Why Won't the US Ratify the UN's Children's Rights Convention?

November 20 was the 25th anniversary of the adoption by the U.N. General Assembly of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It may come as a shock to many Americans to learn that the three rogue nations in the world that have refused to ratify this no-brainer convention are Somalia, South Sudan and the United States.
11/25/2014 10:35 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

November 20 was the 25th anniversary of the adoption by the U.N. General Assembly of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It may come as a shock to many Americans to learn that the three rogue nations in the world that have refused to ratify this no-brainer convention are Somalia, South Sudan and the United States.

To put that in perspective, North Korea ratified the convention in 1990.

The convention sets out the legal requirements for the world to protect its most vulnerable citizens. According to UNICEF, it "spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere -- without discrimination -- have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. ... The convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care, education and legal, civil and social services."

The convention clearly spells out the rights of children in criminal cases. "No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment... The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall ... be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time," it says.

If you want to know what the consequences are for American children of the U.S. government not ratifying this convention, watch the film Kids for Cash, written, produced and directed by Robert May. The film masterfully tells the devastating story of two Pennsylvania judges who sentenced 3,000 children to jail for offenses as minor as shooting spitballs, getting into a schoolyard fight, or creating a spoof MySpace page.

Judge Mark Ciavarella is serving 28 years in jail and Judge Michael Conahan 17 years for financial crimes related to payments of $3 million they received from a developer who built a private prison where the judges sent their convicted children for years at a time.

The film, but not the state, puts on trial the so-called zero-tolerance policy that shackles and jails juveniles for years for petty misconduct, deeds that in years past would be punished by after-school detention for an afternoon. It harrowingly focuses on how five children suffered at the hands of these judges, leading one to drug abuse and another to his death.

The film posits that the zero-tolerance policy is a reaction to Columbine and other school massacres. The policy takes the place of stronger gun control laws, and is a clear violation of the convention's prohibition against "degrading treatment" of children, and of its requirement that imprisonment "be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."

(Combined with the militarization of local police across the country and intrusive NSA surveillance, zero-tolerance contributes to a growing police-state mentality in the U.S.)

The film also shows how the children and their parents were intimidated into waiving their right to a lawyer, another cornerstone of the convention.

There are 1.1 million children behind bars worldwide, according to Kerry Neal, a child protection specialist at UNICEF. The U.S. imprisons as many as 70,000 children a day. The majority of children in detention have not committed serious offenses, Neal says. "We should remember that committing at least one non-serious offense during adolescence can be considered 'normal'. Studies all over the world consistently indicate that 70 percent to 80 percent of children have committed at least one -- usually petty -- offense," he said.

"A significant number have not even committed a minor criminal offense and are deprived of their liberty for what are called 'status offenses' such as dropping out of school, running away from home and alcohol use," said Neal. "Status offenses are not considered criminal offenses when committed by adults, but these children's cases are often processed through justice systems designed for adults that are not adapted to children's rights and specific needs."

The convention the U.S. rejects that would protect these children was negotiated over 10 years with substantial input from both the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations. They contributed seven articles that came directly from the U.S. constitution. Five and a half years after its adoption on November 20, 1989, Madeleine Albright, the then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., signed it for the United States.

Right-wing fringe groups immediately screamed bloody murder, claiming falsely that it would outlaw corporal punishment and otherwise have the state impose itself on parenting. Then Senator Jesse Helms called the convention "a bag of worms." It was typical American parochialism: living in a world of their own but trying to dominant the rest of the world, while shielding themselves from international law.

The conservative Heritage Foundation said: "Although not originally promoted as an entity that would become involved in actively seeking to shape member states' domestic policies, the U.N. has become increasingly intrusive in these arenas." Heritage said the convention raised questions about "sovereign jurisdiction, over domestic policy-making."

But Article 5 of the convention says governments must respect "the rights, responsibilities, and duties of parents" to raise their children. Other U.S. groups, like the Girl Scouts and the Kiwanis support ratification.

Though his administration signed it, President Clinton never pushed the Senate for ratification. Nor did George W. Bush. At a debate on youth issues a month before the 2008 election, candidate Obama said: "It's embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. I will review this and other treaties to ensure the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights." (At the time there were only two countries that hadn't ratified because South Sudan was not yet an independent nation.)

Obama has not acted, despite this campaign pledge, losing the opportunity of the anniversary and the last six weeks of Democratic rule in the Senate to push for ratification. It seems clear the Obama administration does not want to waste political capital on it.

The U.S. kept a very low profile around the U.N. in regard to the anniversary. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador and a champion of human rights in an earlier life, hasn't said a word about it, though people at the U.N. made speeches all day about the convention. To make matters worse, Power gave a speech on November 19 at a Save the Children event and never once mentioned the convention. The U.S. mission ignored a request from me to speak to a U.S. official about it.

Some U.S. officials have previously argued U.S. ratification is unnecessary because U.S. law has caught up with the conventions' provisions over the past 25 years. For example in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Roper vs. Simmons case made it unconstitutional to execute prisoners who are younger than 18. Twenty-two states were still doing that in 2002. In 2010, the court ruled unconstitutional life without parole for crimes other than murder. But that does not comply with the convention, which bans life without parole for children for any crime.

According to Human Rights Watch, U.S. law still exempts children as young as 12 from working in agriculture "under dangerous conditions in violation of the convention's prohibitions on the economic exploitation of children."

U.S. leaders like to say the U.S. is the world leader on human rights. That claim is undermined by its failure to join the rest of the world in ratifying this convention.