The Convention on the Rights of the Child Is 25 Years Old: It's Time for America to Ratify

New York in November. The zombie masks and ghoulish cut-outs that flooded stores from Bloomingdale's to Battery Park have been displaced by cartoon pilgrims, turkey decals and a seasonal carol or two.
11/20/2014 06:28 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

New York in November. The zombie masks and ghoulish cut-outs that flooded stores from Bloomingdale's to Battery Park have been displaced by cartoon pilgrims, turkey decals and a seasonal carol or two. Tickets are being frantically booked and kitchen drawers methodically excavated for family recipes splattered with so many generations of cranberry sauce only a crime scene specialist could decipher them. The Rink at Rockefeller Centre is iced over. The holidays are here. Almost.

This year, Thanksgiving coincides with another watershed moment in history and one more reason to be thankful: 25 years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) became the most widely adopted human rights treaty in the world. In its own way, the CRC is also about family -- about protecting and upholding the rights of children and those who care for them. It endeavors to keep children under 18 free from harm, abuse, and neglect by setting standards for their equal treatment under international law. All but three countries in the world have ratified the CRC: South Sudan, Somalia and the United States (which is nevertheless a signatory). In the case of Somalia and South Sudan, both countries have been heavily embroiled in bitter civil wars since the Reagan Administration which, alongside that of George H. W. Bush, helped lead the drafting of the CRC. The difference between signing and ratifying is significant: Signing is an agreement in principle, whereas ratification is a commitment under international law.

President Obama has indicated that he would like to ratify the CRC and still has ample time left in his mandate to try to achieve what President Clinton also supported, but could not deliver on. And there's no good reason not to: Over the past decade, Supreme Court rulings on everything from the sentencing of minors to legislation governing the abuse and exploitation of children have brought the U.S. closer to full compliance on all aspects of the Convention. To flip this negative into a positive, then, if there is no reason not to ratify it, what are the reasons for ratifying it?

The CRC is an ideal, one which is realized imperfectly throughout the world. By articulating this vision for universality when it comes to children's rights, the CRC is in effect a barometer by which countries can measure themselves and in turn be measured by others: How are we doing? It is also an instrument by which groups like Boko Haram, ISIS and others who abuse and exploit children as sex slaves, forced laborers and child soldiers may someday be held to account.

This is not insignificant: When we acknowledge that such atrocities are war crimes committed against children, we are invoking the Convention, and in particular the later Optional Protocol, as well as the Treaty of Rome. War criminals such as Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, The Democratic Republic of Congo's Thomas Lubanga and the Lord's Resistance Army's Joseph Kony were all charged with crimes committed against children in violation of the CRC (though Kony remains at large). So if the U.S. stands behind protecting and upholding the rights of children in all contexts, then it is asserting the moral and legal authority of the CRC -- an authority which is undermined by their non-ratification.

There are other reasons to ratify it, too. The last few years have seen a massive erosion of the rights of children globally. They are being brutalized and killed in parts of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and in dozens of other "fragile states" with weak or corrupted governments. They are being taken from their classrooms, refugee camps, the streets and even from their family homes to serve as porters, soldiers, concubines and "wives" for rebel and other military groups who prey on their powerlessness and their fealty. They are being trafficked to drug lords, pimps, old rich men and war-lords.

Still, there are some encouraging signs that international governments remain committed to the CRC: extreme poverty has been halved -- a major achievement to realizing that Millennium Development Goal -- and most children in the developing world are now attending primary school. But these gains rarely reach children in "high risk" environments, especially countries at war. According to a 2014 USAID study on extreme poverty, the absolute number of people living on less than $1.25 per day in fragile states has remained unchanged since 1990, at 400 million.

Not surprisingly, half of all child deaths under five in poor countries also occur in these same locales. The war in Syria alone is estimated to have wiped out 35 years of development gains since 2011 that are essential to the survival, education and protection of Syrian children. And there are too many regions of the world right now -- including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, South Sudan, and Somalia -- where children as old as fourteen have never known what it means to live without abject fear.

What does this tell us? It tells us that ratifying the CRC is a necessary but not sufficient condition when it comes to protecting and upholding the rights of children worldwide. In 25 years, much has changed, but far too much has remained tragically the same or gotten worse. Children locked in a chronic state of war and violence are being excluded from the rights enshrined in the CRC to devastating effect.

U.S. ratification won't change this, but it's a positive step forward. What will change this is a sustained commitment to helping children and their families in war zones rebuild and recover so that the cycle can be broken and the CRC upheld. Not just emergency measures -- food, water, shelter, blankets, health care -- but investments in education, access to justice and economic development. It means shifting our ideas about humanitarian aid as a quick fix delivered by outsiders, and thinking instead about what families need and want for their children over the long term: To keep them safe and to see them thrive.

War and abuse may have robbed children and families of their past, but it should not rob them of their futures as well. Those looking for opportunities for post-partisan collaboration after the recent Congressional election could do worse than starting with ratification of an instrument both parties have already expressed support for.