As a global treaty designed to protect children around the world celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, the United States found itself in the sole company of Somalia as one of just two countries that still has not implemented the most widely ratified human rights treaty in recorded history.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), available for adoption since 1989, has now been ratified by 193 nations around the world and is seen as a universal guide to helping governments ensure that the basic needs of children are met. Although the Reagan administration played a major role in drafting the convention, experts say it has now been "intentionally misinterpreted" by conservative groups, which claim implementation would threaten American sovereignty and diminish family values.
The convention is set out in 54 Articles and two Optional Protocols and covers four main objectives: nondiscrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. During last year's presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to review the treaty, saying: "It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights."
Yet since Obama has been in office, there has been little movement toward ratifying the convention, which sets international standards in the provision of children's health care, education, and legal, civil, and social services. For children's rights advocates, this failure of the U.S. to legitimize the rights of the child has resulted in the country's loss of credibility in the international community.
"It just undermines us internationally as a leader of children's issues," said Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children's Rights division at Human Rights Watch, one of more than 200 organizations partnered to the volunteer-run Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC. "The U.S. is a country that claims to care a lot about children, both nationally and internationally, but it hasn't ratified a treaty endorsed by virtually every government in the world. It doesn't make any sense at all."
But while Meg Gardiner, current chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification, acknowledged that the U.S. customarily takes a long time to consider and ratify a treaty of any sort, she noted that implementing the convention is also being delayed by frequently misdirected and misguided concerns from various individuals and organizations.
The CRC is a legally binding treaty, and once the U.S. ratifies the agreement — by getting two-thirds of the Senate to approve it — it is committed to undertake actions and policies to reach the standards it advises. The government must submit a detailed report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is made up of 18 members from different countries and legal systems, within two years of ratification and every five years thereafter.
The committee reviews the progress of each country's government, then sends recommendations back to the country in question. Although U.N. officials claim that this is a collaborative process, not one that is antagonistic in form, opposition groups view this as a risk to U.S. self-governance.
"A forum for dialogue is fine, but we absolutely do not support the notion of world government," John Schlafly, a lawyer at Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group that is campaigning against U.S ratification of the CRC, told the Guardian. "We think America is a self-governing country and that we should make our own laws. Our courts and officials should not be subject to decisions and viewpoints of those in other countries, but remember that our Constitution is our supreme law."