The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund)

Structure and Functions

UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) is one of the main subsidiary bodies of the UN. Originally founded by the General Assembly as the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund in 1946, UNICEF became a permanent UN Agency in 1953. It now employs 5,600 people, with headquarters in New York.

The thirty-six members of its Executive Board, which meets once a year, are elected to three-year terms by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), following a specific regional allocation of seats. The main contributing and beneficiary countries are represented. UNICEF submits its annual reports to the General Assembly and to ECOSOC.

The Executive Director is nominated for a period of five years by the Secretary-General of the UN in consultation with the Executive Board. Anthony Lake took up this position on 1 May 2010 as the successor of Ann M. Veneman.

All contributions to the organization’s budget are voluntary. States contribute approximately 68 percent. UNICEF also receives funds from private individuals—mostly through the sale of greeting cards (11 percent)—through the support of the national committees for UNICEF in industrialized States. For 2010–2011, the total available resources amount to $10.4 billion, including the balance from previous years and the support biennal budget for 2010–2011. The Executive Board allocates its budget to specific populations based on three criteria: the infant mortality rate for children under the age of five, the gross domestic product per capita, and the number of children in the population.


UNICEF’s mission is to help governments meet children’s basic needs and to help children reach their full potential. In 1996, the Executive Board adopted a new statement on the organization’s mandate, incorporating into its mission the commitment to protect children’s rights and goal of establishing these rights as “enduring ethical principles and international standards of behavior toward children.”


UNICEF works with governments on their long-term programs aimed at improving the quality of life of children. These programs cover health, vaccination and nutrition, medical prevention, primary education, and “children in especially difficult circumstances” (e.g., street children, orphans, and children in areas of armed conflict).

As is the case for all UN bodies and agencies, UNICEF may not carry out any activities in a State without first consulting the government in question and receiving its permission.

  • In emergencies, UNICEF responds to the urgent needs of children and their mothers by offering assistance programs to the government, including health care, nutrition, and sanitation, as well as basic education and psychosocial rehabilitation. It collaborates with the relevant bodies in the UN system, for instance, in ensuring coordination in the humanitarian domain. It is one of the lead agencies in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), run by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
  • UNICEF also develops research and evaluation activities so as to “be alert to the different circumstances that affect children’s well being in different countries around the world” and thus improve the efficiency of its programs.
  • It works in close collaboration with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body set up as a result of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to monitor its implementation. The Convention establishes that the Committee may call on specialized agencies and other UN bodies—namely, UNICEF—to give recommendations on the implementation of the Convention (Art. 45.a and b of the CRC). In 1991, UNICEF’s Executive Board decided to contribute actively to the implementation of the Convention and hence set a new orientation for the organization. UNICEF is now guided by this international instrument that falls under its mandate—the protection of childhood. Before the Committee on the Rights of the Child, it had formally committed to promoting children’s rights and to monitoring the implementation of the Convention in the different countries where it works. ▸ Children
  • Since the Convention was adopted in 1989, UNICEF has carried out awareness and sensitivity campaigns. It has also lobbied in favor of children’s rights, in particular, pressuring governments to adhere to the Convention, which has now been ratified by every State in the world, except Somalia and the United States. UNICEF works in association with celebrities, who are “roving ambassadors” for its causes.
  • Finally, UNICEF acts as the center for information concerning the situation of children around the world, through publications, conferences, and documentation centers.

Cooperation with NGOs

In emergencies, UNICEF works in coordination with UN bodies, humanitarian agencies, and other operational partners to develop programs rapidly to bring relief to children. It also cooperates with NGOs who already have a consultative status with ECOSOC. The NGOs can disseminate documents, may assist the Executive Board in writing its reports, and even—with the agreement of the president of the Executive Board—make verbal interventions.

ChildrenCommittee on the Rights of the ChildECOSOCMinorsOffice for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)


Three UN Plaza

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Tel.: (1) 212 326-7000

Fax: (1) 212 888-7465

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For Additional Information: UNICEF. Annual Report 2005. Available at .

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