International human rights treaties and agreements such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child are developed through a process of negotiation among United Nations Member States. Individual States then decide for themselves whether to be legally bound by the treaty.
Joining the Convention on the Rights of the Child
There are two ways for a State to become a party: by signature and ratification or by accession. In ratifying or acceding to the Convention or an Optional Protocol, a State accepts an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights as outlined – including adopting or changing laws and policies that are needed to implement the provisions of the agreement.
The Optional Protocols to the Convention are considered independently of the Convention and must be ratified or acceded to separately, but the process is the same. States do not need to be a party to the Convention in order to ratify or accede to one or both of the Optional Protocols.
Signature constitutes a preliminary endorsement of the Convention or Protocol. Signing the instrument does not create a binding legal obligation, but does demonstrate the State’s intent to examine the treaty domestically and consider ratifying it. While signing does not commit a State to ratification, it does oblige the State to refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose.
Ratification or accession
Ratification or accession signifies an agreement to be legally bound by the terms of the Convention. Though accession has the same legal effect as ratification, the procedures differ. In the case of ratification, the State first signs and then ratifies the treaty. The procedure for accession has only one step – it is not preceded by an act of signature.
The formal procedures for ratification or accession vary according to the national legislative requirements of the State. Prior to ratification or accession, a country normally reviews the treaty to determine whether national laws are consistent with its provisions and to consider the most appropriate means of promoting compliance with the treaty.
Most commonly, countries that are promoting a Convention sign shortly after it has been adopted. They then ratify the treaty when all of their domestically required legal procedures have been fulfilled. Other States may begin with the domestic approval process and accede to the treaty once their domestic procedures have been completed, without signing the treaty first.
Both ratification and accession involve two steps. First, the appropriate national organ of the country – Parliament, Senate, the Crown, Head of State or Government, or a combination of these – follows domestic constitutional procedures and makes a formal decision to be a party to the treaty. Second, the instrument of ratification or accession, a formal sealed letter referring to the decision and signed by the State’s responsible authority, is prepared and deposited with the United Nations Secretary-General in New York.