Children's Rights

Martyn Eden

(The article that follows is by Martyn Eden, Political Adviser to the European Evangelical Alliance. It is published here with the kind permission of both Martyn and the European Evangelical Alliance on whose website it also appears.)


The climax of the creation story is the creation of humankind and when God made us human beings he made us in his own image. (1) It follows that we are all very special in his eyes.  The Psalmist reflects this when he poses the question, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” And he answers his question by affirming that God “made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour”. (2) So when we think about ‘human rights’ from a Christian perspective we do so against this background, conscious that we dare not neglect them because God values human beings so highly. Nor dare we forget that God himself took human form in Jesus Christ in order to restore broken relationships with us and subsequently died on a Roman cross because he loved us so much. Section Five below takes this reflection further in recognising how precious children are in God’s eyes. From this perspective, children’s rights have to be a major concern for evangelical Christians, especially in the light of all that the media tells us about the neglect and abuse of children in the world today.

The purpose of this paper is to briefly explore the meaning of children’s rights, the extent to which they are respected in the European Union and what more could be done by the EU and member States to uphold children’s rights.


The human rights concept is a relatively recent innovation, originating in the 20th century. Previously it was thought that there were ‘natural rights’ rooted either in natural law and known to all, or in a social contract between the governed and the governors. Both ideas became increasingly discredited in the 19th century but in the era around the 1914-18 war, when nationalism was a powerful force in Europe, the ‘human rights’ of minorities became a pressing moral and political concern. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations was the eventual result. It reasserted the right to life, liberty, property, equality before the law, privacy, fair trial, the freedom of belief and conscience, free speech and assembly, the right to participate in government, to political asylum and not to be tortured. Additionally, the Universal Declaration included the right to education, to work, to equal pay, to an adequate standard of living and paid holidays. 

Herein lies a major problem with ‘rights’: what meaning and value do they have if they are not enforceable? The additional list of socio-economic ‘rights’ were included at the insistence of the Communist members of the U.N. and reflected their view of liberty. They tended to ignore the first list and focus on the second whilst the non-Communist nations emphasised the first list and saw the latter as noble but not enforceable ideals. So, what is the status of these ‘human rights’ that are not obligatory in all societies?

More than that, how is ‘human’ defined? The right to life is not extended to the pre-born embryo in the eyes of those who insist on the woman’s right to abortion. Animal rights campaigners challenge the exclusion of animals from the right to life, arguing that the distinction between humans and animals is blurred.

The recognition of a right also implies a reciprocal duty to observe the same right for others. However, it is absurd to demand a right that others are unable to satisfy. So, the rights to work and to be paid a fair wage for that work is meaningless where no-one is in a position to offer work or pay wages for doing it. Problems also arise when one person’s right not to be discriminated against conflicts with another person’s right to belief and conscience. Such situations have been created by the U.K., for example, in the 1998 Human Rights Act and subsequent regulations.


In 1959 and again in 1989 the United Nations, acting in accordance with the principles proclaimed in the 1948 Charter, resolved to recognise specific children’s rights. The 1989 Convention came into force in September 1990 (3) and was ratified by the UK, for example, in 1991. The child is defined as any human being under the age of 18 unless the applicable national law sets an earlier age of majority. The Convention entitles every child, without regard to the child’s (or his or her parent’s) race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status, to 40 specific rights, except where a country has entered a specific reservation to one or more of them. These include:

The full text of the Convention can be found at


There are approximately 94 million children and young people under the age of 18 living in the European Union (EU). They do not vote, have limited access to the media and the courts, and no powerful lobby groups working for them, so children’s voices are rarely heard in the councils of the EU. It is true that there are a number of NGO’s that purport to represent children and there are also associations of parents. The former make a lot of noise but on such issues as the content of sex education and corporal punishment they have been known to represent views at odds with those of parents. The parents associations are generally less effective and increasingly marginalised.

At the same time Europe is changing in ways that will affect children’s futures. E.U. enlargement may create new opportunities for some of them whilst others in the poorer member States could be left behind. Demographic changes (falling birth rates and a declining population of working age) could create additional tax burdens or reduced public services for them. In this context the right to have their views respected and their best interests considered at all times appears hollow.

