Every year since 1959, the United Nations has observed Universal Children’s Day on November 20, when they signed the “Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

But it was 94 years ago–on 26 September 1924–that the League of Nations approved its predecessor, the “Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child”.

The 1924 document was the first international treaty that specifically discussed the idea of children’s rights. The Geneva Declaration stated that:

  1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
  2. The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
  3. The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.
  4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
  5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.

These ideas are simple and obvious to us today. But it wasn’t always that way. It took the incredible work and sacrifice of children’s rights activists to arrive at the point where we can take it for granted that children have these basic rights.

A major inspiration for this document was Janusz Korczak, known as the “father of children’s rights”. He spent decades promoting children’s rights. Although he didn’t write it, he was the first to promote the idea, and was invited to sign the original document in light of his contribution.

Monument to Korczak in Warsaw

During World War II, he had many chances to avoid arrest by the Nazis, but he refused to abandon the children he was caring for. In 1942, his life ended in the Treblinka concentration camp, along with the lives of 200 children from his orphanage.

The document he inspired has been historically significant since the endorsement of the League of Nations General Assembly. After the League of Nations was succeeded by the United Nations, the Declaration was re-written to become the “Convention on the Rights of the Child“. And since 20 November 1989, this Convention has been signed and ratified by 193 nations. It is the most widely adopted human rights treaty in history.

And of course it is! Who doesn’t love children? Who doesn’t want children to succeed and thrive? And regardless, even if some people care less than others, anybody who isn’t willing to sign the document will look really bad.

So, every member of the United Nations signed the Convention. And in addition to signing it, every UN member eventually ratified it–except for the United State of America. The reasons given by America revolve around a fear of international control of its domestic policy.

But every nation has signed the document, and has said they will follow the rules of the Convention. There were also other nations who had concerns about international meddling in their domestic policy. Ultimately, though, they knew they would lose face if they didn’t sign.

It seems like a no-brainer for a nation to sign a treaty recognising children’s rights. But different nations have different values. For example, several nations who promote Sharia law objected to the Convention’s provision regarding a child’s freedom of religion, and said their domestic law came first. But they still signed the treaty. Several European nations objected to the signatures of nations governed by Sharia law. But they all still signed it. Israel and Canada objected to the fact that Palestine signed it, since it is not a UN member state. But Israel and Canada still signed it. And perhaps most disturbingly, China stated that they wouldn’t follow any provision of the Convention that would contradict China’s Family Planning Policy.

Presumably, China did not want the United Nations bothering them about:
1) the babies who are taken away from parents who have “too many” children,
2) withholding medical care from newborn babies who were supposed to be aborted, or
3) withholding health care and education from the millions of children without birth certificates.

Surprisingly, a few of the world’s most oppressive nations, including North Korea and Myanmar, did not express any reservations when they signed the Convention. Clearly though, children in these countries are not permitted to exercise many of their rights.

This means that the United Nations is actually okay with children lacking certain freedoms, as long as member nations are generally willing to recognize that they should care about children’s rights. This is bad, but it’s progress. Maybe.

All in all, the Convention inspires more than mere lip service–but not much more. And despite flagrant violations, the UN hasn’t rejected any of its signatories.

For example, the UN has said they are satisfied with China’s 2005 law to make sex-selective abortion illegal (which was killing literally millions of unborn girls every year, precisely because they were girls). But the UN is still “concerned” about how China’s Family Planning Policy encourages forced abortion and sex-selective abortion, and how local officials take illegally born children from their parents and place them in orphanages for adoption or forced labor. (See the UN report about China’s violations against children’s rights here, and China’s responses here.)

[The Convention] is particularly concerned about reports that some family planning officials coerce parents to give up their children born in excess of their parents’ birth quotas, and sell and transfer children into the care of local orphanages for domestic or international adoption or forced labor.

Obviously, not every nation cares about the rights of children in the same way. But this document does make a difference. What would the situation of the world’s children be without a treaty like this? This global declaration is important because it is a way to hold nations publicly accountable for their treatment of the weakest and most defenseless members of society. (Of course, they could be doing a better job on accountability.)

94 years ago today, Janusz Korczak’s inspiration for a declaration of children’s rights was put on paper and signed by the League of Nations. And he lived out this declaration in a concrete way, living and dying in solidarity with otherwise forgotten children. Even in very dark times and places, every child is worth remembering, defending, and celebrating.