What is a UN General Comment?

  • A General Comment is a quasi legal document published by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which provides a detailed interpretation of an article or issue relating to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and provides guidance on the actions required by governments to ensure its implementation.
  • Some General Comments may be procedural in nature, some relate to a particular group of children, for example, children with disabilities, others may address substantive provisions of the treaty. This latter is the case with the General Comment on article 31.
  • The main purpose of General Comments is to elaborate how to interpret and implement human rights treaties.

The Need for General Comments on UN Treaties

  • General Comments are valuable contributions to the development and application of international law and also provide guidance with regard to other issues.
  • General Comments assist non-government stakeholders as well as Governments in understanding treaty provisions and in strengthening national advocacy.
  • Some General Comments focus on specific purposes such as clarification of legislative provision. National courts are known to refer to UN General Comments. Such information can be used to help stakeholders advocate for changes in legislation.
  • Other General Comments are broader in scope such as UNCRC General Comment 5, which focuses on implementation of the whole Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • General Comments often refer to other international human rights law to ensure cross-jurisdictional knowledge and child protection.

The Need for General Comments on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UNCRC was approved in 1989. Seventeen General Comments have been prepared by the UN committee in the last 25 years.

** Existing General Comments – as of October 2014

Full text of these documents can be found on the UNCRC Website: General Comments

The Need for a General Comment on Article 31

IPA worked for many years to stress the importance of the need for a General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC. The reasons for the need listed below helped to convince the Committee on the Rights of the Child of the General Comment and IPA was tasked with organizing its execution. The effort was successful and General Comment #17 was ratified by the UN on 1 February 2013.

  • Very few of the national reports to the UN Committee (required by signatories of the Convention) have included article 31 in their reports and those which have done so have largely focused on children’s physical activity and not embraced all components of the article.It had become obvious that article 31 is not well understood or appreciated by adults involved directly with children.
  • General Comments are directed to Governments of all countries which have ratified the UN Convention and are an important opportunity to promote the value of article 31.
  • The Global Consultations on Children’s Right to Play, undertaken by IPA in 2010, found that the most common challenge in implementing article 31 was lack of awareness by most adults of its importance to the growth, development and well-being of children.
  • A particular concern is the lack of understanding of child-controlled play which is very much needed in the face of increasing threats to such play such as inadequacy of space, excessive pressure for educational achievement and increase in structured and programmed leisure time.
  • Children’s lack of participation in the implementation of article 31 is a major concern.
  • It is important that governments, children’s rights agencies, and international non-government organizations working with or on behalf of children understand the importance of article 31 within the UN Convention. The UNCRC promotes the indivisibility of the articles of the Convention. Article 31 is a very good example of one which has a very close relationship to many key articles such as education and health.

References to article 31 in current General Comments

General Comment 7: Implementing child rights in early childhood (2006)

Right to rest, leisure and play.

34. The Committee notes that insufficient attention has been given by States parties and others to the implementation of the provisions of article 31 of the Convention, which guarantees “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts”. Play is one of the most distinctive features of early childhood. Through play, children both enjoy and challenge their current capacities, whether they are playing alone or with others. The value of creative play and exploratory learning is widely recognized in early childhood education. Yet realizing the right to rest, leisure and play is often hindered by a shortage of opportunities for young children to meet, play and interact in child-centred, secure, supportive, stimulating and stress-free environments. Children’s right-to-play space is especially at risk in many urban environments, where the design and density of housing, commercial centres and transport systems combine with noise, pollution and all manner of dangers to create a hazardous environment for young children. Children’s right to play can also be frustrated by excessive domestic chores (especially affecting girls) or by competitive schooling. Accordingly, the Committee appeals to States parties, non-governmental organizations and private actors to identify and remove potential obstacles to the enjoyment of these rights by the youngest children, including as part of poverty reduction strategies. Planning for towns, and leisure and play facilities should take account of children’s right to express their views (art. 12), through appropriate consultations. In all these respects, States parties are encouraged to pay greater attention and allocate adequate resources (human and financial) to the implementation of the right to rest, leisure and play.

General Comment 9: The rights of children with disabilities (2006)

Recreation and cultural activities

44. The Convention stipulates in article 31 the right of the child to recreation and cultural activities appropriate to the age of the child. This article should be interpreted to include mental, psychological as well as the physical ages and capabilities of the child. Play has been recognized as the best source of learning various skills, including social skills. The attainment of full inclusion of children with disabilities in the society is realized when children are given the opportunity, places, and time to play with each other (children with disabilities and no disabilities). Training for recreation, leisure and play should be included for school-aged children with disabilities.