Similarly, the right to life, survival and development means little to children experiencing violence and abuse at home, in care or in their local community. UNICEF reported in 2003 that three children die from abuse and neglect every week in France and two per week in Germany and the U.K. (4)   Despite efforts to remove children from institutional care in countries such as Romania, there are still large numbers of children living in standards of residential care that inhibit their full and healthy development and the alternatives of fostering and adoption are inadequately resourced. (5) Child trafficking for criminal purposes still continues in Europe and the children of refugees and asylum seekers are frequently the victims of insecurity and inhospitable conditions with which they may be ill-equipped to cope. Thus articles 6, 19, 32, 34, 35, 36 and 39 of the UN Convention are not being honoured within member states of the EU. (6) Some groups of children are also regularly discriminated against. Roma children are a good example. They are frequently excluded from schooling and their access to healthcare can be poor. Children with disabilities are also the victims of ignorance and prejudice in many European societies and their views are rarely sought in decision making affecting them.

Child poverty is a further cause for concern, especially considering the increasing wealth of most EU member states. One in ten children are said to live in a jobless home and in most EU countries children experience higher levels of income poverty than those for adults. (7) Child poverty relates to poorer health care, educational disadvantage and emotional damage. Quite apart from the general principles set out in articles 2, 3 and 12, articles 24, 26, 27, 28, 30 and 31 of the UN Convention are not being honoured within the EU.

Whilst the above is no more than a brief summary, it is obvious that whatever the EU institutions and the Governments of member States have attempted to implement in relation to children’s policies, their efforts have fallen well short of being sufficient. There are so many examples of the rights of children set out in the UN Convention being ignored that none of us, the policy makers, elected politicians and EU citizens, can have an easy conscience.


Children are a precious gift from God, to be loved, guided and taught, cared and provided for materially and disciplined within a context of unconditional love. (8) Jesus loved children and said they have a special place in God’s purposes. (9) He commended their humility as a model for all who aspire to enter the Kingdom of God and warned that it is a terrible sin to lead a child astray. (10)

Parents are to instruct their children in Godly ways but not to exasperate them. (11) They are to train their children in how to behave and discipline them appropriately so that they develop a right attitude of reverence towards God. (12) To this end children need to understand their spiritual and cultural history to live the way God wants and live a long and prosperous life. (13) Parents have a duty to meet the material needs of their children. (14) More than anything, though, parents should love their children, as God does. (15)

This very brief summary of the attitudes and duties which parents should have towards their children is only part of the biblical perspective. What should the State, or a collection of States such as the EU, be expected to do to, for, and on behalf of children? The relationship between the roles and duties of parents and those of the State is complex. In the biblical worldview parents have a priority because they have a place in the creation story whereas nations and states do not. Christians in the Dutch Kuyperian tradition conclude that the State should not interfere in the sphere in which parents are sovereign (16) but they surely recognise that the Old Testament gives local communities a duty of care for orphans who, like widows and foreigners living in Israel, have no stake in the socio-economic structure. (17) Modern States operating within the norms and legal framework of an established constitution have the authority to legislate and the legitimate power to implement and enforce that legislation. At the same time, from a biblical perspective God is sovereign over all, including every institution. Whatever our theology of the State and supra-national institutions such as the EU, Christians will surely want those structures to formulate and implement policies that seek to protect children from serious harm and to enable them all to fulfil their God-given potential, regardless of their race and ethnicity, gender, religion and any disability. Moreover, it is surely true that the vast majority of non-Christian Europeans would share this value.

The problems begin when one tries to unpack this humane ideal. The same applies to the way that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is interpreted today for attitudes and values have changed a lot, even since 1990. The family has a central place in the Convention, “as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children” (18) but what is meant by ‘the family’ has changed. (19) Whereas it usually meant a man and a woman, ideally married, living together in a stable relationship and providing complementary role models for their children, that is no longer the norm in public policy. A majority of families may still conform to this pattern but single parent families and same-sex parents are now considered equally acceptable, at least from the public policy perspective, in most EU member States. Single parent families are not the biblical ideal because children ideally need role models of both genders but the ideal is not always attainable, as for example when one parent dies prematurely. However, single-parent families that result from a deliberate choice to have children outside a stable, heterosexual relationship are not acceptable from a biblical perspective and the same applies to same-sex parents because homosexual practice is contrary to biblical teaching.

