United States should ratify United Nations treaty on children’s rights

by AMAL CHEEMA ’17, Staff Writer

For the past 30 years, the United States, in company with South Sudan and the anarchic Somalia, has refused to support the international effort to ensure one of the most fundamental human rights: the protection of children. Despite opposition arguments alleging sovereignty threats, the treaty should be ratified because it cements the United States’ dedication to children’s well-being and acts as a guiding treaty for our legislation in reference to children.

On Nov. 20, 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention of the Rights of Children (UNCRC), executing it the following year with the ratification of the convention by 193 countries. The international community focused the UNCRC on the protection and promotion of the rights of children, integrating all human rights in regard to children that are not guaranteed by current constitutions. Such rights included participation in family, society and culture,  entitlement to survival, development and protection, as well as access to education, healthcare and disability services.

Considering that the United States has not ratified the treaty, it may seem surprising that the United States played an active role in drafting the Convention, commenting on nearly all of the articles and proposing the original text for seven of the 54 articles. In 1995, both Wellesley alumna Madeleine Albright ’59, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, and President Bill Clinton signed the convention. However, for the UNCRC to be ratified, the signed treaty needs to be submitted to the Senate, which must then approve the treaty with a two-thirds majority. Although the Obama administration has expressed intent to submit the treaty, no timeline has been drafted for the intended ratification due to GOP opposition. Thus, although individual politicians have independently supported the convention, the UNCRC has yet to receive support from either Legislative house, which collectively represent the population of the United States.

The UNCRC has been a focus of much debate. Organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Kiwanis and the Campaign for the U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child all support the UNCRC because of its commitment to children’s well-being. According to the Campaign, the ratification “would establish a useful framework from which our leaders could create cost-effective and comprehensive policies and programs that address the specific needs of children and families.”

While supporters continue to describe opposition against the UNCRC as fundamentally flawed and misconceived, opponents, including ParentRights.org and a GOP group led by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, list three arguments against ratification. One, the UNCRC will make no practical difference. Two, it contradicts the Supreme Court ruling that no government can interfere with the parent-child relationship. Finally, the UNCRC limits the role of parents in children’s lives by supporting children’s independence.

The UNCRC neither contradicts U.S. laws or beliefs nor propagates international control over domestic policy. Rather, the convention is a non-self-executing treaty, merely obligating the U.S. federal government to submit periodic reports on how provisions of the treaty are being met or not met. Simply put, it is an accountability measure.

The UNCRC does not threaten the sovereignty of the United States, but instead provides framework that the United States may or may not utilize. For example, the U.S. legal code allows children to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Opponents argue that the UNCRC will obligate the U.S. to create a law that forbids life imprisonment for children. However, in actuality, the U.S. already complies with the article. Despite no explicit legal statement against child life imprisonment, three Supreme Court Cases in 2002, 2010 and 2012 have produced case law that deters life imprisonment as punishment for children.

Moreover, the UNCRC has no language that dictates child-rearing manners, and thus does not infringe on the parent-child relationship. It does not, for example, limit parental or educational discipline, but only forbids abuse and torture. The autonomy of parents and schools is thus unrestricted as long as it is ethical, as the UNCRC only states children should be protected from maltreatment and mental or physical violence.

Likewise, opposition groups like ParentalRights.org argue that the UNCRC grants the autonomy of children at the expense of parents’ jurisdiction, as it supports the right of children to choose their own religion and to exercise freedom of thought and expression. With this language, the UNCRC merely reaffirms the inalienable rights guaranteed to all peoples of the United States, including children.

The opposition to the UNCRC is based, more often than not, on melodramatic interpretation of the language of the UNCRC. The principal argument of opponents is that the UNCRC will “force” the United States to act in a certain way, when in actuality, the United States either already has similar laws in place, or will retain the choice to enforce or not enforce relevant legislation.

The UNCRC is an aspirational, guiding treaty. It provides an accountability and directional framework for all countries that ratify it. It is a charge that countries are expected, but not forced, to pursue. The fact that the United States has not ratified it is, to say the least, embarrassing. The convention is in line with the ideals we hold as a nation: preventing child prostitution and pornography, prohibiting child soldiers and, most importantly, guaranteeing children the opportunity to pursue happiness.

If we cannot ratify a convention that promotes child rights with articles in sync with our own legislation, we cannot reasonably expect other countries to see our advocacy for international children’s rights as legitimate. We cannot hold other countries accountable to the treaty or expect them to protect children. By ratifying the convention, we hold ourselves accountable to the laws and morals we support without ever threatening our sovereignty. By ratifying the treaty, we, in all respects, will be promising to ensure the right to pursue happiness to American children.

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