Today marks an important anniversary in the history of children’s rights. On November 20th, 1989 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). To date, 194 countries are party to the convention. This leaves all but two countries: Somalia and the United States. And Somalia is in the process of ratification.
The CRC outlines the necessity of non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, and the role of parental guidance. It defines a child as any person below the age of 18, but defers to the law of a particular country to set the legal age set for adulthood. It then declares that children have basic rights to education, health services, freedom of thought and expression, leisure of play, access to information, and protection from violence throughout its 54 articles.
Since its widespread ratification, the CRC has been the cause for progressive change in a number of countries. Finland adopted plans for early childhood education. Brazil implemented a Statute of the Child and Adolescent, along with a Children’s Parliament based on the principle of participation. The CRC was actually the first international convention South Africa became party to. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union formed juvenile and family courts and Moroccan legislators founded the National Institute to Monitor Kids Rights.
It’s fair to note that the U.S. has at least signed the convention. Yet a signature only endorses its principles, whereas ratification is legally binding. Ratification promises commitment. Counties party to the convention must report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child periodically on the domestic status of children’s rights; this report is subject to review and published publicly.
So the question remains. Why has the United States—a democratic, progressive nation, a world leader—not adopted this convention? Though history may illustrate differently, the ideological principles expressed in the U.S. Constitution are those of freedom of choice and equality. How can a pledge to uphold children’s rights infringe on these ideals?
What might seem an easy two-thirds vote in the Senate remains problematic for several reasons:
- Both President Clinton and President Obama have supported ratification, but the convention has never been brought to vote with opposition by Republicans.
- Parental rights activist groups claim the CRC will deprive parents the ability to raise a child as they see fit. ParentalRights.org fears that a child’s best interest will ultimately be defined “by an international committee of 18 people in Switzerland.” However, nineteen of the treaty’s provisions directly recognize the important role of parents.
- Others read the convention as a threat to U.S. sovereignty—hazardously transferring power to foreign governments and the U.N.
- Certain U.S. laws are not in accordance with its outlined principles. For example, corporal punishment in schools is legal in a third of states and children under 18 can be jailed for life without parole.
November 20th also marks the 55th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Though the proceeding convention was one of the most quickly and widely accepted international treaties, note that violations still exist across the globe.
Some argue that gross violations do not occur in the U.S. and ratification is irrelevant here. Yet the CRC has proved to be more than a list of ideological principles; its reach is fairly widespread, its principles an instrument for societal change. Even 25 years after the convention’s adoption, U.S. ratification would no doubt show solidarity and dedication to honoring child welfare.
Sarah Luft is an editorial intern for Warscapes.