This belief has caused British Roman Catholic adoption agencies to refuse to arrange adoptions for same sex couples and brought them into conflict with the British Government which has legislated to ban discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of goods and services. It is a significant test case because the British legislation seems to be in line with majority thinking amongst policy makers within the EU, and the Catholic adoption agencies are similarly in step with their Church’s ethical beliefs. They will also have the tacit support of most European evangelical Christians. It would be a tragedy for children needing adoption into a caring home if the Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close when there are many healthy heterosexual couples who would love to adopt but have been excluded by an over-bureaucratic, excessively lengthy, intrusive and politically correct adoption vetting process. Moreover, it is reported that the British Catholic adoption agencies have only ever had one approach from a gay couple seeking to adopt a child. (20)


It was argued in section four above that whatever the EU institutions and the Governments of member States have attempted to implement in relation to children’s policies, their efforts have fallen well short of being sufficient. It is clear, however, that the primary responsibility for improving performance must lie with the Governments of the member States. There are two reasons for this, neither of which has anything to do with arguments about the political power and constitutional status of the EU. First, the rights of children are embedded in a range of social policies, such as those relating to tax and benefits, housing, education and health, which are the responsibility of national Governments. Second, protecting children from abuse and exploitation and providing appropriate special care for the most vulnerable and needy has to done by agencies close to where the children are located, and familiar with local conditions. This is especially true where voluntary sector youth and children’s organisations are involved in service provision.

Notwithstanding this, the EU institutions have a potentially important role in making children’s rights a high priority across the Union, setting standards of provision, making best practice known to all its 25 member States and channelling funds to help those in greatest need to improve their performance. For example, some of the newest EU member States still have children living in orphanages and ‘hospitals’ that function well below an acceptable standard. They need financial assistance and strong political pressure to eradicate these establishments, replace them with smaller, better equipped and staffed facilities and, where possible, develop adoption and alternative therapeutic care that allow even children with severe learning disabilities to experience a quality of life worth living.

Beyond this the EU should be pressed to take a strong line against child trafficking and work with member States to both prevent it and provide appropriate care and rehabilitation for existing victims. Another priority should be the eradication by member States of child poverty and the social exclusion of children from refugee families and other minorities (especially Roma, gypsy and traveller children). The EU can press its members to end the detention of immigrant children in line with UNCRC article 37 and provide guidelines to help members assess children’s asylum applications. At the same time it is crucial that children seeking asylum are properly protected from predators seeking to exploit them for criminal and evil purposes. It is reported that 48 asylum seeking children in the UK have gone missing from local authority care in 2007 and are now presumed to be in the hands of traffickers from their home countries. This has to be prevented, preferably by placing them as soon as possible with caring families experienced in foster care.

Another issue on which the EU should give a lead is in relation to the trade in illegal drugs. For the most part they are imported from outside the Union. Whilst member States have their own drug laws and measures to try to eradicate supply and reduce demand, they are largely ineffective. Some MEPs favour the decriminalisation of illegal drugs but they remain a minority within the European Parliament. Strong united action to cut supply routes and educate children and adults to abstain from using these drugs would save many of them from addiction, criminality and an early death.

Policy makers and politicians face a constant overload problem. There are always more issues than they have the time, the resources and even the ability to address. They tend to cope with this overload by selecting only those issues which threaten their professional and political lives. Children’s rights seldom fall into this category because children and parents are not politically organised as such. (21) Ways have to be found to change this. The European Commission should be instructed to propose practical measures to enable children and young people themselves to be given a voice in EU consultations. This should not be limited to immediate children’s issues but also include matters that will affect their lives in the future. Environmental policies are one example but there are others, such as the prevailing liberal economics policy agenda, which harm children by undermining their family life.

