The most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history is 20 years old. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was shaped by the United States, which drafted more of its provisions than any other government. Only two countries in the world have failed to ratify the convention: war-torn Somalia - and the United States.
Negotiated during the Reagan administration, the Convention reflects basic American values and the conditions that children need to thrive. The United States influenced virtually all of the treaty's substantive provisions, including the rights of children to survival, to education, and to protection from sexual and economic exploitation and other forms of abuse.
In a presidential debate last year, President Obama acknowledged the US' awkward outlier status. "It's embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land," he said. Perhaps more troubling than its association with Somalia is that the US' failure to ratify the Convention significantly undermines US leadership internationally on children's issues and the president's goal to re-engage with the international community.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made issues affecting girls and women a high priority for the US administration. Secretary Clinton has spoken out powerfully against the epidemic of sexual violence against girls in war zones and the power of education to lift children out of poverty. This fall she will initiate a fund to help empower women across the globe to combat violence against girls and promote girls' education.
As important as these initiatives are, how can the United States persuasively convince other governments to address sexual exploitation of children or hazardous child labor when those same governments can point to the US' failure to ratify the Convention as evidence of US hypocrisy.
The US signed the Convention in 1995, the same year I became executive director of UNICEF. Over the next ten years, as virtually every country in the world ratified the Convention, I was repeatedly asked why the US had not done so.
At the United Nations, the US position on children's rights had become a joke. For the past seven years, the US had been virtually the only UN member state to vote against the General Assembly's annual resolution on the rights of the child, primarily because of its references to the Convention. In 2002 and 2004, it recruited one other ally to join the vote against the resolution: the Marshall Islands.
But there is good news today on two fronts. First, Somalia said it intends to ratify the treaty. Then, in the annual vote today in the General Assembly, for the first time in eight years, the US did not vote against the resolution on the rights of the child. It was adopted by consensus.
US law is already largely in compliance with the Convention. One notable exception--the use of the death penalty against persons for crimes committed before the age of 18--is no longer an issue following a 2005 Supreme Court case that found the execution of juvenile offenders unconstitutional.
US ratification has been derailed by critics who contend that the Convention will somehow damage the American family and undermine the rights of parents. These claims don't hold up. The Convention repeatedly emphasizes the importance and authority of parents in raising their children.
Some argue that the US already has some of the best laws in the world protecting children and that ratifying the Convention isn't necessary. But many American children still lack adequate health care or education, and face risks to their safety and well-being. The Convention would require the US to review its laws and policies regularly and to keep taking new steps to improve children's lives.
In other countries over the last two decades, the Convention has contributed to law reform, improvements in the access to and quality of programs and services for children and their families (particularly in health and education), and stronger national institutions for children.
President Obama made a commitment during his campaign to review the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other treaties to ensure that the United States "resumes its global leadership in human rights." His administration moved quickly to embrace a treaty on the rights of people with disabilities. The twentieth anniversary of the Convention is a good time to make good on that pledge for the sake of the world's children. Today's General Assembly vote is a hopeful sign that the administration is moving in that direction. Both the administration and Congress should act to make the US a credible international leader for children by ratifying the treaty.
Carol Bellamy, the author, was the executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) from 1995 to 2005.