Foreign Policy Blogs

The Last Hold Out

 Last week the United Nations marked the 20th anniversary of the date when the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) opened for signature. Since then, the CRC has become the most ratified human rights treaty in the world. Out of the 194 member states of the UN, only two – Somalia and the United States – have not ratified the CRC. That is about to change though, because Somalia’s barely functioning and barely domestically recognized government announced that it too would ratify the treaty, leaving the US as the only hold out on a convention that protects children under the age of 18 from things like exploitation, neglect, and violence.

 At the heart of the debate over American ratification is the belief by some conservative politicians that doing so would erode American sovereignty and violate the Constitution. These of course are the typical arguments set forth by American lawmakers as to why international treaties are wrong. However in the case of the CRC, there is the alternative argument that is sometimes made which is that the US already abides by most, if not all, of the provisions in the convention, so there is really no need for ratification.

Both arguments are disingenuous at best. You can’t argue that the CRC would violate the Constitution and then argue in the alternative that the CRC is not needed because the US already follows its provisions, often through the application of Constitutional law. Those conservative lawmakers who do not veil their contempt for international law often claim that ratification of the CRC would pit children against their parents and take away the fundamental rights of parents to decide how to raise their own children. Even though that is not true, the CRC is such a threat in the minds of some that the Parental Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress earlier this year. The bill would amend the Constitution to give parents an explicit Constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit. And since the Constitution trumps all under US law, including international treaties, the amendment would give those same conservative lawmakers the justification they need to prove that US ratification of the CRC would destroy all that we hold dear.

Adding to the absurdity of the controversy, it should be noted that the US actively participated in the drafting of the CRC, in some instances provided the original text of articles, and pushed for its creation. The fact that the drafting occurred under President Reagan, it was opened for signature under President George Bush, and signed by President Bill Clinton demonstrates that this is not about party politics, but about an irrational fear held by some towards international law.

This fear is not new; it is a large part of why the US is the only developed country to not yet ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But while we are usually late to the party, in the end we normally do show up. The difference between CEDAW and the CRC is that while CEDAW remains controversial in many parts of the world, the CRC does not. In fact, the only place from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe where the CRC is controversial is right here in the US.

Of course, a convention alone does not change the reality faced by the people it aims to protect. There is a lot of work left to do when it comes to protecting children worldwide from abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence. But it seems that the best way to approach that honorable goal is to all be on the same page. Violations of the CRC still occur in many parts of the world, but at least the rest of the world has committed to trying to stop those abuses. There is no reason why the US can’t do the same, and in fact plenty of good reasons why we should join that club too.

But if nothing else, to those conservative lawmakers who are scared of the CRC, think of it this way: when Somalia can trump you on an issue in the human rights arena, then it is probably time for you to re-evaluate your priorities.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

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