Children’s Rights and the UNCRC

May 4, 2022 | News, News


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a legally binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of every child under the age of 18.

These rights are universal, inalienable, inherent, indivisible, and unconditional. 


The UNCRC consists of 54 articles that set out children’s rights and how governments should work together to make them available to all children. 

Under the terms of the convention, governments are required to meet children’s basic needs and help them reach their full potential.  It can be categorised as containing 42 substantive articles related to the provision, protection, and participation rights of children.  

The principles contained in the following articles should be at the heart of all work involving children and young people: the non-discrimination (Art 2), best interest’s (Art 3), survival and development (Art 6) and children’s participation (Art 12) principles. 

A child friendly version of the UNCRC can be found here:

In 2000, two optional protocols were added to the UNCRC.  One asks governments to ensure children under the age of 18 are not forcibly recruited into their armed forces. The second calls on states to prohibit child prostitution, child pornography and the sale of children into slavery. These have now been ratified (signed) by more than 120 states.

A third optional protocol was added in 2011. This enables children whose rights have been violated to complain directly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.


Since it was adopted by the United Nations in November 1989, 196 countries have signed up to the UNCRC, with only the USA still to ratify.  The UK signed the treaty on 16 December 1991. 


All countries that sign up to the UNCRC are bound by international law to ensure it is implemented. This is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.  This Committee oversees what countries are doing to implement the UNCRC and monitors their progress.

In Scotland, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland plays a key role in supporting the implementation of the UNCRC. They can investigate the extent to which a service provider has regarded the rights and views of groups of children.  Service providers who can be investigated include those from the voluntary, private, and public sector.

Part 2 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced an individual investigations function to the role of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland.  This will provide a limited mechanism through which children can seek an investigation into violations of their UNCRC rights. Children, their parents, and other adults who support them will be able to ask the Commissioner to investigate the extent to which an individual child’s rights have been upheld. The Commissioner will be able to make recommendations about what should be done to make improvements but will not have the power to order a service provider to act in accordance with the Convention.

The Scottish Government also uses child rights and wellbeing impact assessments (CRWIAs) to assess how Scottish Government policies and legislation impact children’s rights.

Real change for children and young people also happens when adults listen to them and act on what is heard.  There are some examples of children and young people being involved in decision-making in Scotland.  For example, since 2017, the Scottish Cabinet and representatives of the Scottish Youth Parliament and Children’s Parliament have met to hear children and young people’s views on key issues affecting their lives at home, at school and in their communities.  These views inform the Scottish Governments agenda.  The Scottish Parliament then publishes a report on the actions agreed with the children and young people, and reports on the progress made towards achieving these.  

The Scottish Government has produced a ‘10-minute training tool’ to help people learn about children’s human rights under the UNCRC. Access the tool here

The Scottish Government has also published a National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP), a roadmap towards a ‘Scotland where everyone can live with human dignity’.  The Scottish Government has given a strong commitment to the Plan.  Read more about SNAP here.


It is a common misconception that children’s rights are exclusively a modern phenomenon.  Children’s rights are rooted in parts of human civilisation, which is documented both in philosophical and cultural historical records.

The protection of children’s rights, however, accelerated under the scope of international law in the 20th century.  The UNCRC is the first international instrument that has recognised a child as a visible individual rights holder in the history of international law.

There are also other human rights treaties and instruments which provide rights protections for children too at an international, European, and domestic level such as the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Developments that have been furthering children’s rights across legislation, policy and practice in Scotland include GIRFEC, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, the Scottish Government’s 2018-21 Action Plan, and most recently the Children (Scotland) Act 2020.  A Scottish Government consultation in May 2019 sought views on the best way to incorporate the UNCRC and a draft Children’s Rights (Scotland) Bill in 2018 was also considered.


Signing the UNCRC treaty does not guarantee that the UNCRC will be respected, protected, and fulfilled.  It must become part of domestic law, policy, and practice to ensure its fully implemented.  This process is called incorporation.

On 16th March 2021, the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the UN Incorporation (Scotland) Bill.  The Scottish Minister has promised that this Bill will incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law “fully and directly” as far as its legislative competence will allow.  Once in force, Scotland may become the first devolved nation in the world and administrative nation in the UK to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law.

In the same parliamentary session that the Bill was unanimously passed the Scottish government also ended the physical punishment of children and raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12.

The UN Incorporation (Scotland) Bill:

  • will place a statutory duty on Scottish Ministers and public authorities not to act incompatibly with the UNCRC and give powers of redress to children, young people, and their representatives in the courts.  That could be by judicial review in the Court of Session or by using the UNCRC requirements as evidence in court proceedings.
  • The Scottish Government will also be able to change law to make sure they are compatible with the UNCRC requirements.
  • The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and Scottish Human Rights Commission will also have powers to take legal action to protect children’s rights.
  • The Scottish Government must also publish a Children’s Rights Scheme which will be reviewed annually, to show how they are meeting UNCRC requirements and explain their plans for children’s rights.  This Scheme will be an important tool in supporting children’s active participation in decisions that affect them.  It will raise awareness of and promote their rights and mean that their rights are considered in budgeting processes.
  • Other public authorities mentioned in the Bill must report every 3 years on what they have done to meet the UNCRC requirements.

The Supreme Court has ruled that some of the things this Bill sets out to do are not within the powers of the Scottish Parliament and as a result the Bill cannot become law in its current form.  The Scottish Parliament is currently in the process of making further legislative changes to the Bill.

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