migrant child central valley california grape harvest 2008 Joseph Szymanski

Migrant Child, Central Valley, California, 2008. Photo by Joseph Szymanski.


by Nathan Birnbaum

On February 24, 2009, the Obama Administration took a basic step towards returning our nation to its rightful place in the global arena by re-opening America’s doors to the United Nations.  Timing his announcement with a visit from Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso, President Obama candidly stated that, “In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America.”

This oratory is satisfactory on the surface yet it fails to acknowledge where the United States has fallen behind, even in areas of near universal acceptance.  Nowhere is this disparity more glaring than America’s continued reluctance to ratify the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

With many of its 54 articles taking their substance from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the CRC reaffirms the position that children constitute the most vulnerable members of society.   As a result, this document holds that they must be given special treatment in the face of inadequate social conditions, natural disasters, and armed conflict (to name a few).  None of the rights afforded to children in this convention would strike the average American as unreasonable: don’t we all expect to be free from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, nationality, and expressed opinion?  Do we not hope for the highest standards of health and treatment?

Signatories bound by the CRC are required to submit a thorough report on their implementation of the convention’s articles every five years to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, who in turn makes recommendations on areas where a country might improve.  While opponents to the CRC’s ratification in the U.S. maintain that such oversight would infringe upon both national and state sovereignty, a quick glance at our country’s sobering child abuse statistics renders such “scare tactics” moot.

According to the latest statistics gathered by The Children’s Bureau, an estimated 1,760 child fatalities in 2007 were attributed to child abuse in the United States.  Response to this abuse continues to be hindered by inaccurate and inconsistent reporting as well as lack of adequate training for law enforcement, which consistently fails to investigate abuse claims thoroughly.

If such statistics weren’t scary enough, a law on the books in Ohio actually condones corporal punishment in all cases unless it “creates a substantial risk of serious physical harm to the child.”  Unfortunately for Ohio’s youth, this “serious physical harm” is defined as death or risk of permanent disfigurement.

To date 193 countries have signed onto the legally-binding CRC, with the United States joining the failed state of Somalia as the only nation not to do so.  This fact in and of itself should be cause for embarrassment.  And given the above examples one would think that a little oversight and guidance, as embraced by the international community, would go a long way.  Yet, nearly 15 years after Madeline Albright signed the CRC on behalf of President Clinton and the United States, American opponents of the convention continue to press their representatives to stall its ratification.

Oppositionalists’ extreme and misguided notions hold that the CRC would infringe upon the parent-child relationship, allow children to bring lawsuits against their own family members, and even…wait for it…join gangs.

Putting aside the ridiculousness of that final claim, it is only fair to right these misconceptions.

The CRC does not constitute an authoritarian directive on the role of parents in a child’s life.  In fact, Article 5 recognizes the primacy of this relationship by clearly stating that, “State Parties shall recognize the responsibilities, rights, and duties of parents.”  Rather than legislate parenting techniques, the CRC is merely concerned with upholding a child’s fundamental rights in the home.

Furthermore, nowhere in the CRC is there any indication that a child can (or should) file a lawsuit against their parents.  As the Campaign for the U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child rightly points out, “Any legal action brought by children against their parents must be based on existing federal or state laws, not on provisions contained in the CRC.”  Under our state and federal laws, this would only become applicable when a parent is found to have grossly abused or neglected their child.

And if our youngest generation is so-inclined to display their violent street smarts, they will find no approval within the text of the Convention.  Instead, they can simply look to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to protect their free speech rights.

This is not a contentious legal, religious, or class-based issue (ratification is supported by hundreds of organizations, individuals, and academic institutions, including American Baptist Churches, the American Bar Association, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Labor Union).  Its passage in 1989 reflected multilateral consensus within the UN, whose founding Charter reaffirms faith in the “basic dignity and worth of the human person.”  Ultimately, international peace and security depends upon a future generation growing up with hospitable living conditions and fair treatment under the law.

Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, recently told a group of Harlem school children that the U.S. is actively discussing “how and when it might be possible to join” the CRC.  But this is a conversation we’ve been having for too long.  It is time for America to declare and solidify its support for children’s rights on the global stage.

Lets see a little audacity Mr. President!

Nathan Birnbaum is a Drama major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.