Published February 25, 2009
Sen. Barbara Boxer is urging the U.S. to ratify a United Nations measure meant to expand the rights of children, a move critics are calling a gross assault on parental rights that could rob the U.S. of sovereignty.
The California Democrat is pushing the Obama administration to review the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a nearly 20-year-old international agreement that has been foundering on American shores since it was signed by the Clinton administration in 1995 but never ratified.
Critics say the treaty, which creates "the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and outlaws the "arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy," intrudes on the family and strips parents of the power to raise their children without government interference.
Nearly every country in the world is party to it -- only the U.S. and Somalia are not -- but the convention has gained little support in the U.S. and never been sent to the Senate for ratification.
That could change soon.
Boxer has made clear her intent to revive the ratification process under the Obama administration, which may be amenable to the move. During a Senate confirmation hearing last month, Boxer said she considers it "a humiliation" that the U.S. is "standing with Somalia" in refusing to become party to the agreement, while 193 other nations have led the way.
The U.S. is already party to two optional pieces of the treaty regarding child soldiers and child prostitution and pornography, but has refused to sign on to the full agreement, something which has rankled members of Congress, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"Children deserve basic human rights ... and the convention protects children's rights by setting some standards here so that the most vulnerable people of society will be protected," Boxer said.
The convention has established a Committee on the Rights of the Child, an 18-member panel in Geneva composed of "persons of high moral character" who review the rights of children in nations that are party to the convention.
But legal experts say the convention does nothing to protect human rights abroad -- and that acceding to the convention would erode U.S. sovereignty.
Because of the Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the Constitution, all treaties are rendered "the supreme law of the land," superseding preexisting state and federal statutes. Any rights or laws established by the U.N. convention could then be argued to hold sway in the United States.
"To the extent that an outside body, a group of unaccountable so-called experts in Switzerland have a say over how children in America should be raised, educated and disciplined -- that is an erosion of American sovereignty," said Steven Groves, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Parental rights groups are similarly stirred; they see in the U.N. convention a threat that the government will meddle with even the simplest freedoms to raise their children as they see fit.
"Whether you ground your kids for smoking marijuana, whether you take them to church, whether you let them go to junior prom, all of those things . . . will be the government's decision," said Michael Farris, president of ParentalRights.org. "It will affect every parent who's told their children to do the dishes."
Groves said that erosion has already begun, as the Supreme Court has referred to the wide acceptance of the child-rights law in conferring legal protections on minors in the U.S.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in the 2005 decision banning the death penalty for minors, noted that "every country in the world has ratified [the convention] save for the United States and Somalia."
Proponents of the convention in the U.S. stress that it will help secure human rights abroad.
"Now, all you have to do is look around the world and see these girls that are having acid thrown in their face," Boxer said in January, implying that the U.S. refusal to come aboard has led to abuses elsewhere.
But when acceding to the convention, countries are able to sign so-called RUDs -- reservations, understandings and declarations -- that can hinder or negate responsibilities they would otherwise be bound to follow.
Most majority Muslim nations express reservations on all provisions of the convention that are incompatible with Islamic Sharia law, which takes much of the teeth out of the treaty. Acid attacks on girls continue in Afghanistan, which is already party to the convention.
The U.N. itself admits that there is no way for it to enforce its own laws and protect children.
"When it comes to signatories who violate the convention and/or its optional protocols -- there is no means to oblige states to fulfill their legal obligations," said Giorgia Passarelli, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, which oversees the child-rights body.
Passarelli said that the committee has kept a constant spotlight on rights violators and fed into decisions made by the Security Council, especially involving child soldiers. But even then, she added, such pressure does not always prevail.
Despite these obstacles, Boxer has made clear that she intends to ramp up pressure to get the treaty ratified, a passion that may be shared by the Obama administration.
During the Oct. 22, 2008, presidential youth debate, Obama promised to "review this and other treaties to ensure the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights."
During U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's January confirmation hearing, Rice called the convention "a very important treaty and a noble cause," and said it was "a shame" for the U.S. to be in company with Somalia, which has no real government.
Rice told Boxer that "there can be no doubt that [President Obama] and Secretary Clinton and I share a commitment to the objectives of this treaty and will take it up as an early question," promising to review the treaty "to ensure that the United States is playing and resumes its global leadership role in human rights."
Boxer, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pushed for a 60-day timetable to review the convention and report back to the Senate -- which would have left the Obama administration a March 23 deadline to move toward ratification.
Rice politely sidestepped and refused to agree to the timeline.
"This is a complicated treaty, in many respects more than some others, given our system of federalism, and so we need to take a close look at how we manage the challenges of domestic implementation and what reservations and understandings might be appropriate in the context of ratification," she said.
Boxer's office, which ignored repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment, has not spelled out what if any reservations the senator would like to assert in ratifying the treaty. The State Department also refused to comment on timetables.