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

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most widely accepted human rights treaty in the world. It describes the civil, political, economic, social, health, and cultural rights of children – including freedom of thought and religion, freedom from violence and abuse, the right to privacy, and the unhindered right to information. It outlaws capital punishments for children and asserts that all children have the right to education and adequate health care. There is also an emphasis on equal treatment of all children regardless of gender, race, or cultural background. So far, 196 UN member states have ratified the CRC, committing to grant the children of their nations the rights described in the treaty. The only country that stands in the way of the CRC being the first truly universal human rights treaty is the United States.

A group of children meet with UN Secretary General Javier Perez De Cuellar to mark the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, by Milton Grant

The CRC first went into force in 1990, and Madeleine Albright (then US Ambassador to the UN) signed the Convention on behalf of the United States in 1995. To ‘sign’ the CRC indicated that the US would move towards ratification in the near future. However, the political process in the US means any such resolution needs to pass with a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate before it can go into effect. Since 1995, presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama have all expressed their support of the CRC, but it has never been presented to the Senate for a vote. This is largely due to persistent opposition from both the public and members of the Senate.

Groups like Amnesty USA have argued that political opposition to the CRC is fuelled by and built on misconceptions of how it would be implemented. The key argument against ratification is the CRC’s supposed infringement upon American sovereignty,, and the belief that it would have the power to override the United States Constitution. This is not the case. Neither the CRC or the Committee have any authority over domestic legislation. The CRC is a commitment by states to submit regular reports on the status of children’s rights to an independent Committee of elected officials every five years. The Committee reviews the report and issues recommendations for states to improve their compliance with the CRC.

The Convention is based on self-compliance alone. While the recommendations made on the back of regular reporting encourages ratified states to set up national legislation that will ensure their compliance with the CRC, they cannot force a state to do so. The CRC does not include any rules or punishments for non-compliance.

The bulk of public groups opposing the CRC in the US are right-wing family-focused organisations. Powerful fundamental Christian groups such as the Home School Legal Defence Association and Parental Rights are two among many right-wing groups committed to spreading information about the ‘dangers’ of the CRC, especially governmental and international interference in the private matters of how children are raised. They argue that the implementation of the CRC will allow children to choose their own religion, access reproductive health services without their parent’s consent, and be encouraged to view pornography. The emphasis of the CRC on provision of services that are ‘in the best interests of the child’ is portrayed as undermining parental authority and encouraging children to sue their parents.

While the US has not ratified the CRC, it has ratified the two Optional Protocols that outline the involvement of children in armed conflict and prohibit child prostitution and child pornography, respectively. They were signed by President Clinton in 1999. Ironically, a UNICEF press release following the ceremony has the organisation hopeful that “the US will move to bring about the earliest possible ratification of the CRC.” The Optional Protocols were considered less controversial and passed through the Senate without much opposition, largely because existing US laws already lived up to the standards they set.

During a debate in the 2008 Primary Election, President Obama stated that US failure to ratify the CRC was ‘embarrassing’ and said he would“review this and other treaties to ensure that the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights.” After taking office the Obama administration reiterated in January 2009 their commitment to the objectives of the CRC. In November of that year a spokesperson for the State Department stated that the administration was “committed to undertaking a thorough and thoughtful review of it.” Since 2009 there have been no further public statements about the CRC from the State Department or from the Obama Administration.

Many have called for President Obama to put forward the CRC to the Senate for a vote. Caryl M. Stern, CEO of the United States Fund for UNICEF, wrote an opinion piece earlier this year saying ratification “will become a powerful symbol for our commitment to children everywhere.” She further makes the point that accepting the CRC would effectively weaken claims of hypocrisy when the US advocates for human rights abroad.

Is US ratification of the CRC likely in the future? The arguments made by opposing groups may sound extreme, but the size of the opposing public is not insignificant, and has put pressure on (mainly Republican) members of the Senate to oppose ratification. The need for at 2/3 of the vote to be affirmative for the ratification has made the CRC difficult to pass, to the point where no president has even attempted to submit the CRC to the Senate for approval. The partisan nature of American politics is a major obstruction to the ratification of the CRC and a democratic majority in the Senate seems to be the first step towards any possibility of ratification in the future. Even if this were to be the case though, the process needs to be initiated by the president. With the election looming, neither candidate has expressed a position on the CRC. Hillary Clinton has a long history of advocating for children’s rights, and promoted the ratification of the CRC in 1989. Although her current presidential campaign includes a focus on children’s rights, she has made no statement about the CRC directly. Donald Trump’s campaign platform does not mention children’s rights. It does not seem likely that US will move toward ratification of the CRC anytime soon.

Read more about the UNICEF USA campaign for ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child here. Learn about the report-system, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and self-compliance with the CRC here. Click here to find out which states have ratified other human rights treaties.

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