On Nov. 20, 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark human rights treaty protecting children’s rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was negotiated for more than a decade, a process in which the U.S. played a critical role. The administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush contributed provisions to the convention, and in its final form, the treaty incorporates numerous elements of U.S. law and practices.
Upon circulation, the convention was widely adopted and became the most ratified human rights treaty in history. Now, 25 years later, as the world celebrates Universal Children’s Day, only three countries bear the shame of not having ratified the CRC: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. In failing to ratify, the U.S. has lost an important opportunity to shape international law and improve its human rights record here at home.
The treaty was born of the belief that children are acutely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and therefore deserve special protection. The CRC seeks to promote the best interests of the child through law and regulation, protect children from discrimination and abuse and ensure their right to develop and be heard.
The treaty prescribes modest, time-tested measures to facilitate these goals. States that have ratified the CRC must submit a report within two years of ratification and every five years thereafter to an 18-person committee of human rights experts. The committee then makes nonbinding recommendations regarding steps that countries should take to fulfill their treaty obligations. The reporting system is built on the premise that self-evaluation and transparency leads to change. Public reports make states accountable to their democratic institutions and to the world and empowers local actors, including civil society organizations, to set agendas and advocate for reform.
History shows that these mechanisms can have an enormous impact on human rights. The CRC is widely credited with facilitating major reforms in children’s rights around the world. In response to recommendations from the committee, more than a dozen countries have incorporated some or all of the convention into their constitutions. Barbados, China, Yemen and Zimbabwe have raised the age for capital punishment to 18. And India, South Africa, Togo, Lebanon and numerous other countries have banned abusive practices against children, including female genital mutilation, virginity testing and honor killings.
The success stories are countless and well established. The objections to ratification, on the other hand, are not.
Some U.S. lawmakers contend that ratification would allow children to sue their parents. Yet the treaty contains no such provision and leaves this issue to the discretion of ratifying states. Others contend that the treaty prohibits corporal punishment and would interfere with private family decisions. Again, the treaty does no such thing. Rather it seeks to protect children from domestic violence and abuse, a principle already enshrined in U.S. law.
Underlying these objections is a deeper worry that the convention will somehow erode U.S. sovereignty and federalism. This concern is misguided. The U.S. has ratified numerous other human rights treaties — including ones that protect against racial discrimination, torture and genocide — and has not experienced a concomitant loss of sovereignty. Moreover, if there are limited, discrete areas of the CRC that aren’t harmonious with state law, the U.S. may always submit reservations — a tool that allows countries to ratify treaties subject to certain conditions as long as the reservations don’t defeat the purpose of the treaty.
For decades, these chimeras have impeded U.S. ratification and the two-thirds U.S. Senate vote necessary to move forward. In the interim, much has been lost. As the rest of the world shapes children’s rights in international law, the U.S. is conspicuously absent, forfeiting the opportunity to share its knowledge and experience in the hall of nations. This is especially shameful, given that President Bill Clinton’s administration signed the treaty in 1995. In signing the treaty but not ratifying it, the U.S. has communicated to the world that it agrees with the treaty’s principles but refuses to be bound by them.
Much work remains. Roughly 2 million children are abused every year in the global commercial sex trade. Millions more under the age of 5 die from preventable causes. And in developing countries, 150 million children engage in child labor.
At home too, there’s room for progress. Although the U.S. is a leader on many children’s rights issues, problems still persist. Unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border are often denied due process and the right to counsel in immigration hearings. Fourteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults, and some even impose life sentences without the possibility of parole. And in the field of public health, the U.S. has one of the highest infant mortality rates among industrialized nations.
Ameliorating the plight of exploited and abused children and maximizing the potential of all children requires collaboration, creativity and humility. In going it alone, the U.S. hurts itself, the rest of the world and children everywhere.