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US Remains Hold-Out in UN Child Rights Convention

  • Michael Bowman

Just over 20 years ago, the United Nations crafted a convention on the rights of all children to education, nutrition, housing, and other basic needs, as well as protection from exploitation and military conscription. Today, only two nations have yet to ratify the treaty: the United States and Somalia. U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child has been stalled by domestic opposition to provisions that, in the eyes of some, would limit parental rights and promote governmental interference in family matters.

The convention recognizes the special needs and vulnerabilities of children, and provides a mechanism to monitor and improve countries' attention to those needs.

Georgia State University law professor Jonathan Todres specializes in youth rights issues.

"The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most comprehensive human rights treaty for children, the most widely-ratified human rights treaty in the world," Todres said. "In dozens of countries, it has led to changes in law, policy and attitudes towards children. And as a result fewer children do suffer abuses in those countries."

The United States signed the treaty in the mid-1990s, but so far no U.S. administration has submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. The United States did, however, adopt two protocols stemming from the convention, one of which bars child soldiers.

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama expressed regret over the United States' failure to ratify the full convention. Last year, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice spoke of America's commitment to safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of youths everywhere.

"The United States is deeply committed to the welfare of children, and that includes protecting children from the scourge of war," Rice said.

But no Senate vote appears imminent on the convention, and it is not clear the measure would receive the required two-thirds backing for ratification.

The treaty faces stiff opposition from mostly-conservative legislators and activists who see it as unnecessary and a threat to parental rights and U.S. sovereignty. Michael Farris heads the online group

"The question is: who should make law for families in the United States," Farris asked. " Should America make its own laws? Or should we have international law governing the domestic policies of the United States -- deciding questions like where kids go to school, how to discipline your children, how often your kids go to church?"

Farris says the U.N. convention flows from a mindset that seeks to subvert parental autonomy to government initiative, and national sovereignty to global collectivism.

"The worldview that I espouse says Americans should make law for America and that parents, until they are proven to be harmful, should decide for their kids," Farris said. "The other worldview is that the government is here to save us. And if you believe the government is here to save us, then you embrace the philosophy of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Jonathan Todres says convention-ratifying nations receive reports on how to improve treatment of children, but that recommendations are non-binding. He dismisses as scare tactics any suggestion of U.N. officials descending on the United States to dictate parenting practices or usurping the authority of American officials.

More importantly, Todres says the global effort to protect children suffers without the full participation of the world's most powerful nation.

"The U.S. is arguably the best-positioned [nation] to ensure the rights and wellbeing of children globally," Todres said. "It is the world's sole superpower today. And it can be the best advocate for children if it becomes a party to this convention. So when we evaluate the convention, it is a bit like evaluating your favorite sports team's performance when its star player is on the sidelines."

U.S. opponents of treaty ratification are not convinced. In fact, some legislators have drafted an amendment to the U.S. constitution that would enshrine parental rights and autonomy and preclude the United States from ever adopting the convention or any similar measure in the future.