November 26, 2013

As the children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is why the US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Currently, only two other countries – South Sudan and Somalia – have yet to ratify the convention, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.

But the US is now in danger of becoming a club of one. Last Wednesday, South Sudan’s parliament voted to ratify the convention. The same day – the 24th anniversary of the convention – Somalia’s president pledged that his country would ratify it soon.

South Sudan and Somalia have some reasonable excuses for not having ratified the child rights convention more quickly. South Sudan gained independence only two years ago, and Somalia has struggled for more than two decades to establish a functioning government. The US has no such defense. 

One of the biggest barriers to US ratification is an aggressive misinformation campaign by “parental rights” organizations, claiming that the convention will undermine American families. These groups have promoted ludicrous scenarios of what will happen if the US ratifies the convention, saying parents will be put in prison if they fail to vaccinate their child, that children will be forced to sing songs about the United Nations in school, and that children will have to begin mandatory sex education at the age of four. None of these claims are true.

In reality, the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes numerous references to the importance of the family. It outlines rights that virtually every American parent would want for their child – the right to education, to development, and to protection from exploitation and abuse. None of the predicted “nightmare” scenarios have come to pass in the 193 countries that have ratified the convention. Instead, the convention has helped governments assess and improve their laws and policies for children.

US ratification is complicated only by the continued practice in the United States of sentencing child offenders to life in prison with no possibility of parole. The US is the only country to impose this punishment, which the convention specifically prohibits. Until it ends such sentencing, which has been whittled away by the Supreme Court in recent years, the US could enter a reservation to the convention, as it has done when ratifying other human rights treaties.

It’s a shame that a campaign that is at best misguided has helped keep the US out of a treaty that has nearly universal acceptance. The White House and US Senate should give the convention another look before the US finds itself in a minority of one.