Today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty. The treaty requires the commitment of states that embrace it to do all possible to ensure children’s wellbeing, dignity and protection. The U.S., accompanied by Somalia and South Sudan, are the only three countries that have failed to ratify this important instrument of international law. One hundred and ninety-four nations – including all of America’s closest allies — have ratified the CRC. To say that the US is in bad company is an understatement.
The CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and became one of the most rapidly and widely adopted human-rights agreements. The United States signed it in 1995 but never ratified it. Signing a treaty implies that a country endorses its principles, whereas ratification means committing to be legally bound by it. Treaty ratification under US law requires that after the President sends the treaty to the Senate it must be approved by a two-thirds majority, the same standard required for a Constitutional amendment. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has never made it to a vote.
The Convention upholds the ideal that all children, everywhere, have the same human rights to survive and thrive, to learn and contribute to society. The CRC recognizes every child’s right to develop physically, socially and mentally to his or her fullest potential, to be protected from discrimination, exploitation, abuse, discrimination, and violence; to express his or her views freely and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future.
Most American laws are already consistent with the ideals of the CRC, but not all. A notable exception is that in the United States children under 18 can be incarcerated for life without parole. Since the treaty prohibits cruel and degrading punishment of children, those laws may be deemed in contravention of the treaty. Opponents of the treaty say it would usurp American sovereignty. Although America has laws against child abuse, a third of states allow corporal punishment in schools and none bans it at home. Parent-rights groups claim the treaty would undermine parents’ authority, particularly over religious and sex education.
Studies by the Children’s Defense Fund, UNICEF, and others show that, relative to its wealth and compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S does not fare well with regards child poverty, teen birth rates, low birth weight, infant mortality, child victims of gun violence, and the number of minors incarcerated. It is incomprehensible how the richest nation on earth allows one out of six children to live under the poverty level; how its laws permit a child to be killed by guns every three hours; or how so many children and families live without basic health insurance.
Ratification of the CRC in itself would not immediately change the situation of children in American. However, it might help establish a national framework to establish clear objectives that the federal and state governments, private organizations, and individuals, can use to shape policies and initiatives to better meet the needs of children and their families.
Internationally, ratification of the CRC would help enhance U.S. standing as a global leader in human rights. Additionally, as a party to the Convention, the U.S. would be eligible to participate in the Committee on the Rights of the Child (which is the international body that monitors the CRC’s implementation), and work toward strengthening further progress for children in all countries.
On behalf of President Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright signed the CRC in 1995, signaling the U.S. government’s intention to move toward ratification. But the George W Bush administration took no further action. President Obama has done nothing tangible towards getting the treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, referring to the CRC, Barack Obama underscored the importance of the US returning “[…] to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights” and promised to “[…] review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.” Over 100 CEOs and leaders of prominent American child welfare organizations and faith-based groups have made a joint appeal to President Obama to order such a review.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRC, many of us hope that the United States will join the international community in embracing the CRC as a safeguard for the defense of children’s rights and well being everywhere.