fb-pixel Skip to main content
Opinion | Gordon Brown

Children left out of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

At Mati Nepal's office at the Thankot Checkpoint in Kathmandu, Nepal, staff and police interrogate a young woman who is thought to be a victim of human trafficking, in May 2015.sJonas GratzerGetty Images

Signed more than two thirds of a century ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ushered in a civil rights revolution. But when the UDHR was signed, in 1948, there was a fatal oversight. Society’s youngest and most vulnerable — children — were overlooked.

For all of its commitments to rights, among them universal education, the UDHR failed to enshrine and secure basic protections for children. Child labor and trafficking went unmentioned, child marriage was ignored, and child abuse overlooked.

With the advantage of hindsight, we see the constraints of that time. The conflicting agendas of Cold War politics made it impossible to implement even some of the most basic of rights, let alone establish a proper system of international justice. This legacy of a declaration without enforcement mechanisms burdens us today, but the Cold War cannot be an excuse for failing to map out fundamental children’s protections. And while the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child worked to fill this void, the document remains a statement of good intent rather than a blueprint for action.


Globally, 168 million children have no choice but to take up work, and 85 million are engaged in hazardous labor. In addition, nearly 60 million children will never enter a classroom — will never find the hope and fulfillment that can come only with an education. And every year, some 10 million school-aged girls are married off and deprived of a future.

Last week was the second anniversary of the abduction of 200 young Nigerian girls — abused at the hands of Boko Haram. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Nepal earthquake, which left hundreds of girls orphaned and victims of this century’s most common form of slavery — trafficking. In addition, there are the nameless girls around the world used as sex slaves, as well as young boys forced from their school desks and into the front lines as soldiers.

If these young decide to speak up for their rights, they possess few options for recourse. Cases such as these have motivated the Global Citizenship Commission to call for the creation of an International Children’s Court, where petitions from children and their representatives can be adjudicated. Only a children’s court with the specific mandate to investigate rights violations, issue legally binding judgments, and prosecute to the full extent of the law will trumpet with sufficient moral force the sacrosanct nature of children’s rights.


Today, 30 million children who have been displaced by armed conflict and natural disasters are in mortal danger. In recognition of the plight of children caught in the cross fire, the commission also recommends that the UN Security Council convene an annual special session of a Children’s Council. The Council should also immediately aid the ever-increasing number of child refugees.

Silent in 1948, not to be seen or heard, children are rising to demand their rights. We need to empower them. Every nation must be held accountable by a youth parliament, by a children’s commissioner acting as their first line of defense, and by a dedicated budget that focuses on what improves young lives.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as a beacon of hope. For almost seven decades, the light from that beacon has not reached children trapped in the darkness of exploitation, oppression, slavery, or war. That is a test of our time, to make the declaration apply fully to the world’s youngest and most vulnerable.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown is the UN’s special envoy for global education.