Children’s Rights Fundamentally Flawed Under UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

By Jackie Ammons

President Barack Obama describes the failure by the US to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as “embarrassing.” In a speech during the 2008 campaign, he said, “It’s important that the United States return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights…I will review this and other treaties and ensure the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights.”  But there’s a reason the United States has held out for the past 20 years on ratifying the CRC.

Adopted in 1989, the stated goals of the Convention, include “the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family.”  Some 193 countries have agreed to, signed, and ratified the CRC.  At its June meeting, it focused on issues of universal concern, including child pornography and the sale of children.  Nevertheless, the treaty contains a number of fundamental flaws that have prevented the US from signing it.

Some organizations and individuals—specifically parents—disagree with the CRC based on moral or personal beliefs about how to raise a family.  Concerns of this nature range from worries that the CRC encourages sex education classes and that it bars parents from mandating their children’s religion.

However, the CRC’s greatest flaw is not that it compromises personal ethics but that it is structurally unsound.  One of the CRC’s inherent contradictions is that it attempts to give children the rights of an adult while ignoring the fact that a child is legally a minor—and for a reason.  Countries create laws establishing an age of majority based on when society has determined maturing adolescents are capable of making rational, adult decisions.  For instance, because of the CRC mandates “the full and harmonious development” of a child, which convention supporters take to mean a mandate for sex education, it potentially makes it easier for pregnant women under the age of 18 to receive abortions without parental permission or knowledge.  This policy conflicts with laws in some countries or states that do not allow children under the age of 18 to undergo surgery without either parental permission or knowledge.  Furthermore, the CRC’s preamble claims to protect the rights of the child “before birth” but treats the fetus of minors as some kind of special exception, undeserved of protection.  Whether the CRC is pro-life or pro-choice is rather murky.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), appointed by the UN to be the watchdog organization for the CRC, actually has little oversight responsibility.  It is set up to “participate in the consideration of State Parties’ reports,” “provide expert advice,” “submit reports,” “respond to requests,” and host the official promotional website of the CRC.  In effect, UNICEF’s watchdog role has been reduced to that of public relations manager with a navigable, helpful website and a paper pusher who sends and receives countries’ reports.  It is strictly a reviewing and publications body.

The oversight responsibilities fall to the United Nations as a whole, not necessarily to the individual countries that ratified the CRC.  In an ideal situation, a country’s courts would use the CRC as guidance in its own rulings.  But the CRC mandates more than guidance.  If the United States ratified the CRC, it would give UN international courts the power to bypass US local, state, and federal courts and even the Supreme Court.  Giving up the power of self-governance for the sake of an unclear and sometimes contradictory document is by no means a good decision for the US, for ratifying the CRC could make the US a target of UN sanctions.

Additionally, the UN integrated exemptions into the CRC that prohibit the UN from calling out countries that violate human rights on a regular basis, while leaving human rights-friendly nations open to criticism.  For example, there are regular reports of young girls being beaten for showing skin in Islamic countries that signed the CRC, but the UN does not interfere with these violations due to modesty provisions that trump rules outlined in the CRC.

UNICEF claims the CRC is a “legally binding international instrument” that is “non-negotiable.”  Despite this hard-nosed stance, a number of countries have made exceptions and reservations to the CRC before ratifying it.  For example, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and a multitude of other countries removed the CRC’s provision that children have the right to choose their own religion because it conflicts with the rules of Islam.  In fact, special stipulations for Islam have been made under Article 21 of the CRC, citing specific provisions such as the kafalah, which allows an adopted child to be brought into a home with similar Islamic traditions as the former home.  The CRC grants no other religion such exceptions.

Despite the contradictory elements of the CRC, two “optional” protocols are important and deserve US support:  “the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography” and “the involvement of children in armed conflict.”  Not surprisingly, the US has agreed to these two protocols, even though it has opted out of ratifying the main body of the CRC.  But why these two clauses are optional, rather than mandatory, remains a mystery.  Iran, for example, ratified the CRC main body but neither signed nor ratified the optional protocol regarding children in armed conflict.  Iran gave no explanation as to why.  These provisions should not be too controversial for countries that have ratified the main body of CRC, indicating yet another concern about the document.

The CRC is perhaps a useful document in countries that do not function well, do not have consistent child protection laws, or encounter human rights problems that need oversight by a third party, such as the UN or International Criminal Court.  However, for countries with functioning legal systems that uphold basic human rights, the CRC’s legal control is problematic, as its contradictions undermine national sovereignty and its stated goals.  In such cases, signing the CRC—much less ratifying it—is a concession to groupthink rather than a necessary societal change.

Jackie Ammons is a summer researcher at the American Enterprise Institute
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