Opinion: American Exceptionalism on Child Rights

Kul Chandra Gautam is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEFBy Kul Chandra GautamKATHMANDU, NEPAL, Oct 5 2015 (IPS)On 1 October 2015, Somalia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), leaving the United States of America as the only remaining member state of the UN not to embrace this most universally accepted human rights treaty. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reflects the sentiments of all the world’s human rights activists in encouraging the US to join the global community by ratifying this noble treaty. Kul Chandra GautamIt baffles the rest of the world, and many thoughtful Americans, as to why the US has chosen to be the odd man out in not embracing this most humanitarian of all human rights treaties that seeks to protect the rights and well-being of the world’s most vulnerable children. It is all the more surprising if one considers that many distinguished 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 most American citizens remain unaware of this great human rights treaty that their country helped create, but refuses to ratify.The US reluctance to ratify the CRC seems to be part of a broader phenomena of “American exceptionalism” which holds that while the rest of the world needs to be bound by human rights treaties and conventions, the US need not join them as the US already has a great Constitution and progressive laws that are strong and often superior to what might be contained in such international treaties.Accordingly, the US is always reluctant and slow in ratifying any international conventions, including those that it may have played an active role in drafting, such as the Rome Statue on International Criminal Court, the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the CRC.Many American congressmen and senators – particularly from the Republican Party – seem to feel that that such treaties might be necessary and useful for other countries, but not for the US, because they fear these might actually lower the standards contained in the US Constitution or create undesirable international obligations for the US. Such is the sense of self-righteousness among some key and influential American legislators that evidence to the contrary is conveniently ignored or dismissed.For example, the American Bar Association has done a comparative review of the CRC and the US Constitution and relevant federal laws, and determined that these are either mutually compatible or the CRC’s standards are more in keeping with the emerging human rights norms of the modern world. The experience of all other developed countries that have ratified the Convention also indicates that it is highly relevant and beneficial for all countries – rich and advanced as well as poor and underdeveloped.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 US Constitution and laws.Some opponents of the CRC in America argue that it would impose all kinds of terrible international 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. Others stress 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.America is a nation of extraordinary wealth. Most children in this country are beneficiaries of this affluence. They live in comfortable homes and safe neighbourhoods and have a decent standard of living, health, education and social welfare. But there is room for much improvement and some humility.Studies by the highly respected American NGO 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 industrialised 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.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.Interestingly, while the US has failed to ratify the CRC, it has ratified two Optional Protocols to the CRC – on the sale and trafficking of children, child prostitution and pornography, as well as involvement of children in armed conflict. Also, to be fair, there have been many leaders in the US government, including at the highest level, who have been very supportive of the CRC. I want to recall a very touching episode in this regard.In January 1995, Jim Grant, the then head of UNICEF, a charismatic leader who was highly respected and admired in the US and around the world, was hospitalised with terminal cancer. From his death-bed he wrote to President Bill Clinton, pleading with him, as an American citizen, that the US government sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He died a few days later.The following month at a memorial service for Jim Grant at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the then First Lady Hillary Clinton came with a message from the President. She said that in response to Jim Grant’s last wish, President Clinton had instructed Madeline Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN, to sign the Convention. The whole Cathedral erupted in applause at this news, breaking the tradition of an otherwise serene and somber occasion of a memorial service. The following week, Albright signed the Convention.However, fearing that many conservative Senators would not support it, the Clinton administration did not forward the Convention for ratification to the Senate. When President George W. Bush took over, the new administration made it clear that it had no intention whatsoever to pursue ratification of the Convention.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 US Senate. This despite the fact that there were and still are many senior officials in his administration who are highly supportive of the CRC, including former Secretary of State and current leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, her successor John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the current US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.As a Presidential candidate in 2008, Obama acknowledged how embarrassing it was for the US to find itself in the company of a lawless Somalia that had not ratified the CRC. He then promised to review the CRC and other treaties to ensure that the US resumes its global leadership in human rights. Now that Somalia has ratified the CRC, the US remains a lonely leader without any followers or companions in its refusal to embrace the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty.Given the current composition of the US Congress and the right-wing tilt of US politics, I see no chance for the US to ratify the CRC in the foreseeable future. However, citing longer-term national interest, President Obama has occasionally shown courage and willingness to propose bold actions, such as normalizing US diplomatic relations with Cuba and the nuclear agreement with Iran, even in the face of some strong domestic opposition.Many American child rights activists and leaders have suggested that President Obama should exercise a similarly enlightened leadership and immediately order the State Department to undertake a thorough formal review of the CRC, so that it is ready for submission to the Senate for ratification whenever the situation becomes more favourable. Last year, over 100 CEOs and leaders of prominent American child welfare organizations and faith-based groups made an impassioned joint appeal to Obama to order such a review (See: http://www.childrightscampaign.org). The President may now be a lame-duck in many respects, but it is not too late for him to leave a legacy of standing up for the rights of America’s children, and those of the world.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.