Strengthening the Convention on the Rights of the Child: Optional Protocols

Protecting children in armed conflict, from sale and sexual exploitation, and allowing children to submit complaints.


Optional Protocols complement and add to existing treaties. A protocol may be on any topic relevant to the original treaty and is used either to further address something in the original treaty, address a new or emerging concern or add a procedure for the operation and enforcement of the treaty.

They are ‘optional’ because the obligations may be more demanding than those in the original convention, so States must independently choose whether or not to be bound by them. Optional Protocols are treaties in their own right, and are open to signature, ratification or accession.

To help stem the abuse and exploitation of children worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 adopted two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to increase the protection of children from involvement in armed conflicts and from sale, prostitution and pornography. In 2014, a third Optional Protocol was adopted, allowing children to bring complaints directly to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee then investigates the claims and can direct governments to take action.

Protecting children in armed conflict

This Optional Protocol is an effort to strengthen implementation of the Convention and increase the protection of children during armed conflicts. 

Under the Protocol, States are required to “take all feasible measures” to ensure that members of their armed forces under the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities. States must also raise the minimum age for voluntary recruitment into the armed forces from 15 years but does not require a minimum age of 18.

The Protocol does, however, remind States that children under 18 are entitled to special protection and so any voluntary recruitment under the age of 18 must include sufficient safeguards. It further bans compulsory recruitment below the age of 18. States parties must also take legal measures to prohibit independent armed groups from recruiting and using children under the age of 18 in conflicts.

Protecting children from sale, prostitution and pornography

The Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography draws special attention to the criminalization of these serious violations of children's rights and emphasizes the importance of increased public awareness and international cooperation in efforts to combat them.

It supplements the Convention by providing States with detailed requirements to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and also protects children from being sold for non-sexual purposes – such as other forms of forced labour, illegal adoption and organ donation.

The Protocol provides definitions for the offences of ‘sale of children’, ‘child prostitution’ and ‘child pornography’. It also creates obligations on governments to criminalize and punish activities related to these offences. It requires punishment not only for those offering or delivering children for the purposes of sexual exploitation, transfer of organs or children for profit or forced labour, but also for anyone accepting the child for these activities.

The Protocol also protects the rights and interests of child victims. Governments must provide legal and other support services to child victims. This obligation includes considering the best interests of the child in any interactions with the criminal justice system. Children must also be supported with necessary medical, psychological, logistical and financial support to aid their rehabilitation and reintegration. As a complement to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, interpretation of the Optional Protocol’s text must always be guided by the principles of non-discrimination, best interests of the child, survival and development, and child participation.

Allowing children to submit complaints, appeals and petitions

This Protocol allows the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hear complaints that a child’s rights have been violated. Children from countries that ratify the Protocol can use the treaty to seek justice if the national legal system has not been able to provide a remedy for the violation.

The Committee is able to receive complaints from children, groups of children or their representatives against any State that has ratified the Protocol. The Committee is also able to launch investigations into grave or systematic violations of children’s rights and States are able to bring complaints against each other, if they accepted this procedure.