The position was created in 1990 by the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights amidst growing international concern over the commercial sexual exploitation and the sale of children. It followed the adoption in 20 November 1989 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly. This international instrument recognizes "that in all countries in the world, there are children living in exceptionally difficult conditions, and that such children need special consideration". By 2000, almost every country in the world has signed and agreed to be bound by the provisions of the Convention.
The special rapporteur is required to investigate the exploitation of children around the world and to submit reports on the findings to the General Assembly and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, making recommendations for the protection of the rights of the children concerned. These recommendations are targeted primarily at Governments, other United Nations bodies and non-governmental organizations.
The current Special Rapporteur is Juan Miguel Petit.