45. Children with disabilities should be provided with equal opportunities to participate in various cultural and arts activities as well as sports. These activities must be viewed as both medium of expression and medium of realizing self-satisfying, quality of life.

(the word ‘sport’ is not specifically included in article 31 of the UNCRC but non-competitive,organized games is assumed to be part of children’s recreation.)
46. Competitive and non-competitive sports activities must be designed to include children with disabilities in an inclusive manner, whenever possible. That is to say, a child with a disability who is able to compete with children with no disability should be encouraged and supported to do so. But sports are an area where, because of the physical demands of the sport, children with disabilities will often need to have exclusive games and activities where they can compete fairly and safely. It must be emphasized though that when such exclusive events take place, the media must play its role responsibly by giving the same attention as it does to sports for children with no disabilities.

General Comment 11: Indigenous children and their rights under the Convention (2009)

63. With reference to article 31 of the Convention, the Committee notes the many positive benefits of participation in sports, traditional games, physical education, and recreational activities and calls on States parties to ensure that indigenous children enjoy the effective exercise of these rights.

General Comment 12: The right to be heard (2009)

115. children require play, recreation, physical and cultural activities for their development and socialization. These should be designed taking into account children’s preference and capacities. Children who are able to express their views should be consulted regarding the accessibility and appropriateness of play and recreation facilities. Very young children and some children with disabilities, who are unable to participate in formal consultative processes, should be provided with particular opportunities to express their wishes.


Short History of IPA and the General Comment on Article 31

In 2008 IPA engaged eight international organizations to support its original proposal for a UN General Comment. These were:

  • Right to Play International
  • World Leisure Association
  • International Pediatrics Association
  • International Council on Children’s Play
  • World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP)
  • International Toy Library Association
  • European Child Friendly Cities Network
  • Childwatch International Research Network

To gather information to support the need for a General Comment, IPA organized a series of Global Consultations in 2010. Consultations on children’s right to play were held in South Africa, Kenya, Bulgaria, Lebanon, India, Thailand, Japan and Mexico.
(Report www.ipaworld.org) A summary of this project was included with the September 2010 issue of PlayRights.

A report on key findings of these Consultations was made direct to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva in September 2010.

In February 2011 IPA received the news that the UN Committee had agreed to produce a General Comment on article 31.

In September 2011 IPA was invited to take a lead role in the organization of the development of the General Comment, which was to address all components of article 31. That is, the General Comment will include rest and leisure, play and recreation, culture and the arts.


International Structure Formed to Support the Drafting of the General Comment

International Structure: The first step in the development of the General Comment on article 31 was to form a structure to support the process. This comprises Core and Working Groups, a Pool of Experts and an information exchange system incorporating key international organizations and agencies. A matrix illustrating the breadth of professional and organizational participation was developed. Click Here

Children’s Input: The project will include feedback from a number of existing children’s groups in different parts of the world. Prior to the development of the final draft, these groups of children will reflect upon specific circumstances and experiences that impact their enjoyment of the rights embodied in article 31.

UN Focal Group: The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child established a Focal Group to work with IPA:

  • Awich Pollar, Chair (Uganda)
  • Aseil al-Shehail (Saudi Arabia)
  • Yanghee Lee (Korea)
  • Sanphasit Koompraphant (Thailand)
  • Hadeel Al-Asmar (Syrian Arab Republic)

Time-frame: The UN Committee has recommended we aim for a final draft to be presented to its January 2013 meeting. This is a demanding schedule but we aim to achieve the goal.

  • First draft to Core Group in March
  • Second draft to Committee in April
  • Meeting with UN Focal Group and Core Group in June
  • Third draft to go for wider consultation in June – August
  • Fourth draft to UN Focal Group and Committee in September
  • Final revision and adopted by Committee in January 2013

Some main topics covered by the General Comment

The General Comment defines all elements of article 31 and explains their importance in the growth and development of children and their impact on children’s overall well-being.

In the approximately twenty-page General Comment statement, challenges to implementation of article 31 are addressed. These nclude lack of awareness of adults of its importance (particularly of child-controlled play) inadequate space, excessive pressure for educational achievement, increase in structured and programmed leisure time as well as negative affects of technology, and the fact that children are rarely involved in planning for play (ref. UNCRC article 12).

Attention is also given to groups of children requiring particular attention in order to realize their rights under article 31. Children with disabilities, girl children, children in institutions, working children and children in deep poverty are some examples of these.

Perhaps, most importantly, the General Comment also provides a detailed elaboration of the specific actions that governments need to take to ensure that all the provisions of Article 31 are fully implemented.

UNCRC_General Comment #17            IPA Summary of UN GC article 31_FINAL         Children’s Version of GC#17