Happy anniversary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the world's most ratified human rights treaty! On Thursday, the CRC turns 25 years old. Only three United Nations members have failed to ratify the CRC: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. Not great company to be in.
It's time for the U.S. to ratify this most popular of treaties, notwithstanding the questionable complaints of opponents. For example, opponents complain that the CRC violates U.S. sovereignty and that it bans spanking and home schooling. The hard work of rebutting these objections has already been accomplished and the answers are available from various authoritative sources online.
The CRC does not infringe on U.S. sovereignty any more than any other human rights treaty the U.S. has ratified, such as the Convention Against Torture that was signed by President Ronald Reagan. Because the CRC bans neither spanking nor home schooling, it is difficult to see how a First World leader would hesitate to join this community.
In fact, of the few dozen U.N. countries that outlaw corporal punishment in the home, and of the many U.N. nations that allow home schooling, all have ratified the CRC.
Essentially, the CRC only explains how to apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to children. The U.S. has already signed or ratified both of those agreements. The CRC sets up a standard to which nations should aspire in how they treat children, from imprisonment to foster care. The foundational principle of the CRC is "the best interest of the child" — a principle taken from U.S. law — and the key rights include the right to life, the right to be raised in a family by parents, and the right to be protected from abuse and exploitation. These should not be controversial.
If the U.S. were to sign the CRC, the U.N. would oversee compliance. What that means in practice is that every four or five years, the U.S. would submit a report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland. The committee then would ask questions and would write a report on how well the U.S. complies with the rights described in the CRC. The U.S. would then report back to the committee on those questions. These U.N. committee hearings are hardly infringements on national sovereignty. But for nations genuinely trying to improve their child care systems or even just trying to improve their international image, committee hearings can have real impact.
The U.S. should want to be involved in the important process of helping nations make positive change. Because the U.S. has failed to ratify the CRC, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has no U.S. members. The U.S. cannot provide input on how nations can improve foster care systems or whether countries should allow 10-year-old girls to marry.
The U.S. failure has direct impact in our work in Latin America. Our nonprofit Children in Prison Project recently held workshops in Mexico City on alternatives to detention, presented by Minnesota attorneys. Minnesota has had great success in recent years in diverting teens from prison to alternative programs — a core value of the CRC. After each workshop, Mexican attorneys invariably asked: "Has the U.S. ratified the CRC?" Despite the evident shortcomings of Mexico's juvenile justice system, the CRC sets the standard that Mexico is trying to obtain.
Our country has so much to offer to improve the plight of the world's children. But our failure to ratify the CRC sends a very mixed signal to nations that could benefit from our expertise.
The CRC is not a controversial treaty. The U.S. should be leading the discussion on improving the treatment of children around the world. Instead, pro-child activists from the U.S. are undermined by a narrow-minded and shortsighted policy.
So as the CRC celebrates 25 years of improving conditions for the world's children, the U.S. sits on the sidelines, right next to Somalia. Isn't it time to join the party?
Douglas Keillor is a human rights attorney in Cambridge, Minn.