Op ed by Kul Chandra Gautam

Kul Chandra Gautam, Convening Chair, contributed an op-ed piece in the November 18 2009 eidition of Terra Viva.

Time for USA to Ratify Child Rights Convention
by Kul Chandra Gautam

November 20th this year marks the 20th anniversary of the world's most universally ratified human rights treaty, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Many American scholars and experts were actively involved in drafting the CRC, and the US government played a leadership role in negotiating and shaping it. But there will be no celebrations to commemorate this treaty in America today. Indeed, most U.S. citizens remain unaware of this great human rights treaty which their country helped create.

The CRC recognizes 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 US Constitution and laws.

A record 193 nations have ratified the CRC. Only 2 countries have not done so yet - Somalia and America. Somalia is understandable, as it has been a failed state without an effective government for over 2 decades. But the US does have a functioning government, which claims to be a great champion of human rights in the world. It baffles non-Americans, and even many Americans, as to why the US is reluctant to ratify this Convention.

Some opponents of the CRC in America have argued that it would impose on this country all kinds of terrible obligations that maybe harmful to America and its children and families. These range from how possible UN interference might compromise the sovereignty of the US 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 20 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 US 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: www.childrightscampaign.org, the US 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 neighborhoods; 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 US, a shocking number of children continue to lack the basics of life. Children in America lag behind most industrialized nations on key child indicators.
The US 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 US, 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 $2 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 organizations, and individuals can use to shape policies and programs to better meet the needs of children and their families.

Internationally, ratification of the CRC would help enhance US 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.

The whole world is now looking to President Obama and his administration with enormous hope and expectation of a renewed American leadership on many major issues facing humanity. As the Obama administration has committed itself to regain the lost American moral leadership in the world, and follow a more multilateralist approach, child rights activists, not just in America but all over the world, are hopeful that the US will finally ratify this important Convention.

To many people in the world, the United States of America is not just a country; 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 was deeply compromised and the reputation of the US tarnished around the world when the previous administration chose to follow an arrogant, unilateralist approach; disparaging its allies and the United Nations; withdrawing its support for the International Criminal Court, essentially abandoning its commitments under the Geneva Conventions, even condoning torture - all in the name of national security and fighting terrorism.

President Obama's decision to close down Guantanamo, and his emphatic statement that the US can both ensure its people's security and uphold the values of human rights and decency on which this country was founded, has been well received around the world.

There will surely be a similarly positive global reaction if President Obama and the US Senate showed a bold and enlightened leadership by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
This year the 20th of November is also being celebrated as a "World Day of Prayer and Action for Children" by the world's faith-based organizations and people of good will. It is their fervent hope that with the backing of the world's most powerful and influential State, and its citizens, the CRC can become a bulwark for the defense of children's rights and a beacon of hope for the world's children

(* Kul Gautam is a former UN assistant secretary-general and ex-deputy executive director of UNICEF)