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Questions and Answers on the UN Special Session on Children

The United States and the Rights of Children

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Human Rights Watch and the United Nations

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Q: What is the UN General Assembly Special Session for Children?

    A: From May 8-10, 2002, world leaders will gather at the U.N. for a General Assembly Special Session on Children. The session is a follow-up to the 1990 World Summit on Children. It will examine progress made in implementing the 1990 Summit's goals, and will adopt a new plan of action addressing children's health, education, HIV/AIDS, and protection from violence, exploitation and abuse. Approximately 70 heads of state or government are expected to attend the session, making it the highest level conference on children in over a decade.

    Three preparatory committee meetings have been held since May 2000 to debate the Declaration and Plan of Action to be adopted at the Session. This document has still not been finalized, and negotiations are still underway.

Q: What does Human Rights Watch hope the session will accomplish?

    A: Human Rights Watch's position has been that the Special Session's plan of action should meet four basic criteria:

    1. It should reinforce the Convention on the Rights of the Child and hasten its full implementation;
    2. It should support universal ratification and implementation of key new treaties developed over the last decade that strengthen the protection of children.
    3. Its goals should reflect the full range of children's rights, including protection from violence, exploitation and abuse, as well as those in the social sector areas (e.g. health and education) that have traditionally received greater attention.
    4. It should ensure strong mechanisms to monitor government obligations and commitments that include meaningful participation from non-governmental organizations and civil society.

Q: What role has the United States taken during these negotiations?

    A: The stance of the United States towards the central issue of the rights of children is of grave concern. During these negotiations, the United States has consistently sought to eliminate or minimize references to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the Declaration and Plan of Action, and has refused to accept language that refers to the Convention as the primary international standard for the promotion and protection of children's rights. The U.S. has also sought to remove references to the "rights" of children, in favor of language supporting the "well-being" of children.

    The United States has also tried to roll back international agreements to provide adolescents with sexual and reproductive health education and services. It has opposed the inclusion of the word "services" related to sexual and reproductive health programs, arguing that the word is code for "abortion."

Q: Why is the Convention on the Rights of the Child important to the Special Session?

    A: The Convention is the most universally-ratified treaty in history, with 191 states parties. It reflects the full range of children's rights and should be the starting point for stronger efforts to improve the lives of children. Among its provisions, it requires governments to consider the best interests of the child, to provide children with education and health care, and to protect children from discrimination, sexual and economic exploitation and other abuse.

Q: What is the US position towards the convention?

    A: The United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world that have failed to ratify the Convention. Although the United States signed the Convention on February 16, 1995, the treaty has never been submitted to the U.S. Senate and the United States has stated that it has no plans to ratify the convention.

    During negotiations for the Special Session in February 2001, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Southwick stated that "it is misleading and inappropriate to use the Convention as a litmus test to measure a nation's commitment to children. As a non-party to the Convention, the United States does not accept obligations based on it, nor do we accept that it is the best or only framework for developing programs and policies to benefit children."

Q: Why hasn't the United States ratified the Convention?

    A: Some critics in the United States have lobbied heavily against ratification of the convention, claiming that the convention will undermine parental authority, interfere with parents' ability to raise and discipline their children, and will elevate the rights of children above the rights of parents. In reality, the convention repeatedly refers to the importance of the parent-child relationship, and requires governments to respect the rights and duties of parents.

    The most significant contradiction between the convention and U.S. law and practice is in relation to the death penalty. The Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the use of the death penalty for offenses committed before the age of eighteen. However, twenty-two U.S. states allow executions of juvenile offenders, and currently there are eighty-two juvenile offenders on death row in the United States. In the last five years, nine executions of juvenile offenders were carried out in the United States, and two more are scheduled in the next month. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran are the only other states to have carried out such executions in the last three years.

    During the negotiations for the Special Session, the European Union, supported by numerous other governments, sought the inclusion of language prohibiting the use of the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed by children. The United States, joined only by Iran, rejected the proposal.

Q: Does the US have any other problems with the Convention?

    A: Traditionally, the United States has recognized civil and political rights (such as the rights to expression, assembly and due process), but not economic, social and cultural rights (such as the right to education, health care and an adequate standard of living). The convention includes both. Also, the United States also argues that many of the issues addressed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child lie primarily within the jurisdiction of the states, rather than the federal government. For example, in the United States, individual states are responsible for education, and for setting laws related to the administration of juvenile justice.

    Federalism in the U.S. should not be a bar to ratifying the Convention. Other countries with federal systems have ratified the Convention, including Brazil, Germany and Mexico. The U.S. may also adopt a reservation or understanding to address this issue, and in fact, has done so in the past in relation to other international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).