The Shame of the United States’ Failure to Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Posted on: February 13th, 2015 by

In January of this year, the government of Somalia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), making it the 195th country to do so. Somalia’s action leaves only the United States and South Sudan remaining in the group of nations who have not yet ratified the CRC in the 26 years since it has come into effect. Whereas Somalia and South Sudan have been delayed by lack of a formal government to ratify the treaty, the United States has no such excuse.

What is the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The CRC was drafted by the United Nations General Assembly based on the belief that children (defined by the treaty as individuals under the age of 18) are inherently vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and therefore deserve special legal protections. The CRC aims to provide children with these protections from abuse, discrimination, and other obstacles to their healthy development. The treaty is a radical document in that it marks the first time children have been acknowledged as deserving of special legal protections; however, it is not so radical in its recommendations: it advises modest measures to facilitate these protections, many of which are already applied under current U.S. law. Despite the nation’s reluctance to pass the CRC, the United States was an instrumental part of its drafting and helped bring the treaty into the global sphere.

What does it mean to ratify the CRC?

Ratifying the CRC means this: 2 years following ratification, the state is required to submit a report to a committee of U.N.-affiliated human rights experts, which makes non-binding recommendations based on the content of the report. This system works on the basis that this simple check-in and the accompanying increase in government transparency will help to hold nations responsible for their actions and positions, though the system does not involve any true punitive measures. The state then submits similar reports every 5 years thereafter.

Where does the United States stand on ratifying the CRC?

Under President Bill Clinton, the United States government signed the CRC treaty, but despite numerous attempts, the two-thirds senate vote required to ratify the treaty in the U.S. has never been reached. The difference between signing and ratifying the treaty is a significant one: signing signifies a country’s agreement with the ideology behind the treaty, whereas ratifying actually commits the nation to the treaty and the required committee check-ins. The delay on ratification in the U.S. is due to the persuasive powers of some U.S. lawmakers, who believe that ratification would erode the US government’s legislative power, interfere with the decisions of U.S. state governments, or limit the rights American parents. However, none of these proposed results is likely to be the case. For one, the U.S. has ratified numerous treaties such as this one in the past, treaties that have helped to protect its citizens and inhabitants from discrimination, torture, and genocide. Furthermore, the United Nations allows nations to ratify the CRC with “reservations,” or while outlining distinct conditions within the treaty that the state’s government does not agree to be held to. However, political rhetoric of this type has still managed to keep the United States from signing the treaty into law, and in the meantime, the human rights of some children in the U.S. continue to be ignored.

What has the CRC done, and what can it do for the US?

The CRC has helped many countries address issues of basic children’s human rights: several countries have voted to raise the age of capital punishment to 18, while numerous others have outlawed other abuses of children such as female genital mutilation and honor killings. The global percentage of children who are enrolled in education has risen due to the CRC’s requirement that governments provide free primary education, while child labor rates have dropped due to the treaty’s restrictions on that practice. While more developed than some, the United States is not immune to such abuses of the human rights of children: 14 U.S. states have no minimum age for trying children as adults, some impose life sentences on children without the possibility of parole, and many undocumented minors at the U.S. border are apprehended and returned to violent conditions in their home countries without ever having access to legal counsel. While ratifying the CRC would not automatically or uncontestedly fix these problems, it would certainly draw public attention to these issues and help to reframe them in the context of children’ human rights.

In short, ratifying the CRC would be a step forward for U.S. politics both practically and theoretically, and fears about the CRC undermining current U.S. regulations are unfounded. Ratification of the CRC would elevate children’s rights in our society, enhance the measures we currently take to protect and support them. It would also provide greater moral authority/weight in our international advocacy and diplomacy regarding children’s rights issues, including health, education, and exploitation. Supporting a treaty that has been instrumental in improving the lives of children globally seems to be an obvious choice. It is time we joined nearly every other country in the world in recognition of the human rights of children.

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