American Exceptionalism: Rights for All Children Except Our Own

By Bryce Bahler (Editor)

A recent decision made by the government of Somalia[1] to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child[2] (UNCRC) reignited discussions regarding the last two remaining holdouts to embrace the document:  South Sudan and the United States.  The UNCRC, which was drafted in 1989 by an international group of experts and which came into force the following year, outlines the basic universal rights of all children and young people, covering a broad range of issues such as protection from exploitation, access to medical care and education, and the right identity documents.  The passing of the UNCRC spawned a new era of research, programmatic development, and policy-making dedicated to advancing the belief that children are human beings with rights, agency, and a voice now, not just “human becomings”[3] or the next generation in waiting.

The human rights outlined in the UNCRC are generally considered uncontroversial.  While there has been some debate about the Convention and its meaning, and while some State Parties have expressed reservations about specific articles or the language used within them, the overwhelming international consensus has been in favour of adopting these principles and working to apply them to the benefit of young people. Indeed, the UNCRC has become the most ratified human rights treaty of all time, so what would keep these two remaining states from joining the cause?

To be fair, South Sudan did not exists as a nation when the UNCRC was drafted more than 25 years ago.  And to its credit, lawmakers there have started the domestic process towards ratification[4].  Which leaves supporters of this landmark convention looking at the U.S. asking, “So what’s your excuse?[5]”  Numerous reasons have been offered regarding the country’s perpetual failure to ratify the Convention, including the idea that it threatens U.S. sovereignty[6] and the misguided notion that it infringes on parental rights[7], a lighting-rod issues for America’s religious fundamentalists. While I find these arguments unconvincing, and at times far-fetched, the perhaps more pressing question is not why the U.S. has failed to endorse basic rights for children, but rather how this failure has impacted on the U.S. and its young people.

Firstly, the international reputation of the U.S. has undoubtedly been harmed by its failure to ratify the UNCRC.  By not committing to uphold the rights of children domestically, the U.S. reduces its credibility in rights-related issues in the international arena.  Critics of certain aspects of U.S. domestic policy, such as the practice of sentencing youth offenders to life in prison (prohibited under the UNCRC), rightly question the U.S.’s commitment to human rights in general. Indeed, apart from the UNCRC, the U.S. has failed to ratify 13 of the world’s 18 international human rights declarations[8]. From my personal experience, when international colleagues learn of my work in children’s rights and my American citizenship I am usually met with an eye-roll and disbelief.  This is particularly problematic given that U.S.-based civil society groups and U.S. diplomats were highly involved in the drafting of the UNCRC, even demanding the inclusion of specific articles and thereby effectively enforcing a standard for other countries that the U.S. remains unwilling to apply to itself.

Indeed, despite its heavy involvement in the initial drafting of the document, the U.S. has contributed very little to the progress made in children’s rights in the last 25 years. A further consequence of the U.S. failure to ratify the UNCRC is therefore the limited role U.S. officials and organizations have, or are able to play, in shaping the on-going developments in children’s rights policy, practice, and scholarship[9]

One of the most notable areas of this lack of involvement is in academia.  While Europe[10] and Latin America[11] have vibrant networks of children’s rights academic programs, no such network exists in the U.S.  In fact, apart from an occasional university elective course or journal article that tangentially mentions children’s rights, it seems there is almost no scholarly activity taking place in this area in the U.S.  This is the very reason I am currently studying in Scotland; access to rigorous children’s rights scholarship demands one leaves the U.S.!

Outside of academia the effects of the U.S.’s lack of engagement can be observed in the monitoring and reporting being done in the U.N. and other international bodies.  Most notable is the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which meets regularly to review national reports, offer recommendations, and make general statements about children’s rights matters[12].  By not ratifying the Convention, the U.S. is not represented on this body and therefore not currently contributing to the vital policy-making under way in this and other fora.

Perhaps most tragically for young people living in the U.S., our absence from the UNCRC and the resultant dearth of domestic scholarship in this area has left a void in knowledge and awareness.  My own experience tells me that many American citizens are completely unaware of the existence of the UNCRC, let alone the ongoing debates over its ratification.  Even more problematic, the lack of knowledge on the topic has allowed certain groups to manipulate or misuse the concepts of children’s rights.  In what follows I expound upon two telling examples.

In a recent conversation with a family friend I learned how well-meaning but uninformed practitioners can misapply the principles of children’s rights.  This friend, a mother to several children, told me that at a pediatric clinic she frequently visited a nurse had recently demanded to meet with one of her children one-on-one.  The nurse explained that a new clinic policy required an individual meeting with young patients. Without such a meeting, this mother was told, the children would not be able to access any other healthcare services at this clinic. The nurse gave children’s rights as a justification for this policy.

As a children’s rights researcher and advocate, upon hearing this story, I was left distressed by the profound misunderstanding this clinic and its staff had in regards to children’s rights.  It is true that children’s rights are often used as justification for demanding that all young people have access to appropriate medical care and that many states have developed protocols to allow young people to access certain types of medical care without parental consent.  However, forcing a child to meet one-on-one with medical staff, apart from their own request to do so, and refusing ongoing care if they or their parents turn down this meeting, is not even remotely within the realm of the UNCRC or any other children’s rights documents that I am aware of.

A second, and perhaps even more distressing example of the manipulation of children’s rights has been happening, somewhat quietly, alongside the ongoing legal fight for marriage equality in the U.S.  In the last few years dozens of court cases have been fought across the U.S. regarding the constitutionality of state-level bans on same-sex marriage.  Those opposed to marriage equality have been searching for any sort of evidence to support their cause and some groups have attempted to use children’s rights as an argument against marriage equality.

Some have argued that the UNCRC prohibits same-sex parenting, constructing it as harmful for the children. They presumably draw on the convention in order to gain some semblance of legitimacy. This is a clear misuse of the UNCRC, but is thoughtlessly accepted by a public that has little knowledge of the subject.  No such statements can be found in the UNCRC, whereas one could make a strong argument that disallowing same-sex couples equal access to the protections and rights of marriage does great harm to both the couple and their children and therefore contravenes the tenets of the convention.

As this article has demonstrated, the failure of the U.S. to ratify the UNCRC has done very real damage to the U.S. at home.  Despite the near-constant political rhetoric about protecting and supporting young people voiced by U.S. politicians across the political spectrum, almost nothing has been done in the last 25 years to bring the U.S. in line with the international community when it comes to children’s rights.  And what should be seen as a non-partisan issue with little to no pushback has instead become a bi-partisan failure and an embarrassing stain on America’s reputation and credibility abroad.

One final thought:  it is true that signing the document will not guarantee complete recognition of children’s rights in the U.S.  Critics are quick to point out that several of the countries that have ratified the UNCRC—for example North Korea[13] and the Central African Republic[14]—continue to allow widespread children’s rights violations.  This is undeniably true.  Children’s rights are routinely violated to various degrees in every country of the world.  However, the advantage of the UNCRC is that it sets a standard which every State Party is expected to implement (and which domestic courts and activists can use as a benchmark). Furthermore, it provides a forum for ongoing evaluation, critique, and accountability.  The quinquennial reporting of each Party to the UNCRC Committee allows the international community to highlight the violations in each state and make recommendations for change. Thereby, even the most grievous offenders face ongoing accountability.  And while the U.S. is not likely to find itself within this group, we owe it to our young people to do everything we can to provide each of them the best possible childhood.



[3]  Qvortrup, J. (2005).  Studies in modern childhood: Society, agency, culture.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan