The UN General Assembly’s Convention on the Rights of the Child asks us to nurture and protect children.  Ethics notwithstanding, doing so is essential to species survival.  Yet, the USA has not voted for ratification of the Convention.  And, in diverse cultural settings today, children (people under 18 years of age) are sometimes forced to bear arms in violent conflicts, sold as prostitutes, and used for child pornography.  In short, children are, in countless ways, maltreated, exploited, deprived, abandoned, and neglected.  Even institutions purporting to care for children, including orphanages, have sometimes instead been infernos of abuse and neglect.

Can we do anything to change the situation?  Motivated by the goal of protecting children’s rights, in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has since been ratified by 192 of 194 countries.  This wide international support of the Convention reflects a world-wide commitment, unified across diverse cultural groups, to ensure children their human rights.  Indeed, the Convention has been legally ratified by more member nations of the United Nations than any other UN human rights treaty.  But one major signatory is missing.

The United States of America is one of only two countries (the other, Somalia) not to have ratified the Convention.  Although the USA helped to shape the provisions of the Convention, and signed the Convention on February 16, 1995, the treaty has still not been submitted to the US Senate for a vote on ratification.  This is no mere oversight, but a governmental reluctance to embrace an international rights treaty.

Overview of the problem

The UN General Assembly’s Convention on the Rights of the Child asks us to nurture and protect children.  Ethics notwithstanding, doing so is essential to species survival.  Yet, the USA has not voted for ratification of the Convention.  And, in diverse cultural settings today, children (people under 18 years of age) are sometimes forced to bear arms in violent conflicts, sold as prostitutes, and used for child pornography.  In short, children are, in countless ways, maltreated, exploited, deprived, abandoned, and neglected.  Even institutions purporting to care for children, including orphanages, have sometimes instead been infernos of abuse and neglect.  In natural disasters, children are at primary risk to suffer injury.

Children are especially vulnerable in conditions of armed conflict or economic deprivation.  War tears children from their families, to be held in captivity, to be pressed into military service, and to be maimed or killed.  War and poverty alike reduce children’s access to medical care, food, and water.  Regarding poverty, the least economically developed nations have populations with the most children, leading to children’s disproportional impoverishment on a global basis.  Escalating numbers of “street children” around the globe (who live on the street more than in their family home) have been abused by law enforcement authorities.  Children are over-represented among refugees and the homeless.  According to UNICEF’s (2006) report “The State of the World’s Children,” one-third of the world’s children lack adequate shelter, 31% lack basic sanitation, and 21% have no access to clean, protected water.  Illness, malnutrition, and premature death are harbored when children lack the most basic protections.

Can we do anything to change the situation?  Motivated by the goal of protecting children’s rights, in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has since been ratified by 192 of 194 countries.  This wide international support of the Convention reflects a world-wide commitment, unified across diverse cultural groups, to ensure children their human rights.  Indeed, the Convention has been legally ratified by more member nations of the United Nations than any other UN human rights treaty.  But one major signatory is missing.

The United States of America is one of only two countries (the other, Somalia) not to have ratified the Convention.  Although the USA helped to shape the provisions of the Convention, and signed the Convention on February 16, 1995, the treaty has still not been submitted to the US Senate for a vote on ratification.  This is no mere oversight, but a governmental reluctance to embrace an international rights treaty.

What does the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child say?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been described as reflective of a cross-cultural perspective on children’s rights (Walker, Brooks, and Wrightsman 1999:43).  It was derived from international discussion and written in language carefully assembled from multiple cultural perspectives (see Note 1). Article 20, for example, discusses a child’s need for protective care when alternatives to biological parents are in the child’s best interest, and it does so in a culturally and religiously sensitive fashion:

  • Such care could include, inter alia, foster placement, kafalah of Islamic law, adoption or if necessary placement in suitable institutions for the care of children.  When considering solutions, due regard should be given to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic background. [From Article 20]

In addition to making provisions for cultural and religious variation, the Convention also includes broad and agreed-upon overriding principles relating to what humankind owes to children overall.  These principles include:

  • Providing the means requisite for normal development, materially as well as spiritually
  • Addressing children’s special needs: that the hungry child be fed, the sick child helped, the developmentally delayed child given help, the delinquent child reclaimed, and the waif sheltered and assisted
  • Assisting children first in times of distress
  • Setting children on a course to earn a livelihood, without exploitation.

