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A union of four countries - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - the United Kingdom is an island nation located in Western Europe, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with a number of additional semi-independent territories around the world. The UK has a hereditary monarch as head of state and an elected prime minister and parliament as the head of government and legislature respectively. While the UK has a generally good human rights record overall, concerns have been raised about the treatment of migrant children, including their detention, and the high number of children in prison.
The United Kingdom is located off the North-western coast of continental Europe and includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland and many smaller surrounding islands. The UK lies between the North Atlantic and the North Sea and to the north of France and the European continent. The capital city is London, in England, although Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast are considered the capitals of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively.
Culturally and, to varying degrees, politically, the United Kingdom consists of four distinct entities: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Population and Language
The UK is ethnically diverse, partly as a legacy of its colonial history. White ethnic groups account for 86 per cent of the population, while there are substantial groups of ethnically Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, other Asian, African and Caribbean peoples.
The United Kingdom is also religiously diverse. A majority of people in the United Kingdom identify as Christian (59 per cent), a quarter profess no religion and there are substantial communities of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other religious groups.
The Church of England, which follows a form of protestant christianity, is the official state religion, but this is largely a ceremonial and symbolic role.
History and Politics
Victory over Germany and the Central Powers during the First World War came at a high human and economic cost for the UK. While the fall of the German and Ottoman empires after the war allowed expansion into former territories of those countries, the economic crisis of the 1930s affected Britain greatly. The Second World War, while again a victory, left an exhausted United Kingdom unable to maintain its empire. Ireland had already fought for and won independence during the 1920s, leaving only the north eastern part of the country as part of the United Kingdom. Elsewhere the previous British policy of granting gradual concessions and limited home rule instead of full independence crumbled in the face of determined, sometimes violent, nationalist movements in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Over the next few decades, the UK was forced to concede independence for nearly all its former colonial holdings, though some maintained the British monarch as ceremonial head of head of state and many stayed members of the Commonwealth - a largely trade and cultural organisation.
Displaced from the world stage by the United States and Soviet Union during the second half of the twentieth century, Britain continued to be a major economy and member of several international organisations, including joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 and was later a founding member of the European Union. It is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
A long running violent conflict in Northern Ireland between those who wished to remain part of the Union and those who sort to join the Republic of Ireland came to end in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, which established an assembly for Northern Ireland and saw the devolution of some powers from the UK central government in London. This was followed by similar moves towards devolution in Wales and Scotland, leading to the creation of a National Assembly and Parliament respectively. After the success of nationalists in the 2011 Scottish Elections, Scotland is due to vote on a referendum for full independence in September 2014.
The United Kingdom has continued to play a part on the world stage. Military engagements in the last few decades have included fighting with Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, membership of international coalitions in Afghanistan (2001), Kosovo (1999) and Iraq (1991 and 2003). British military involvement in Afghanistan and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq provoked significant popular protest.
The United Kingdom today is a constitutional monarchy with the King or Queen, currently Queen Elizabeth II, as formal head of state, although their powers are now largely ceremonial. The national parliament is located in Westminster, London, and is divided between a House of Commons and a House of Lords - the former elected, the latter a combination of hereditary and appointed members, with a few senior clergy from the Church of England.. In the 2010 general election, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was defeated, although neither the Conservative nor Liberal Democrat parties were able to win a decisive majority and they were subsequently forced to govern as a coalition. The next elections are expected to take place in 2015.
In addition to the central parliament there are national assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These have varying degrees of power and oversight and hold their own elections, but have only a limited power to raise money through taxation.
English and Welsh law is based on the common law system, with the Supreme Court as the final court of appeal. The Northern Irish and Scottish law systems are distinct from this. The former is also based on common law but includes a number of differences to the English system. Scots law is notable for incorporating elements of both Common and Civil law within it, as well as a number of unique elements rooted in Scottish history.
The United Kingdom is a high income country. Having reduced much of its manufacturing based during the late twentieth century, it is now dominated by service and finance industries. The centrality of the UK to global finance systems left it exposed during the global financial crisis of 2008. The then-Labour government stepped into bail out some of the British banks worst exposed by the crisis, but the economic downturn that followed has led to a slow recovery. The subsequent coalition government has pursued a major project of cutting public spending on services. Whether this has been beneficial to the economy is disputed, however, and its impact on the quality of life for children has been criticised by the UK Children’s Commissioner  .
Media and Civil Society
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked the UK 28 out of 179 in its 2011/12 Press Freedom Index. While freedom of speech is generally respected, numerous issues do persist. Recently the government has been accused of attempting to intimidate or block the work of reporters involved in covering the Edward Snowdon intelligence leaks.
UK libel laws in particular have been criticised as too heavily weighted towards the interests of the complainant and for being open to abuse to silence legitimate criticism. On freedom of the press, a government inquiry into illegal behaviour by newspapers has led to recently approved new regulations. These have proved controversial and warnings have been made that they may inhibit the freedom not only of the press, but the broader freedom of speech of other groups involved in the collection and dissemination of information.
While the UK has an active civil society and is the home to many NGOs and charities, both domestic and international, concerns have been raised over a recent bill designed to restrict lobbying. A number of charities and other organsations have suggested that should the bill pass, they might well face severe restrictions on their ability to campaign on major issues during the run up to elections.
Human Rights and Children's Rights
The UK has been criticised for its involvement in the use of torture, including handing over prisoners to be tortured by other governments, preserving legal defences for torture by government officials in UK law and for official ambiguity about the application of the Convention Against Torture to British troops or officials serving overseas.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has raised concerns about the State's reservation to article 32 with respect to the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies.
While human rights in the UK enjoy the protection of national, regional (Council of Europe) and international law, some criticism have been made over the popular discourse surrounding rights. In particular, politicians and media outlets have been accused of promoting an environment that is hostile to human rights and to the mechanisms that protect them. By focussing on stories where human rights laws or protections have been abused or have produced outcomes contrary to the popular mood, public confidence in and awareness of the importance of human rights risks being undermined.
In addition to more general issues related to human rights, the UK has a number of children specific rights issues. The impact of poverty and inequality amongst children, for example, has been shown to be much more significant than in other similar countries such as France and Germany. This problem has been exacerbated by the significant impact that current spending cuts by the UK Government are seen to be having on chidren, including increasing the number of children living in poverty. 
The UK has been criticised for its treatment of child migrants - at one point rising to around 2000 families with children in detention awaiting processing or deportation. This number has since fallen, but the conditions of children in detention remain a cause for concern.. In addition to children detained for immigration reasons the UK has also been criticised for the use of prisons to house children in conflict with the law.
While the UK is a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the CRC on Children and Armed Conflict, the minimum age of recruitment for the armed forces is still set at 16. While under 18s are not supposed to be deployed to live operation theatres, it has not been possible to prevent this entirely. Additionally, those joining the armed forces under the age of 18 have been shown to face greater incidence of certain outcomes, such as post traumatic stress disorder, self harm, sexual harassment and bullying, than those joining as adults.
- Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations, October 2008
- World Bank Country Profile