On the 20th Anniversary of the Child Rights Convention, US Pressured to Ratify

Last week in New York, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) with the release of a special report on the impact of the treaty. While many used the anniversary to celebrate the CRC, some expressed concern about the growing pressure on the United States to ratify the treaty, saying that the treaty’s rights-based emphasis touted by UNICEF is fundamentally flawed.

UNICEF’s special edition State of the World’s Children entitled “Celebrating 20 Years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child” highlights developments made in the child rights arena. The UNICEF report described the CRC as “not only a historic document” but “a moral compass” that guides people all over the world.  The report boasts that the CRC “has already altered the landscape of children’s rights” but that it is still far from being realized.
The report uses anecdotal evidence from CRC proponents to detail the “success” of the convention in the last two decades. According to UNICEF, the CRC has resulted “in the increased usage of ‘child rights’ language in the vernacular of national and international legal documents, policies, programs and advocacy.”

While the UNICEF report returns to a focus on child survival, the report builds on the “rights-based approach” first espoused in the 1990s.  According to the UNICEF report, “Under the Convention, children are rights holders rather than objects of charity. Fulfilling these rights is no longer an option for States parties but an obligation that governments have pledged to meet.”

Calls for United States (US) ratification from United Nations (UN) officials and international child rights advocacy groups have significantly increased over this anniversary year and especially since Barack Obama was elected President. The Obama administration has expressed its support of US ratification. During the US election campaign, candidate Obama expressed dismay that the United States was only one of two countries which are not party to the treaty. Earlier this year, US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice was reported as saying that the US was considering “when and how it might be possible to join” the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Conservative groups in the United States, however, point to concerns regarding the ‘rights-based approach’ and highlight problems with the CRC monitoring mechanism. They assert that children should not be totally autonomous rights bearers completely separate from their parents. Opponents are concerned that US ratification of the CRC will erode parental rights and sovereignty.

Critics point out that while the UNICEF report contains a lot of anecdotal evidence regarding the positive effects of the treaty, it is nearly silent on the work of the CRC committee, the body charged with monitoring state compliance with the treaty and consisting of 18 “experts” in child rights.

The report claims that the Convention “sets out common standards” yet leaves room for State parties of finding their “own way of implementing the treaty.” Over the years, the CRC committee has chastised countries for allowing corporal punishment, mandated governments to increase state-sponsored day care, pushed recognition of a child’s right to privacy “especially in the family,” and pushed for adolescent family planning and reproductive health and sex education programs, despite possible parental objections.

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