International children’s rights: An ongoing global issue

International children’s rights: An ongoing global issue

Reflections to mark 10 years’ UNICEF Chair in Children’s Rights

More than ten years ago, Leiden University and UNICEF The Netherlands agreed on the wish to establish a chair dedicated to academic research and education in the field of international children's rights. The idea was to work on this relatively young area of law, which was developing at a rapid pace, and to fill the gap left by universities in the Netherlands. Academic knowledge about international children's rights was (and still is) badly needed to protect the rights and interests of children worldwide. UNICEF Belgium and the University of Antwerp had previously started a similar initiative, a collaboration that has since ended. With the help of the Leiden University Fund (LUF), a special fund was set up to financially support the UNICEF chair. Leiden Law School, and in particular the Department of Child Law, provided the foundation for this full-time chair.

On 15 March 2012, I had the privilege to start as the new and first UNICEF professor. Together with many others in Leiden and beyond, I could start building a centre of knowledge for international children’s rights. Ten years on, it is good to reflect on the question of why a chair like this is important and why it would be good if there were more UNICEF chairs in the world.

International children’s rights – a legal discipline in research

The legal basis of international children’s rights lies in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (also known as the UN Children’s Rights Convention (CRC)) which was adopted in 1989 and came into force one year later. Since then, 196 countries have signed this Convention, which creates a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of every child. The United States is the only UN member State that has not embraced the CRC, although it has acceded to the two substantive optional protocols to the CRC that deal with the protection of children in armed conflict and the protection against the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. International children’s rights are thus relevant to all children throughout the world.

Since the early 1990s, the legal framework for children’s rights has been developing rapidly, at international (UN), regional and national level. Currently in 2022, it is a complex and dynamic framework that is increasingly influencing national legal systems (see e.g. Kilkelly, Lundy & Byrne, 2021). The extent to which the international children’s rights framework has an impact in society depends on many factors. It is clear, however, that it does have an impact and that this has translated into concrete results for children (see e.g. Arts, 2014).

It is precisely because of the complex and dynamic nature of the children's rights framework that there is a great need for specific attention to international children's rights in academic research and education. In terms of research, it is clear that in 2022, both academics and practitioners are still struggling to understand the implications of the legal framework. Although there is a large and growing body of relevant research, there are still many questions to be answered and a large gap in our knowledge about children's rights. For example, much is still unclear about the right of children to access justice (Liefaard, 2019), the right to leisure and play (Art. 31 CRC) and political rights of children. It has been pointed out before that studies on the (legal) position of children at the national level are often approached from other fields of law – for example, family law or criminal law. As a result, there is no specific or sufficiently in-depth analysis of children's rights (Kilkelly & Liefaard, 2018). There is also a need for more comparative studies – for example between countries on the implementation of specific children’s rights (Liefaard 2020), between the different children’s rights and human rights instruments (see e.g. recently Veerman, 2022), and between international children’s rights and other areas of international rights such as international humanitarian rights, international private rights and international labour rights. Our knowledge of the role and significance of children’s rights in society can be further enhanced through a stronger connection with adjacent fields such as transnational justice, law and development and law and society (see e.g. Hopman, 2021).

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that children's rights are relevant to all kinds of new areas that were not, or hardly, in the picture when the Convention on the Rights of the Child was drawn up. These include digital and other technologies, biomedical issues (e.g. concerning medical treatment and research, vaccinations, artificial reproduction and surrogacy), and climate change. In these and many other 'new' areas, issues arise concerning protection, participation and self-determination for children. The children’s rights’ framework is also used by children themselves or by their representatives to highlight certain contemporary issues and to demand greater responsibility from States Parties. For example, the responsibility of States for the protection of children who are trapped in northern Syria because their parents were involved in IS (Duffy, 2021), or issues surrounding the role of non-State actors, including the business sector and care providers. The recent climate case dealt with by the UN Children’s Rights Committee is another striking example. Although the Committee found the children’s communication inadmissible, it did consider that States may be responsible for the negative consequences of climate change resulting from their actions, also beyond the borders of their countries (Wewerinke-Singh 2021). All this shows that the interpretation and application of international children’s rights requires constant reflection and attention in academic research.

Education about children’s rights

From that research, it is then very important that students and professionals are educated and trained in applying international children’s rights in practice. In this respect, too, much has happened since the advent of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the same time, there is still a huge knowledge gap among legal and other professionals worldwide, and the number of universities that include international children’s rights in their curricula is very limited. If there is any attention for children’s rights, it is often limited to an elective course or teaching that ignores the legal dimension or offers too little opportunity for in-depth study and critical reflection. While it is certainly true that education in children’s rights (and also research) cannot do without an interdisciplinary approach, the fact that international children’s rights are based on a legal framework should not be overlooked. This makes the contribution from the legal scientific field indispensable, also in education aimed at non-legal students, such as psychologists and educators, medical professionals, social workers or teachers. In other words, there should be sufficient attention for children's rights in the education and training of (future) professionals, linking legal knowledge with knowledge from other scientific disciplines. It is clear that universities and colleges have a key position here.

A UNICEF Chair on every continent

The UNICEF Chair in Children's Rights at Leiden University has allowed us, among many other things, to develop research and teaching on complex and topical children's rights issues. This will help guide practice on how to effectively and sustainably implement international children's rights. The past ten years have taught us that such an approach can achieve a great deal thanks to the clear focus on this legal discipline. This is also the result of the intensive collaboration with a strong, social partner like UNICEF. So it is wonderful that this collaboration will continue in the coming years.

In addition, an important benefit of a chair such as this is that from a free, impartial and independent position, critical reflection can be carried out on the meaning of international children’s rights for children in their specific environment or context. At a time when the rights and interests of children are constantly under threat from global crises caused by a pandemic, geopolitical conflicts – including the recent war in Ukraine – and ideologies that question the value of human rights and therefore children’s rights, it is very important to nurture knowledge hubs like this one. I wish more universities would embrace this field that is so vital for children and therefore for future generations. Why not have a UNICEF Chair in Children’s Rights on every continent? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?


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