Revisiting the rights of children

By Jonathan Purtle

What does the United States have in common with South Sudan and Somalia? Not much, except for being the only other United Nations member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Entered into force in 1990, the CRC is a human rights document that guarantees a set of civil, political, economic, social, health, and cultural rights to children. Some specific rights include not being subjected to abuse, having guaranteed access to health care and quality education, and enjoying the freedom to access information, express one’s thoughts, and establish an identity. The United States was instrumental in helping draft the treaty during Ronald Reagan’s presidency  and signed it in 1995 (a purely symbolic act), but the Senate has yet to ratify it. The CRC is a legally binding document.  If the United States were to ratify it, the federal government would need to ensure that the rights enumerated in the treaty were  satisfied for all children in the U.S., or face sanctions from the United Nations.

For many years, Article 37 of the CRC was the United States’ excuse for not ratifying it. Article 37 prohibits the execution of children and life sentences for children without the possibility of parole. Recent Supreme Court decisions, however, allow the U.S. to clear the Article 37 hurdle. In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court found that executing children was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.  In 2010, the decision in Graham v. Florida outlawed sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide. In June 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court extended this protection to children convicted of homicide.

With Article 37 no longer standing in the way, what’s stopping the United States from guaranteeing its children the same basic freedoms and human rights that are guaranteed to children in nearly every other country around the world? One reason, as Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, describes it, is the perception that the treaty violates parental rights. The Home School Legal Defense Association, for example, has declared the CRC “the most dangerous attack on parental rights in the history of the United States.” Strong words — grounded in little evidence, and extremist ideology.

Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United States would be a step toward a more morally just, economically productive, and healthy society; 193 United Nations member states agree.

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