Why won’t the U.S. ratify the U.N.’s child rights treaty?
By Karen Attiah on November 21, 2014
Twenty five years ago this week, 190 member countries of United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark agreement that stands as one of the most ratified human rights treaties in history. The CRC, which turned 25 years old on November 20th, follows the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and is the world’s most comprehensive framework for the protection of children’s rights. It includes the right to protection from discrimination based on their parent’s or legal guardian’s sex, race, religion, and a host of other identifiers. The convention supports protections for children from forced labor, child marriage, deprivation of a legal identity, and grants both able-bodied and disabled children the right to health care, education, and freedom of expression. It also has safeguards for parents to take care of their children, including parental leave.
Only three U.N. countries have not ratified the CRC: Somalia, South Sudan, and…the United States.
That’s right. The United States is part of an elite trio of non-ratifiers, along with Somalia, a country that is virtually in anarchy and consistently appears in the lowest ranks of countries in terms of human development, and South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which dealt with a fair share of civil conflict. Back in 2008, Obama said that it was “embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land.” And in all fairness to South Sudan, though the country is only three years old, it is actually in the process of ratification, having passed a bill last year to approve the CRC.
The U.S. signed the treaty under Bill Clinton in 1995, an essentially symbolic agreement with the principles set forth under the treaty. But ratification of any treaty in the United States requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to pass, and a number of Republican senators, claiming concerns about U.S. sovereignty, have consistently opposed ratification.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the treaty, the World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health launched an online resource bank of data on the progress of all 193 U.N. member nations in the way of protecting children’s rights on issues such as child labor, parental leave, minimum wage and education in the last 25 years since the introduction of the treaty.
So are children better off than they were a quarter of a century ago? Dr. Jody Heymann, the center’s founding director said, “In recent decades, we’ve halved the mortality rate. We’ve increased the number of children attending primary school…90 percent of the countries that have made the promise [to make primary schools free and compulsory] have done so, and we have seen increases in attendance. “ Global challenges still remain in the area of child marriage, and high tuition remains a barrier access to secondary school, especially for poor children and girls around the world.
The U.S. is falling behind on a number of children’s rights indicators:
Poverty: As of 2010, the U.S. ranked 30th out of 34 OECD countries in terms of child poverty. 21.2% of children in the United States live in poverty. The average for OECD countries is 13.3%. Only Chile, Turkey, Mexico and Israel had higher child poverty rates.
Maternal Leave: The U.S. is the only high-income country not to grant paid maternity leave.
Criminal Justice: The U.S. is also the one country in the world that sentences offenders under the age of 18 to life in prison without parole, which the Convention opposes.
“When the United States at first didn’t sign on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we were concerned that this would have implications toward showing support for children around the world,” Dr. Heymann said. “But in fact, it didn’t get in the way of the fact that nearly other country did sign on and that there has been deep global commitment. But I think we have to worry a lot about what it means that we haven’t had focused attention on children in the United States.”
Michael P. Farris, is a constitutional lawyer and president of ParentalRights.org, an organization that has been actively campaigning against U.S. ratification of “dangerous U.N conventions that “threaten parental rights” such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“The chief threat posed by the CRC is the denial of American self-government in accord with our constitutional processes,” said Farris in an email interview. “Our constitutional system gives the exclusive authority for the creation of law and policy on issues about families and children to state governments. Upon ratification, this nation would be making a binding promise in international law that we would obey the legal standards created by the U.N. CRC. American children and families are better served by constitutional democracy than international law.”
The group fears that ratifying the treaty would mean children could choose their own religion, that children would have a legally enforceable right to leisure, that nations would have to spend more on children’s welfare than national defense, and that a child’s “right to be heard” could trigger a governmental review of any decision a parent made that a child didn’t like.
But is the U.S.’s non-ratification of the CRC hypocritical when the U.S. lectures other countries on children’s rights? Farris says that the “United States demonstrates its commitment to human rights whenever it follows and enforces the Constitution of the United States, which is the greatest human rights instrument in all history.”
The currently all male-staff (Farris says the group has never focused on maternal leave as an issue) of ParentalRights.org and other opponents of the CRC overlook that protections for the rights of children are human rights. Protections of children with disabilities are protections for people with disabilities. Ending discrimination against children is ending discrimination against people. Ensuring paid parental leave, access to pre- and post-natal health care for women has been linked to better health outcomes for children and parents.
The United States can learn from other member nations on how to reduce poverty, ensure women’s rights, improve education and educational access, and healthy living conditions, for starters. What message does the U.S. send to the rest of the world when we endorse and support young activists like Malala Yousafzai, and her platform for girls’ rights to education, when the U.S. refuses to ratify an international treaty that promotes access to education for children?
It’s high time the U.S. takes steps towards joining the rest of the world and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child. After all, today’s healthy and well educated children are tomorrow’s healthy and well-educated adults.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor. She writes on international affairs and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria.
Header Photo: Hundreds of students dance during a “flashmob” in commemoration of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child at a square in Havana on November 20, 2010. A flashmob is a sudden gathering of people where participants perform unsual acts and then disperse, usually arranged via social media. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)