The Commission should also develop an internet interface with young people to explain what they are doing and receive children’s responses. An annual consultation on children’s rights and policies would help to open lines of communication and relationships as well as identifying policy failures and emerging new issues. It would be essential, however, to ensure that such a consultation is not dominated by those activists from children’s organisations who seek to set children’s rights against parent’s rights and deny parents the freedom to appropriately discipline their children and exercise their rights under Article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration to educate them according to their convictions and beliefs. “This is nowhere seen more starkly than in the reproductive rights lobby maintaining that children from primary school age upwards have a right to liberal, explicit sex education and condom distribution without parental knowledge or consent.” (22) These activists are also likely to be found advocating that children should now be taught that gay partnerships are morally equivalent to heterosexual marriage. Parents, who have the natural, primary and legal responsibility for the care of their children, need to be well represented in these consultations and not marginalised by those whose primary agendas are not the well-being of children.

Children’s rights do not come near the top of the agendas at European summits, nor do they feature strongly in election manifestos but a study of biblical teaching suggests that they do come near the top of God’s agenda. (23) Children’s lives and well-being are threatened by poverty, ill-health and violence but also by ideas and adult role models that are rooted in secular humanist thinking which is at odds with biblical teaching. The gap between the two is widening and our children will reap the consequences unless we protect them from these destructive influences. It is crucial that an active concern for children’s rights is rooted in biblical values, not secular humanism - that we follow our Maker’s instructions. This makes children’s rights a primary issue for Europe’s evangelical Christians, one that we dare not ignore.

Martyn Eden (June 2007).

1. Genesis1:26-27

2. Psalm 8:4-5 (NIV).

3. The Convention also built on Article 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 and Article 5 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief 1981

4. UNICEF, A League table of Child Maltreatment Deaths in Rich Nations, Innocenti Report Card No 5 , September 2003, UNICEF, Florence 2003

5. Browne et al, Mapping the number and characteristics of children under therein institutions across Europe at risk of harm, University of Birmingham/ WHO, 2005. Browne et al estimate that 23,000 children under three live in such institutional care.

6. These articles relate to the rights to life and development, protection from violence and abuse, protection from economic and sexual exploitation, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation, torture and cruel treatment, and the right to receive treatment for the effects of armed conflict, torture, neglect or exploitation.

7. In 12 of the 25 member States the rate is more than 25% higher. (Atkinson, Cantillon, Marler & Nolan, “Taking Forward the EU Social Inclusion Process”, Luxembourg 2005)

8. See for example; Psalm 113:9; 127:3; Genesis 33:5, 48:9; Joshua 24:3-4.

9. See Matthew 11:13-14 & 25.

10. See Matthew 18: 2-6.

11. See Deut 4:9; 6:6-7; 6:20-21; 11:19; Proverbs 1:8ff; 8:32-33; Isaiah 38:19; Joel 1:3 Ephesians 6:2.

12. See Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13; 29:5 &17; I Tim 3:4 &12; Hebrews 12:7. Note the loving context for discipline in Hebrews 12 and the caution of Ephesians 6:4. The ‘rod’ does not have to mean the use of corporal punishment

13. See Deut. 31:12-13; Joshua 8:35; Psalm 34:11; 78:5; Proverbs 3:1; 22:6; Ephesians 6:4

14. See 1 Samuel 2:19; Proverbs 31: 15 & 21;  Matthew 7:9-11; 2 Corinthians 12:14

15. See Genesis 37:3; 44:20 & 29-31;Luke 3:22; 15:20; Titus 2:4;

16. For example, Alan Storkey, A Christian Social Perspective, IVP 1979, pp 140-146.

17. See Leviticus19:9-10; Ruth 2:2-3; 7-8; 15-23

18. From the Preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, (Resolution 44/25) 1989

19. It is worth noting that fewer couples in Europe are now having children and the birth rate has fallen in some countries (e.g. Germany) below the rate required to maintain the demographic balance. Will this influence attitudes towards children’s rights? The Churches may have a role in safeguarding them.

20. I am indebted to CARE for Europe for this information.

21. There are NGO’s representing children but too often they represent a liberal perspective that is not family-friendly and do not reflect the actual views and interests of children and their parents.

22. Comment from David Fieldsend of CARE for Europe

23. See section 5 above.