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Kul Gautam, from Nepal, is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of United Nations (www.kulgautam.org).
KATHMANDU, Nov 19 2014 (IPS) - On Nov. 20, the whole world will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Sadly, the United States of America won’t be at the party or will simply be watching from the sidelines.
The U.S. remains the odd man – the odd country – out, accompanied only by Somalia and South Sudan in having failed to ratify this landmark instrument of international law.
The absence of Somalia and South Sudan is understandable as these are among the world’s most fragile, failed or failing states. But one would expect the U.S. which claims to be a great champion of human rights in the world to be at the front and centre of this celebration, not missing in action.
One hundred ninety-four nations – including all of America’s closest allies — have ratified the CRC. It baffles non-Americans, and even many Americans, as to why the U.S. is reluctant to ratify this Convention.
This example of negative “American exceptionalism” is illogical and perverse. The Convention upholds the very same principles that underpin American democracy. It says that all children, everywhere, have the same human rights to survive and thrive, to learn and contribute.
It obligates states that embrace it to do all that is humanly possible to ensure children’s wellbeing, dignity and protection. It is supportive of parents and respectful of cultures.
Many American scholars and experts were actively involved in drafting the CRC, and the U.S. government played a leadership role in negotiating and shaping it. But most U.S. citizens remain unaware of this great human rights treaty which their country helped create.
The CRC recognises every child’s right to develop physically, mentally and socially to his or her fullest potential, to be protected from abuse, discrimination, exploitation and violence; to express his or her views and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future.
It reaffirms the primary role of parents and the family in raising children. It seeks to emulate key provisions on child rights and well-being under the U.S. Constitution and laws.
Some opponents of the CRC in America have argued that it would impose on this country all kinds of terrible obligations that may be harmful to America and its children and families.
These range from how possible U.N. interference might compromise the sovereignty of the U.S. and undermine its Constitution; to how the CRC might weaken American families and role of parents in bringing up their children; how it might bring about a culture of permissiveness, including abortion on demand, and unrestricted access to pornography; and how it might empower children to sue their parents and disobey their guidance.
Such concerns are not unique to America. Many groups in other countries have expressed similar fears from time to time. But in 25 years of experience in over a hundred countries, rich and poor, with liberal as well as conservative governments, such concerns have proven to be unfounded, exaggerated and hypothetical.
Some Americans argue that as the U.S. has a great Constitution and laws that are already strong and often superior to what is contained in the CRC, it is unnecessary and undesirable to ratify the Convention as it might actually lower the standards of child protection rather than strengthening them.
But the experience of other highly developed countries that have ratified the Convention indicates that CRC can be relevant and beneficial for all countries – rich and advanced as well as poor and underdeveloped.
In its website, the U.S. Coalition for Ratification of CRC has listed some of the common myths and real truths regarding worries about the possible negative impact of CRC on American children and families.
America is, of course, a nation of extraordinary wealth. Most children in this country are beneficiaries of this affluence. They live in comfortable homes and safe neighbourhoods; have a decent standard of living, health, education and social welfare. But there is room for some humility.
Studies by the Children’s Defense Fund, UNICEF, and others show that compared to the wealth of the U.S., a shocking number of children continue to lack the basics of life. Children in America lag behind most industrialised nations on key child indicators.
The U.S. is towards the bottom of the league in relative child poverty, in the gap between rich and poor, teen birth rates, low birth weight, infant mortality, child victims of gun violence, and the number of minors in jail.
For many people outside the U.S., it is incomprehensible how the richest nation on earth lets every sixth child live in (relative) poverty; how its laws allow a child to be killed by guns every three hours; or how so many children and families can live without basic health insurance.
It is equally difficult to understand why a nation that can afford two billion dollars a day in military spending, and a trillion dollar bail-out package to huge Wall Street banks and corporate giants that brought its economy to its knees, cannot rescue its children from sickness, illiteracy, violent crimes and poverty.
Now, ratifying the CRC will not by itself dramatically change the situation of America’s children. But it would help establish a critical national framework to formulate clear goals and targets which the federal and state governments, private organisations, and individuals can use to shape policies and programmes to better meet the needs of children and their families.
Internationally, ratification of the CRC would help enhance U.S. standing as a global leader in human rights. As a party to the Convention, the U.S. would be eligible to participate in the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the international body that monitors the CRC’s implementation), and work toward strengthening further progress for children in all countries.
To many people in the world, the United States of America is not just a country, but it represents an ideal – the ideal of democracy, of the rule of law, respect for human rights, and a certain global moral leadership.
That ideal image is often shattered and the reputation of the U.S. tarnished around the world whenever the U.S. government chooses to follow an arrogant, unilateralist approach; disparaging its allies and the United Nations; withdrawing its support for the International Criminal Court, abandoning its commitments under the Geneva Conventions, even condoning torture – all in the name of national security and fighting terrorism.
Still, many friends of America see these as aberrations and continue to be inspired by the ideals of democracy and human rights on which this country was founded.
On behalf of President Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright signed the CRC in 1995, signaling the U.S. government’s intention to move toward ratification. But the George W Bush administration took no further action.
Even President Obama, whose outlook and vision most closely match the spirit of the Convention, has done nothing tangible towards getting the treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate.
The global celebration of CRC@25 is a fitting opportunity for President Obama to make good on the promise he made as a presidential candidate in 2008 while speaking at Waldon University in Minnesota: “It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights. I will review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.”
One doesn’t have to be much of a political analyst to understand that following the recent elections to the U.S. Congress, ratification of the CRC doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell in the current political climate in Washington.
But President Obama has often shown a willingness to surmount political deadlocks by taking what actions he is authorised by law to take on his own, when he deems the national interest to be at stake.
One such measure that is in the president’s power to enact would be to immediately order the State Department to undertake a thorough review of the CRC, so that it is ready for submission to the Senate for ratification as soon as the situation becomes more favourable.
Some 109 CEOs and leaders of prominent American child welfare organisations and faith-based groups have recently made an impassioned joint appeal to Obama to order such a review.
In this world where kids too often come last, the Convention serves as a reminder that they must come first. It is a moral compass, a framework of accountability against which all societies can assess their treatment of the new generations.
In many parts of the world, the 20th of November is celebrated as universal children’s day. Many faith-based organisations also celebrate it as a “World Day of Prayer and Action for Children”.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRC this year, many of us will be praying and hoping that the world’s most powerful and influential state, the United States of America, will soon join the international community in embracing the CRC as a bulwark for the defence of children’s rights and a beacon of hope for the world’s children.
Edited by Kitty Stapp
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