Student Blog III: UNICEF and their use of the concept ‘human rights’

Author: Suzanne van Basten

The concept human rights is nowadays commonly used to strive for a certain level of development by global organisations and governments. This also applies to development aid organisation UNICEF, which is frequently using the term to define their goals. However, it is striking that not more than twenty years ago the concept was not used at all by UNICEF. As part of the research seminar ‘History of Human Rights’ I have studied the introduction and subsequent use of the concept human rights within UNICEF by questioning why and when UNICEF has chosen the concept human rights to define their mission. In particular I engaged in research on the effect of the Children’s Right treaty of 1989 on the introduction of the concept human rights by UNICEF. In order to answer this question I looked into the annual reports of UNICEF from the period 1980 till 2000 with a special focus on the Children’s Right treaty of 1989.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor unicef

Logo of Unicef[I]

While doing my research it soon became clear that before 1989 UNICEF’s mission is described without using the concept human rights even once. Their ideals during this period were focussed on providing basic necessities of life, especially for the most vulnerable children, on a local level and in close cooperation with the government and communities.[II] Apparently the concept human rights did not occur in its current form yet. Especially the universal and international characteristics of ‘human rights’ as we know them today, were up to then not yet on the agenda of UNICEF.

But even after this period, during the creation of the Children’s Right treaty in 1989, the use of the concept human rights appears to be very limited within UNICEF, if their annual reports are any indication. However, despite the term not being used literally, my research has shown that the spirit of the concept of human rights did make an appearance within UNICEF, though not named specifically. This is for example visible in their use of the concept ‘basic human standards’.[III] With this term UNICEF indicated that every child should have equal treatment and the right to be provided for their basic necessities of life. Those principles of equality and ‘the right to have’ refer in some way to the concept human rights, which would only be introduced a little later. However, UNICEF still mainly focused on the most vulnerable children of the world. This seems to show that UNICEF was not yet so familiar with the current universality of the concept human rights in that time period.

Lastly I looked into the decade after the Children’s Right treaty. Within this period the concept human rights had clearly gained popularity and had become one of the most important principles of UNICEF as organisation. UNICEF aimed to achieve change on a wider and deeper level and encouraged people to stand up for children’s rights.[IV] By that time, UNICEF had clearly realised that naming and claiming the concept  of ‘rights’ were actually the most effective way of obtaining them. Most of their programmes and goals now included a so called ‘human rights perspective’.[V] However UNICEF often changed the prefix of the term to: ‘children’s rights’ or ‘women’s rights’, which both still remained the focus groups of the organisation. All in all both the concept human rights and the Children’s Right treaty of 1989 had increased in importance during the nineties for UNICEF.

Answering my research question, whether the Children’s Right treaty contributed to the introduction of the concept human rights within UNICEF, it is important to conclude that no direct link has been found between the increasing use of ‘human rights’ and the creation of the treaty of 1989. This is not strange noting the fact that the Children’s Right treaty was barely referred to in UNICEF’s annual report of 1989. Furthermore, the concept human rights is not often mentioned literally in the Children’s Right treaty itself. Nonetheless only a couple of years after the creation of the treaty, the concept human rights became common language within UNICEF. The reason for this incorporation could very well have to do with the surge in popularity of the concept within the international community. Samuel Moyn has argued in his book The Last Utopia  that ‘human rights’ as individual and international protected rights only  have emerged in the seventies. However, my results fit better in the perspective of one of Moyn’s critics, Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, who argued that this concept of human rights did only emerge in the nineties.[VI]

Therefore the main conclusion is that the Children’s Right treaty of 1989 did not lead to increased use of the concept human rights within UNICEF, but that probably the increased international interest in the concept did. Furthermore this increased interest made the Children’s Right treaty one of the most important ‘human rights’ documents, though the treaty itself did not contribute to the initial increased interest. It might be that UNICEF was just late with the incorporation of the concept, but given that this falls outside the scope of my findings, this question should be addressed by future research.


[I] Foto: Unicef (

[II] Annual reports of UNICEF 1979 and 1984.

[III] Annual report of UNICEF 1989.

[IV] Annual report of UNICEF 1994.

[V] Annual report of UNICEF 1999.

[VI] Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, ‘Genealogies of Human Rights’ in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge 2010), p. 10.

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