Out of such broad principles, fifty-four articles were crafted to make up the actual Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Such fundamental rights as having a name and sheer survival are included.  Article 12 recognizes the child’s right to express views on matters bearing personal consequence.  Appended to the fifty-four articles have been two optional protocols, dealing with the involvement of children in armed conflicts, and with rights involved in the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.

What is the status of the Convention in the USA?

As mentioned previously, the US government still has not submitted the Convention for consideration by the Senate–over ten years after signing.  The irony of this situation is that the USA was quite involved in the lengthy process of drafting the Convention, successfully pressing that the Convention reflect revisions in wording in accordance with US interests.

If the USA so chooses, it may ratify the Convention and at the same time file a declaration of reservations, as numerous countries have done upon ratification.  For example, Morocco filed the following reservation upon ratification: “The Kingdom of Morocco, whose Constitution guarantees to all the freedom to pursue his religious affairs, makes a reservation to the provisions of article 14, which accords children freedom of religion, in view of the fact that Islam is the State religion.”  Many nations filed reservations that dealt with particular articles or provisions that contradicted local religious or legal practices.  In short, ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not remove the autonomous privilege of the USA to do so with reservation.

Calls for the USA to bring about Senate consideration of ratification have been made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, former President Jimmy Carter, the Youth Advocate Program International, and Covenant House as well as by American scholars of children’s rights (Walker, Brooks, and Wrightsman 1999; see Note 2). Common to pleas made for ratification is the assertion that children, due to their vulnerability, are worthy of care and protection.  On the other hand, at least theoretically, federalism (by which states rather than federal authorities hold jurisdiction over such affairs as education and juvenile justice) interferes with ratification.  Note, however, that Brazil, Germany, and Mexico (countries with federalist systems) have all ratified the Convention.  To be sure, some US states sanction lifelong imprisonment for minors, and seek to reserve the option of capital punishment for minors–practices at odds with globally sanctioned children’s rights.  The USA has also opposed bans on children under 18 serving as soldiers.  Then again, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, Burma and Sri Lanka all have ratified the Convention, although these countries have been sites of government or rebel use of child forces.

Some US lobbyists have opposed the Convention because they feel that it usurps parental roles.  In fact, however, the Convention directly ties the family to the best interests of the child, enunciating the role of the family in sustaining children’s rights.

Should the American Anthropological Association call for the USA to ratify the Convention?

No human group that takes too lightly the well being of its children and the moral status of their care can flourish indefinitely across generations.  Signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have established a globe-spanning consensus on the significance of children’s rights.  Through the convention’s articles, children are granted the right to have their “best interests” as the prime consideration in their treatment, consistent with the broadest of human obligations.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is the primary US professional organization for anthropologists.  AAA members devote their lives to the study of people, including children.  An early spokeswoman for children among anthropologists, Margaret Mead once stated that “The solution to adult problems depends in large measure upon how children grow up today.”

The United States has become a distinct impediment to the global recognition of children’s rights, through its failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Out of an ethical responsibility to make public its humane opposition to ill considered public policies, the AAA should call for Senate submission and approval of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  American exceptionalism undercuts recognition of children’s rights broadly endorsed by diverse nations, and eliminates the opportunity to participate in monitoring and improving standards.  At issue is the fundamental vulnerability of all humans at the start of existence, a concern universally shared by nations and cultures.

Notes

1.  A complete copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is available online from the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights at http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm

2.  A Summit for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, meant to mobilize efforts for U.S. ratification and to further educate on the Convention, will be held May 18-20, 2006, American University, Washington DC.

Selected References

Jupp, Michael. 1990. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: An Opportunity for Advocates.  Human Rights Quarterly 12(1):130-146.

Petren, Alfhild and James Hines (eds.). 2000. Children’s Rights: Turning Principles into Practice. Smedjebacken, Sweden: Save the Children Sweden.

Stephens, Sharon. 1995. Children and the Politics of Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

UNICEF.  State of the World’s Children: Executive Summary 2006. UNICEF.

Walker, Nancy, Catherine Brooks, and Lawrence Wrightsman. 1999. Children’s Rights in the United States: In Search of a National Policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Revised Public Policy Statement – Press Release

The Rights of Children

Council on Infant and Child Health & Welfare (CICH) Policy Statement Task Force

Subcommittee Members: Cindy Dell Clark, Chair; María Claudia Duque Páramo; David Rosen; E.J. Sobo, ex officio

SMA Policy Committee: Douglas A. Feldman, Chair; E.J. Sobo; Catherine Timura

           The Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA), as the primary US professional organization for 1,300 medical anthropologists, strongly and emphatically supports the immediate ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The urgency of this matter can no longer be minimized.

