mexico, Peru, and Romania proposed adding to principle 7 on the child’s right to education a paragraph stating that the child should have a right to play and recreation. This was unanimously approved. All ten principles, with some additions and changes, were adopted by the Third Committee of the General Assembly on October 19, 1959, by a vote of 70-0, with 2 abstentions; the vote was confirmed by the plenary session of the General Assembly on November 20. A resolution proposed by Afghanistan, that the declaration be given the widest possible publicity, was also unanimously approved.


The impact of a U.N. declaration, as opposed to a convention, which has the force of law in countries where governments have signed the document, is difficult to assess. Although much acclaim was given to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is probably safe to say that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child did not have the same impact, partly because its rights were applicable to a smaller group.

The declaration was not incorporated in new constitutions, most likely because the new constitutions being formulated by developing nations concentrated on incorporating the principles of the Universal Declaration, which were more generally applicable than were the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Also, some of the provisions in the latter, such as the right to free elementary education, were not possible for many developing countries.

If the literature following the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child is any indication, one would have to say that there was little impact. After a few articles on the declaration following its approval in 1959, very little was written about it. Most books on children’s rights mention the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and some describe the events leading up to it, but few throw any light on what, if any, impact it had.

UNICEF UNICEF (originally the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, but since 1953 the United Nations Children’s Fund, although retaining its original acronym), which was not involved in voting for the adoption of the declaration, did make a conscious effort to implement its principles, primarily in the fields of health, nutrition, and welfare. UNICEF was, however, heavily involved in these areas anyway and would probably have continued to be involved regardless of the adoption of the declaration.

The most positive impact of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was that it paved the way for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The International Year of the Child in 1979 provided an opportunity for a reevaluation of the declaration, and people became aware of the shortcomings of a document that expressed lofty ideals but had no mechanism for enforcement. Even though there had been some movement, particularly in Poland, to prepare a convention for adoption in 1979, it was only the beginning of the long, arduous work for the adoption of a thoroughly revised declaration, which finally came to fruition in 1989.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified more quickly by more countries than any other previous human rights instrument, entering into force less than a year after its opening for ratification. As of 2005, 192 governments were party to it, a testimony to the degree of the international recognition of the importance of protecting children in principle even when practice still falls short of the ideal. Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, U.N. (1959)
United Nations;children

Further Reading

  • Beigbeder, Yves. New Challenges for UNICEF: Children, Women, and Human Rights. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An evaluation of twenty-first century challenges for the United Nations Children’s Fund. Bibliography, index.
  • Boulding, Elise. Children’s Rights and the Wheel of Life. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1979. Convinced that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child focuses on those under fourteen and deals primarily with protection from harm, Boulding attempts to present children as actors, shapers, and contributors to society, comparing their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities to those of the elderly.
  • _______. “The Silenced Majority.” UNESCO Courier 32 (January, 1979): 4-8, 34. Presents a case for children’s rights, including more autonomy for children and greater opportunity to take initiative in actions that concern them. Argues that the evaluating and policy-making processes of society should be open to young people.
  • Cohen, Howard. Equal Rights for Children. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1980. Discusses human rights in general and the rights of children in particular. Calls into question the emphasis on protectionist rights in the declaration. Recommends extending all rights adults enjoy to children when they are applicable.
  • Greaney, Vincent, ed. Children: Needs and Rights. New York: Irvington, 1985. Presents the views of ten children’s rights advocates from a multidisciplinary perspective. Includes chapters on how children’s rights developed in the United States and in European countries and on the rights of children with special needs. The chapter on “The United Nations and Children’s Rights” contains a copy of the text of the declaration and proposed revisions.
  • Kaufman, Natalie Hevener, and Irene Rizzini, eds. Globalization and Children: Exploring Potentials for Enhancing Opportunities in the Lives of Children and Youth. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002. Places children in discussions and analyses of the effects of globalization—of social, economic, and cultural changes—on humankind, and, therefore, on children. Argues that children should be included in the debate about globalization and change.
  • “The Rights of the Child: Draft Declaration Approved.” United Nations Review 6 (November, 1959): 20-21. Explains the process of how the draft of the declaration came to be adopted and summarizes the content of the preamble and the ten principles. Makes some comparisons of the draft to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Stearns, Peter N. Childhood in World History. New York: Routledge, 2006. A brief, focused study on the international history of children and childhood, with chapters on childhood and children in agricultural societies, in classical times, and the twentieth century; children and colonialism; children in modern Japan; children in industrialized countries; and children in the context of war and violence. Bibliography and index.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund. Building a World Fit for Children. New York: Author, 2003. A 23-page report from the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children, held May 8-10, 2002. See http://www.unicef.org/specialsession/.
  • Vittachi, Anuradha. Stolen Childhood: In Search of the Rights of the Child. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1989. Based on a British television series, this book reviews the plight of children all over the world whose rights have been abused. The poignant illustrations, many in color, serve to highlight the excellent text.
  • Wilkerson, Albert E., ed. The Rights of Children: Emergent Concepts in Law and Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973. Children’s human and civil rights are discussed by experts in various fields. The text of the declaration makes up the first chapter. Contains a good explanation of human rights as opposed to civil rights for children. Includes extensive discussion of legal rights as they relate to social welfare.

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