Only two countries have failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — the United States and Somalia.
Somalia has a good excuse. It lacks an internationally recognized government.
The United States has no excuse.
Its resistance to this landmark legal document affirming children’s basic human rights is embarrassing and puzzling, especially since the United States played a major part during the Reagan and Bush I administrations in drafting 38 of 40 substantive provisions.
Adopted by the United Nations in November 1989, the convention enumerates children’s fundamental entitlement to life, survival and development. Today, 193 parties, including the Vatican and every major industrialized nation, have committed to the convention, making it the world’s most widely ratified treaty. But the United States remains a ratification holdout.
As a pioneer in children’s rights — the United States created the world’s first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899 — the United States ought to ratify the convention and join the rest of the world in acknowledging that children deserve rights. U.S. ratification would signal our commitment to improving conditions for the world’s children.
"This is in line with what we believe as Americans and what we want for our families and children," said Georgia Child Advocate Tom Rawlings at a program on the convention last week at Georgia State University Law School.
Children lack rights and protections in many parts of the world. Since 1990, more than 1.5 million children have been killed in armed conflicts. An estimated 2 million children are exploited annually by the growing commercial sex industry.
Indeed, few Americans would fault the treaty’s contention that children have an "inherent right to life" and the right "to the highest attainable standard of health." Most would also embrace the treaty’s insistence that "children must be cared for, respected and allowed to be a child."
They would also agree that nations have responsibilities to "take measures to combat the illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad" and "protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse."
And Americans would handily endorse the treaty’s premise that the best interest of the child should guide all legal proceedings, a principle embedded in U.S. law for more than a century. In fact, the convention is compatible with most areas of U.S. law.
So why does America — which has ratified other international human rights treaties — stand virtually alone? The typical response is that the treaty raises concerns about sovereignty, federalism, family planning and interference in the parent-child relationship.
But Rawlings, a former Sandersville juvenile judge, suggested another reason.
"In the small town where I live there is a big billboard that says, ‘Get the U.S. out of the U.N’," says Rawlings. "People fear outsiders. It will take a lot of work to get over that."
It will also take work to overcome exaggerated claims that the treaty would enable children to sue their parents over spankings or curfews. The parental rights movement alleges that the treaty endows children with equal standing to adults in the household and undermines fundamental family relationships. As a result, opponents say, the treaty would force parents to seek permission of their children to home-school them or withdraw them from sex education classes.
"That is not a fair reading, since 19 of the 40 articles mention the importance of family, parents and legal guardians" says another of the panelists, GSU law professor Jonathan Todres, co-editor of a book on the treaty.
Todres says the convention speaks often and strongly about the influential role of parents and the importance of family. The treaty defines the family as the "fundamental group of society" and says "parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child." It cites the rights of parents to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. While the treaty cites children’s right to freedom of expression, it tempers that by saying there are restrictions to this freedom, including the protection of morals.
Another complaint about the treaty is that it infringes on U.S. sovereignty. But the treaty doesn’t impose any laws; it provides a policy framework. Legislatures of the countries themselves must pass laws to turn that policy into law.
There’s also no enforcement mechanism to compel countries into action. Nations submit their own data on child well-being measures to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which evaluates the information and reports on how the country is performing. The committee reports have led some countries to introduce reforms; Rwanda stopped housing children in adult detention centers and Sri Lanka revised its laws on child abuse, child labor and adoption.
Former Fulton County juvenile judge Karen Baynes travels around the world now as associate director of the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. She told the audience at the GSU program that she’s often asked in her travels, "Why hasn’t the U.S. ratified the convention? Isn’t the U.S. supposed to be the leader in justice and what’s right for children?"
The right answer to those questions is "yes" — at least, it would be if the United States ratifies the children’s rights treaty.