The UN General Assembly’s Convention on the Rights of the Child asks us to nurture and protect children.  Ethics notwithstanding, doing so is essential to species survival.  Yet, the USA has not voted for ratification of the Convention.  And, in diverse cultural settings today, children (people under 18 years of age) are sometimes forced to bear arms in violent conflicts, sold as sex workers, and used for child pornography.  In short, children are, in countless ways, maltreated, exploited, deprived, abandoned, and neglected.  Even institutions purporting to care for children, including orphanages, have sometimes instead been infernos of abuse and neglect.  In natural disasters, children are at primary risk to suffer injury.

Children are especially vulnerable in conditions of armed conflict or economic deprivation.  War tears children from their families, to be held in captivity, to be pressed into military service, and to be maimed or killed.  War and poverty alike reduce children’s access to medical care, food, and water.  Regarding poverty, the least economically developed nations have populations with the most children, leading to children’s disproportional impoverishment on a global basis.  Escalating numbers of “street children” around the globe (who live on the street more than in their family home) have been abused by law enforcement authorities.  Children are over-represented among refugees and the homeless.  According to UNICEF’s (2006) report “The State of the World’s Children,” one-third of the world’s children lack adequate shelter, 31 percent lack basic sanitation, and 21 percent have no access to clean, protected water.  Illness, malnutrition, and premature death are harbored when children lack the most basic protections.

Can we do anything to change the situation?  Motivated by the goal of protecting children’s rights, in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has since been ratified by 192 of 194 countries.  This wide international support of the Convention reflects a world-wide commitment, unified across diverse cultural groups, to ensure children their human rights.  Indeed, the Convention has been legally ratified by more member nations of the United Nations than any other UN human rights treaty.  But one major signatory is missing.

The United States of America is one of only two countries (the other, Somalia) not to have ratified the Convention.  Although the USA helped to shape the provisions of the Convention, and signed the Convention on February 16, 1995, the treaty has still not been submitted to the US Senate for a vote on ratification.  This is no mere oversight, but a governmental reluctance to embrace an international rights treaty.  Opposition to the Convention in the United States has sought to protect prior rights (including states’ rights to execute youth under age 18), but in the process undermines a crucial opportunity to support the rights of all children.

What does the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child say?   

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been described as reflective of a cross-cultural perspective on children’s rights (Walker, Brooks, and Wrightsman 1999:43).  It was derived from international discussion and written in language carefully assembled from multiple cultural perspectives.1  Article 20, for example, discusses a child’s need for protective care when alternatives to biological parents are in the child’s best interest, and it does so in a culturally and religiously sensitive fashion:

Such care could include, inter alia, foster placement, kafalah of Islamic law, adoption or if necessary placement in suitable institutions for the care of children.  When considering solutions, due regard should be given to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic background. [From Article 20]

In addition to making provisions for cultural and religious variation, the Convention also includes broad and agreed-upon overriding principles relating to what humankind owes to children overall.  These principles include:

  • Providing the means requisite for normal development, materially as well as spiritually
  • Addressing children’s special needs: that the hungry child be fed, the sick child helped, the developmentally delayed child given help, the delinquent child reclaimed, and the waif sheltered and assisted
  • Assisting children first in times of distress
  • Setting children on a course to earn a livelihood, without exploitation.

Out of such broad principles, fifty-four articles were crafted to make up the actual Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Such fundamental rights as having a name and sheer survival are included.  Article 12 recognizes the child’s right to express views on matters bearing personal consequence.  Appended to the fifty-four articles have been two optional protocols, dealing with the involvement of children in armed conflicts, and with rights involved in the sale of children, child sex work, and child pornography.

What is the status of the Convention in the USA?

As mentioned previously, the US government still has not submitted the Convention for consideration by the Senate–over ten years after signing.  The irony of this situation is that the USA was quite involved in the lengthy process of drafting the Convention, successfully pressing that the Convention reflect revisions in wording in accordance with US interests.

