A Legal Document with Soul: Will the US Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Friday, November 20, was the 20th anniversary of the year that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was entered into force by the General Assembly. This groundbreaking, comprehensive, organic—some even say spiritual—document, with 193 out of 195 possible government ratifications, has become the world’s most widely-ratified human rights treaty. Only two governments, both of which have signed, remain outside the loop: Somalia, a country whose government is not recognized by the United Nations, and the United States, which, by its own admission, is the world’s most zealous champion of human rights worldwide and proprietor of the world’s most progressive laws protecting the rights of children.

More than 10 years in the drafting, the CRC would not have happened without the support of the United States, including the significant contributions to its language under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The kibosh on all international treaties imposed by Senator Jesse Helms (then powerful chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee) and twelve years of Bushes swept the treaty into an unused broom closet. Up for ratification once again, it has been strongly supported by Hillary Clinton and President Obama, who noted embarrassment “to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land”, and promised to conduct a serious legal review of this treaty and others to ensure the United States resume its global leadership in human rights. Ratification should be a no-brainer.

The CRC is a unique and precious document, visionary and practical. It is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, political, cultural, social and economic, including the unique rights to childhood: the right to play, to survival and development, to protection from exploitation and abuse, the right of participation, and the right to develop from children to adults.

The CRC has been called a legal document with a soul. In fact, the Holy See was the fourth government to ratify the Convention in 1990, and today as US ratification is poised to appear on the radar, every major denominational group has publicly given it support. According to Matthew and other disciples, Jesus loved children beyond all others. And two faith-based colleagues agreed that He might even be a staunch advocate for ratification.

But one person’s no-brainer is another’s “No way.” On line behind a number of treaties ranging from the relatively innocuous “Law of the Sea” to the more controversial CEDAW, the CRC is by no means guaranteed ratification.

Parental Authority Undermined

First, but maybe not foremost, is the overt opposition from the Christian right, which declares with great certainty that the Convention would abrogate the God-given authority of parents. It would forbid all ‘normal everyday spanking’ (Articles 3, 19, and 37), control curriculum, and prohibit home schooling (Articles 24 and 25). The rights to privacy and freedom of expression encourage children to sue and beat their parents, join gangs (12 and 13), and have abortions. Not to mention article 31, which would allow children to play all day long and refuse to go to school. This is not something that any good American family would want.

Michael Ferris, Chancellor of Patrick Henry College (for Christian home schoolers), leader of the parental rights movement, and founder of the Home Schooling Defense League, warns of the “Nannies in Blue Berets,” coming to occupy America and impose a world order on all American families. Ferris is also author of the Parental Rights amendment to the Constitution that will, he told Mike Huckabee in an interview on Fox, “put a permanent stake in the vampire of international law”. Despite 80 sponsors in the House of Representatives and one Senator), the amendment is not likely to gain much traction. But it can (like the town hall meetings to ‘take back our Constitution’ and other right-wing mini-movements) make a lot of noise, produce clear and simple talking points with little relationship to the truth, and create a sense of organization well beyond their numbers.

It is always a challenge to spend time disputing absurdities when we should be promoting the strengths of the CRC, its relevance to the US, and its nuanced understanding of children’s issues. But it is hard to resist calling attention to a small irony hidden in the arguments of the right: unlike any international treaty, the Convention mentions the role of the family more times than any other right: to guide, protect and take responsibility for the raising and developing the values of their children. In fact, it actually suggests the right of parents to sue/criticize the government for its failures to protect, educate, and care for children—the very objective sought by the PRA. The only time a child has the right to charge his or her parents is when they have violated or abused the child—a right that already exists in most state laws. So which is it, folks? US sovereignty or protection from US government interference?

The Religion of American Exceptionalism

Beyond the social agenda of the religious right comes a significant threat from another religious community to squash ratification: “American Exceptionalism”; based on the dogma that America is the greatest nation on Earth, the designated leader of the world, more democratic, dynamic and prosperous than any other nation, as well as technologically superior. (See Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided). Questioning can result in serious charges including globalism, socialism, fascism and worst of all unamericanism.

How this belief system threatens ratification of CRC is evidenced in the four following dogmas:

1. Entering into international treaties leads to becoming part of the international community and renouncing leadership;
2. The CRC may override state and federal law and the US constitution;
3. The groundbreaking inclusion of social, economic, and cultural (as well as civil and political) rights as human rights are not in the US rulebook; and finally
4. US laws already cover most of the Convention guidelines, which other countries continue to violate or flaunt, thus canceling out any need for ratification.

Answers to these arguments are easy:

1. Ratification actually will allow the United States to regain its global leadership and moral authority on human rights worldwide. Already the US government uses its power to combat sex trafficking, child labor, and child marriage (in other countries); what an expression of its commitment to children.
2. Despite the fact that it is legally binding, the CRC is not self-executing; that means the U.S. must decide through legislation to enforce it.
3. If, as ‘pro-life’ proponents proclaim, the life of an unborn child has human rights, can we not extend those rights to a child after it is born?
4. Despite (some of) the best laws in the world to support, protect, and honor its own children, the United States is still a long way from implementing its own laws and policies. The U.S. rate of infant mortality is 24th out of the 25 wealthiest countries, and 3.5 million are at risk of longterm physical and cognitive impairment from malnutrition; 30% of 8th-grade students don’t read at grade level, and the U.S. ranks 24th in mathematical literacy of 15-year-olds. By age 18, one in four girls and one in six boys will have been victimized by sexual assault, and the U.S. rate of death from child abuse is again 24th.

By anyone’s count, along with Barbara Boxer, John Kerry, and Bernie Sanders, there are probably at least 40 or so committed Senators, but to pull together 67 votes in 2010 or 2011 will still be a daunting challenge. Even CEDAW, ahead of the CRC in line for ratification, may well be a struggle. But its chances are good that the powerful lobby and millions of votes (women) behind it may well swing the tide. As for the CRC, it just may turn out, not that the Senate opposes it, but with such a crowded and urgent agenda, there are just more important issues to deal with first. After all, children can’t vote. (although they can disrupt meetings.)

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