Agreement Outlining Children’s Rights Wins Approval of U.N. Subcommittee

January 11, 1989 2 min read

A United Nations subcommittee has adopted a draft proposal that would protect the human rights of children around the world--including their right to an education.

The unprecedented document--called a “convention” in the world body’s terminology--attempts to define society’s moral and legal responsibility to children. It is expected to be presented to the Human Rights Commission of the U.N. General Assembly this month.

The proposal establishes, for example, that children should be guaranteed such rights as health care and the enjoyment of a family life.

Though child-advocacy-group officials say that passage of the convention may have little impact on industrialized nations, where laws already provide similar protections, it could open doors for child-welfare groups working in other, less developed countries.

Alejandro J. Palacios, director of Congressional relations for the United Nations Children’s Fund, or unicef, said that the document “takes what already has been ratified in regards to human rights in general, and verifies it in terms of a particularly vulnerable group of people.”

The draft convention, which was adopted by the human-rights subcommittee last month, would bind governments that ratify it to a pledge to protect children from all forms of discrimination, maltreatment, neglect, and exploitation.

Also included in the document is language that would protect children’s freedom to express their opinions, exercise their religious conscience, and pursue leisure activities and play.

Although the draft was strongly supported by the Reagan Administration, U.S. representatives were among those who blocked passage of the proposal until language discouraging the induction of children under age 15 into military service was strengthened.

The original draft would have required countries accepting the document to “endeavor to prevent” children from ages 15 to 18 from joining the military.

Under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, Mr. Palacios said, the subcommittee changed the wording of the final draft to require countries to “take all feasible measures” to keep children younger than 15 out of their armed forces.

According to Mr. Palacios, the revised language also satisfied delegates from several countries, including the United States, who said it would be difficult in wartime to bar enlistments by volunteers between the ages of 15 and 18. The United States currently allows 17-year-olds to enlist with parental consent.

In the area of education, the proposed covenant supports the concept that governments are responsible for providing free, compulsory primary education for children, beginning as early as possible.

At the secondary level, it says, all students should have the right to choose from among different options in both general and vocational education and should be able to receive financial assistance if needed.

The document also binds governments to:

Use discipline in schools in a manner that considers the child’s dignity.

Protect the rights of parents or guardians to help their children receive an education.

Promote and encourage international cooperation in educational matters, and contribute to the worldwide elimination of illiteracy.

Facilitate access to educational technology.

The convention also would obligate governments to direct their educational efforts toward the development of the child’s own personality and talents, while respecting his cultural and national values.

The draft document does not propose sanctions for countries that do not comply with the agreement.


A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Agreement Outlining Children’s Rights Wins Approval of U.N. Subcommittee