The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was first signed in 1989. According to the primary document, the underlying principles of the convention are in the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” In that sense, the Convention on the Rights of the Child builds upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where the UN declared that childhood is entitled to special and assistance. The objectives of the document are to provide a framework for provisions for the welfare of children. So for example, it is stated in the convention that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” in courts of law, and in social welfare institutions. State parties should also “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” The Convention then details other elements of protecting children, which is the fundamental goal of the Convention. This is needed because in many parts of the world there are no particular rights afforded children, leaving them open to abuse in ways that long ago ceased to exist in many Western countries.
The United States has reservations about signing the document for a couple of reasons. One of the most significant stems from the role of international law in U.S. domestic policy. Ultimately, signatories of the Convention are bound by its dictates. In theory at least, signatories can hold each other accountable for any failures to meet the Convention’s dictates, a situation which would open the possibility of external nations seeking to influence or dictate U.S. domestic policy. Independence is a fundamental value to the United States, and this is evident at the level of international law as well. The U.S. recognized, for example, that after Canada signed the Convention it was forced to make change to its Youth Criminal Justice Act. The United States, being fiercely independent and confident in its own institutions, prefers to maintain full and complete control over its judicial and legislative system, rather than ceding any of it to foreign powers or to the international community. Signing the Convention would mean that the U.S. is voluntarily ceding some of its independence.
Cohen and DeBenedet (2012) note that the United States is one of only two countries that has not signed the original Declaration — the other being Somalia, which lacks a functioning government. The new nation of South Sudan has also not signed, because it is a new country with more pressing priorities, like establishing territorial integrity. The Convention, they note, was drafted with influence from the United States. The authors note that some objections come from conservative quarters, where the right of parents to, among other things, hit their children, are apparently considered important (Cohen & DeBenedet, 2012). They further argue that international law cannot supersede the U.S. Constitution, but they omit to mention that U.S. statutory law is not the Constitution, and it is possible that international law could force the U.S. To amend statutes, even if it cannot force the U.S. To amend the Constitution.
The U.S. policy on the Convention has not really had much impact on the effectiveness of the agreement. While is certainly looks funny that the U.S. influenced the document and then has refused to ratify it, the other nations have moved ahead with implementation. It is unreasonable to think that other nations are sitting around wringing their hands about what the U.S. is doing — they’ve signed it, they’ve implemented it and are working to bring their laws in line with its mandates. UNICEF argues that the decision not to sign the treaty has “undermined U.S. leadership when it comes to protecting children around the world,” but this is a false argument leaning heavily on appeal to emotion and the misguided idea that the U.S. is the world police who must be a leader about everything. The rest of the world never bought into that. Bluntly, UNICEF’s argument is not relevant. The other signatories are doing just fine.
The Convention is strong as it is, but for the implementation aspect. Many signatories roundly ignore the convention, leaving in place systems that ignore the rights of children. Children are still used as soldiers and slaves. So-called “emerging nations” with massive GDPs still fail to educate their children — India and Brazil among them — while other nations fail to provide the basics of health care. For the Convention to have meaning, there needs to be mechanisms for nations to enforce signatories to actually pay attention to it, something many routinely fail to do. There is a body of monitors, and signatories must submit reports, but the state of progress is very slow and the mechanisms for enforcement are weak (UHCRH.org, 2013).
This agreement confirms that it is difficult to create and enforce meaningful international agreements in the 21st century. Drafting such agreements is challenging enough, but then to implement and enforce the agreements is a further challenge. In the U.S., a small group of lobbyists has effectively stalled attempts to sign the document, and yet in many signatories efforts to apply the mandates of the convention are far below existing U.S. standards. The enforcement mechanisms are weak to the point where they are meaningless. Further, when national governments lack legitimacy or when they cease to exist at all — for example in states of civil war — there is not even the pretense of adherence to international law or convention. We are far from being able to credibly create, implement and enforce such documents on a universal basis.
Cohen, L. & DeBenedet, A. (2012). Why is the U.S. against children’s rights? Time. Retrieved October 5, 2013 from http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/24/why-is-the-us-against-childrens-rights/
UHCHR.org (2013). Committee on the rights of the child. UHCHR.org. Retrieved October 5, 2013 from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/
UHCHR.org. (2013). Convention on the rights of the child. UHCHR.org. Retrieved October 5, 2013 from http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
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