In medical literature, child maltreatment is considered as a public-health problem or an issue of harm to individuals, but less frequently as a violation of children's human rights. Public-health approaches emphasise monitoring, prevention, cost-effectiveness, and population strategies; protective approaches concentrate on the legal and professional response to cases of maltreatment. Both approaches have been associated with improvement in outcomes for children, yet maltreatment remains a major global problem. We describe how children's rights provide a different perspective on child maltreatment, and contribute to both public-health and protective responses. Children's rights as laid out in the UN convention on the rights of the child (UNCRC) provide a framework for understanding child maltreatment as part of a range of violence, harm, and exploitation of children at the individual, institutional, and societal levels. Rights of participation and provision are as important as rights of protection. The principles embodied in the UNCRC are concordant with those of medical ethics. The greatest strength of an approach based on the UNCRC is that it provides a legal instrument for implementing policy, accountability, and social justice, all of which enhance public-health responses. Incorporation of the principles of the UNCRC into laws, research, public-health policy, and professional training and practice will result in further progress in the area of child maltreatment.