Nobody would count Jeffrey Newman among the uninformed when it comes to children’s rights. But one day last month, the executive director of the National Child Labor Committee was among hundreds who came to a Washington hotel to learn about the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
“Nobody has made it a cause celebre yet,” Newman says of the treaty. “If someone asked me about [CRC] yesterday, I would have to say I didn’t know much. I’m supportive, but not well-informed.”
Therein lies a dilemma for people pushing to ratify the CRC, which was hammered out during the Reagan administration but has sat around for 17 years. Washington appears apathetic, and the public and the youth field don’t know much about it.
That was the impetus for last month’s Washington summit, put together by a coalition called the Campaign for the U.S. Ratification of the CRC. The coalition hopes to educate youth advocates about the treaty and energize them to push for ratification. One sign of the challenge: The campaign’s website boasted that more than 1,000 people would attend the summit, but the turnout was perhaps one-third of that.
“It is high time the CRC was ratified,” American Bar Association President Michael Greco said in the keynote address. “We are here to strategize, to come up with a plan, to turn this around.”
That would take quite a turn.
Passed, Then Stalled
The CRC is a declaration of basic rights that youth under 18 years old should be afforded in every nation. The document became an official treaty in 1989, and has been approved by 192 countries. Only the United States and Somalia have not agreed to it, and Somalia’s reason is that doesn’t have a functioning government.
The treaty’s provisions include statements of basic rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to a documented birth name, and opposition to specific practices, such as sexual exploitation of children and recruiting children as soldiers.
Delegates in the Reagan administration helped work on the language of the CRC. U.S. representatives wrote 16 of its articles.
But Reagan’s presidency ended in 1988, one year before CRC became a treaty, and President George H.W. Bush did not share his predecessor’s enthusiasm for it.
President Clinton signed the treaty, but treaties must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. Clinton didn’t even send the measure to the Senate for ratification, knowing that a group of senators led by then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) were set on blocking it.
Tom Kennedy, chairman of the ratification campaign, believes the current political climate is ripe for success. “I don’t know of anybody [in Congress] right now that’s openly opposed to it,” he says.
Social conservatives disagree. “It would fail utterly” if brought up for ratification, says Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.
In 2002, President George W. Bush and a unanimous Senate did ratify two “optional protocols” to the CRC, which made the United States a party to the treaty’s bans on child soldiers and on using children for prostitution or pornography.
But after five years in office, it is clear that the president does not feel compelled to send the full treaty to the Senate for ratification. “We talked to people at the State Department in 2003 about it,” says Marty Scherr, one of the campaign’s founding members. “They reiterated the same problems [Republicans] have had for a number of years.”
Foes of the treaty have cited three basic issues: philosophical opposition to United States support of U.N. treaties; an article in the CRC that condemns capital punishment and life sentences for children; and concern that the treaty interferes with parents’ rights.
On the first point, Ruse says some members of Congress on both side of the aisle are wary of U.N. treaties. “U.N. documents end up not meaning not what the framers intended,” he says. “ You’re subjecting yourself to the whims and distortions of anonymous U.N. committees.”
It is not unusual for the United States to drag its feet on ratifying U.N. treaties. It took 40 years for it to ratify the U.N. Convention on Genocide.
As for the death penalty provision, last year the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional for anyone who was under 18 at the time of the crime for which he or she was convicted. However, some 2,225 prisoners in the United States are serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as youth, according to a 2005 study by Amnesty International.
The concern over breaching parental rights is murky. Helms, the former North Carolina senator, objected to sections such as Article 14, which says that countries “shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” That, Helms said, might cause America “to be censured because a family did not allow a child to decide whether to accompany the family to church.”
The same article guarantees parents the right to “provide direction to the child.”
“It gives children unfettered access to information from any source, without regard to the wishes of parents,” Ruse says. “The U.N. has absolutely no business getting between parents and their children.”
The claims bewilder Kennedy. “The fifth country to sign this thing was the Vatican,” he says. “I don’t think they’re going to sign anything that disrupts Christian parenting. If you read the convention, it’s difficult to understand why someone would think parents aren’t held in high esteem.”
Kennedy contends that ratification would not directly affect U.S. laws, because U.S. laws supersede provisions of a U.N. treaty within the nation’s borders. Also, any nation can tailor a treaty by issuing an understanding (a specific interpretation), a reservation (a statement explaining a potential conflict) or a declaration (outright disagreement with a clause).
“Even if we could do all these fixes to it, why would we want to?” Ruse asks. “Do we not have the most advanced legal protections for children in the world? Do we really need a U.N. treaty to protect our children?”
The biggest impact of U.S. ratification might be in other countries. “So many countries tell us that if the U.S. ratified, it would give the treaty so much more strength in their own country,” Kennedy says.
He and other nonprofit leaders created the campaign in 2002. Last month’s summit was the campaign’s largest effort yet to train advocates to convey the importance of the treaty to the public and lawmakers and to contest issues raised by critics. Sessions included “Lessons Learned from Other Treaty Ratification Groups,” “Shadow Reporting as an Advocacy Tool” and “Mobilizing Youth for Ratification.”
“The real problem is that most of the public doesn’t know about [the CRC] at all,” the campaign’s Scherr says. “I don’t expect this summit to change things overnight, but I think we’re going to see more statewide organizing, more public consciousness.”