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Thematic Overview
1990 –1999  Recognizing Children’s Rights

1946 –1959   UNICEF - The Agency for Children
1960 –1979   The Development Decades
1980 –1989   Child Survival and Development
2000 –            Children and Millennium Development Goals

see also
UNICEF Milestones by Year

Convention on the Rights of the Child

On 20 November 1989, after 10 years of negotiation, the 159 UN Member States unanimously endorsed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), entering into force on 2 September 1990 – representing the most rapid entry-into-force of any human rights treaty. The CRC is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, setting minimum standards of protection for children everywhere against exploitation, abuse and neglect. It is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, now signed by over 190 nations.

The Convention and the children’s movement assumed increasing importance as the 1990s wore on. Like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention articulated something fundamental about humanity’s sense of itself and established a reference point for all future generations. Guided throughout by the principles of ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘actions taken in the best interests of the child’, the Convention lays out in specific terms the social, economic, civil, protection and participation rights of children and the legal duties of governments to them. Children’s survival development and protection are no longer matters of charitable concern but of moral and legal obligation. Governments are held to account for their care of children by an international body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, to which they have to report regularly.

World Summit for Children

Building on the momentum of the CRC, the campaign for child survival and development reached a peak in 1990. In September, UNICEF convened the World Summit for Children, where 71 Heads of State or Government took their seats at a World Summit for Children and 159 countries committed to a plan of action to ensure children’s survival, protection and development. Children were to have a ‘first call’ on society’s resources, in good times and bad, and their rights were to be recognized and protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The commitments of the World Summit and the Convention framed UNICEF’s work for the decade.

The joint signing of a World Declaration and 10-point Plan of Action — including a set of child-related human development goals for the year 2000 — was the pivotal achievement of the Summit. These goals included targeted reductions in infant and maternal mortality, child under nutrition and illiteracy, as well as targeted levels of access to basic services for health and family planning, education, water and sanitation.

The Summit was one of the most important moments in UNICEF's history. It marked the moment at which children's issues reached a high point on the international agenda. UNICEF's country offices, guided by the Plan of Action, strove to ensure that every government produced its own national programme of action (NPAs) for advancing towards the 2000 targets.

Keeping the Promise

In September 1993, on the third anniversary of the Summit, the United Nations Secretary-General convened a round table in New York called Keeping the Promise to Children, which reiterated the commitment to the Summit goals and endorsed mid-decade targets. These include universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and progress towards universal primary education, as well as targets for the control of specific diseases and nutritional deficiencies. By mid-decade, the aim was to have eradicated, or reduced by a specified amount, neonatal tetanus, malnutrition, polio, vitamin A deficiency, guinea worm disease and iodine deficiency disorders, as well as diarrhoeal and vaccine-preventable diseases.

The 20/20 Initiative
The funding strategy for attaining the goals of the World Summit for Children was described as 'the 20/20 initiative'. This was a call for developing countries to direct at least 20 per cent of their budgets to basic needs, and for industrialized countries to earmark 20 per cent of their official development assistance (ODA) for the same purpose.

The Progress of Nations
In 1993 UNICEF began publishing an annual report called "The Progress of Nations", that report gathered the latest statistics on countries’ progress in the key areas of health, nutrition, education, family planning and women’s rights. Whereas in the 1980s the key indicator for UNICEF had clearly been child mortality, in the 1990s a broad range of indicators related to the well-being of children and women were consistently monitored and targeted for improvement.

Human-Rights based approach
It soon became apparent that there was a symbiosis between the Summit goals and the Convention. When country offices pushed for more action they could use a national government’s ratification of the Convention as another lever; similarly, pressure to implement the Convention would inevitably accelerate progress towards of the Summit goals. Governments no longer simply had to be encouraged to meet the goals for children; they could be reminded that they had a legal obligation to do so. As UNICEF celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1996, the organization, spearheaded by the new Executive Director Carol Bellamy, was fully embracing the human rights-based approach to development, working to put the rights of children – particularly the most marginalized and disadvantaged, who were most at risk of exclusion from mainstream development and poverty reduction initiatives – at the centre of the development agenda.

Child Protection
The Convention also established child protection as one of the key arches of child rights amidst the rising tide of sensational media stories about child exploitation during the 1990s. UNICEF placed particular emphasis on reaching the most vulnerable children in towns, cities, slums and squatter settlements, working closely with mayors and municipal governments to place child rights on the top of the local political agenda. The aim was to create ‘childfriendly cities’, where urban children are provided with access to essential services as well as sports and recreational facilities. During the same year, UNICEF supported two major initiatives to protect children: the World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, the first international gathering dedicated to combating this global problem, and the ground-breaking UN study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, by Graça Machel, a specialist on children in armed conflict.

Anti-personnel landmines
UNICEF’s efforts to protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse also included a decade long campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines, which threaten children’s sight, limbs and lives in many countries. In 1997, two thirds of the world’s nations signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, which UNICEF helped draft and strongly promoted.

Child Labour
Additional attention was given to preventing child labour and assisting children affected by it. In 1997, UNICEF joined other participants at the International Conference on Child Labour in adopting a global agenda for eliminating the worst forms of child labour. Three years later, the organization helped 29 countries introduce education programmes aimed at preventing child labour.


In an attempt to improve child survival levels, in 1992 UNICEF and WHO developed the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI), a new approach to healthcare that combines strategies for control and treatment of five major childhood ailments that together account for most deaths among children under five: respiratory tract infections, diarrhoeal dehydration, measles, malaria and undernutrition.

Throughout the 1990s, UNICEF continued to scale up its immunization initiatives. In 1996, it joined WHO in publishing State of the World’s Vaccines and Immunization, a review of immunization progress, constraints and challenges for the future.

By 1998, UNICEF was providing vaccines and other support to polio immunization campaigns in 97 countries, reaching 450 million children, two thirds of the world’s children under five. As a result, polio had been nearly eliminated worldwide – although its complete eradication would remain elusive.

In 1998, UNICEF moved to the global forefront of combating malaria by becoming a founding member of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) partnership, along with WHO, UNDP and the World Bank.

In 1996, UNAIDS was created, with UNICEF as one of the agency’s co-sponsors. In 1999, UNICEF played a leading role in supporting HIV prevention programmes in more than 20 countries.


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