If the USA so chooses, it may ratify the Convention and at the same time file a declaration of reservations, as numerous countries have done upon ratification.  For example, Morocco filed the following reservation upon ratification: “The Kingdom of Morocco, whose Constitution guarantees to all the freedom to pursue his religious affairs, makes a reservation to the provisions of article 14, which accords children freedom of religion, in view of the fact that Islam is the State religion.”  Many nations filed reservations that dealt with particular articles or provisions that contradicted local religious or legal practices.  In short, ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not remove the autonomous privilege of the USA to do so with reservation.

Calls for the USA to bring about Senate consideration of ratification have been made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, former President Jimmy Carter, the Youth Advocate Program International, and Covenant House as well as by American scholars of children’s rights (Walker, Brooks, and Wrightsman 1999).2  Common to pleas made for ratification is the assertion that children, due to their vulnerability, are worthy of care and protection.  On the other hand, at least theoretically, federalism (by which states rather than federal authorities hold jurisdiction over such affairs as education and juvenile justice) interferes with ratification.  Note, however, that Brazil, Germany, and Mexico (countries with federalist systems) have all ratified the Convention.  To be sure, some US states sanction lifelong imprisonment for minors, and seek to reserve the option of capital punishment for minors–practices at odds with globally sanctioned children’s rights.  The USA has also opposed bans on children under 18 serving as soldiers.  Then again, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, Burma and Sri Lanka all have ratified the Convention, although these countries have been sites of government or rebel use of child forces.

Anthropologists may recognize as a shortcoming of the text of the Convention that childhood is defined in a consistent manner (age 18 and younger), despite the cultural variation in definitions of childhood.  Anthropologists may also identify that children’s roles as needing care from others are implied, regardless of cultural circumstances:  for example, children may serve as child warriors through their own initiative to better their meager living situations.  The field of anthropology would benefit from more research on how structural factors in society give rise to diverse constructions of childhood and roles for children.  Nevertheless, appreciation of cultural particulars need not keep the USA from ratifying the Convention.  The imposition of US goals on others is not at issue:  ratifying the Convention is a matter for internal debate within each country, with almost all having already ratified.

Some US lobbyists have opposed the Convention because they feel that it usurps parental roles.  In fact, however, the Convention directly ties the family to the best interests of the child, enunciating the role of the family in sustaining children’s rights.

The US Should Ratify the Convention.

No human group that takes too lightly the well being of its children and the moral status of their care can flourish indefinitely across generations.  Signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have established a globe-spanning consensus on the significance of children’s rights.  Through the convention’s articles, children are granted the right to have their “best interests” as the prime consideration in their treatment, consistent with the broadest of human obligations.

The Society for Medical Anthropology implores that the signatory process within the United States be initiated.   For better or for worse, the United States is a powerful global power whose ratification of the Convention would support and help activate programs to reduce poverty and provide health and education for all children.

Most SMA members devote their lives to the study of people, often including children.  An early spokeswoman for children among anthropologists, Margaret Mead once stated that “The solution to adult problems depends in large measure upon how children grow up today.”

The United States has become a distinct impediment to the global recognition of children’s rights, through its failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Out of an ethical responsibility to make public its humane opposition to ill considered public policies, the SMA calls for Senate submission and approval of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  American exceptionalism undercuts recognition of children’s rights broadly endorsed by diverse nations, and eliminates the opportunity to participate in monitoring and improving standards.  At issue is the fundamental vulnerability of all humans at the start of existence, a concern universally shared by nations and cultures.

Notes

1.  A complete copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is available online from the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights at http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm

2.  A Summit for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, meant to mobilize efforts for U.S. ratification and to further educate on the Convention, was held May 18-20, 2006, American University, Washington DC.

Selected References

Jupp, Michael. 1990. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: An Opportunity for Advocates.  Human Rights Quarterly 12(1):130-146.

Petren, Alfhild and James Hines (eds.). 2000. Children’s Rights: Turning Principles into Practice. Smedjebacken, Sweden: Save the Children Sweden.

Stephens, Sharon. 1995. Children and the Politics of Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

UNICEF.  State of the World’s Children: Executive Summary 2006. UNICEF.

Walker, Nancy, Catherine Brooks, and Lawrence Wrightsman. 1999. Children’s Rights in the United States: In Search of a National Policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Related links

Convention on the Rights of the Child, U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Call for US Participation” by Howard Davidson in Human Rights Magazine, American Bar Association

2006 Summit for the Convention on the Rights of the Child: Mobilizing Communities for Ratification, May 18-20, 2006, American University, Washington, DC

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


8 + = fifteen

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>