Why Won’t the U.S. Sign the U.N. Child Rights Treaty?

Only two members of the U.N. have refused to ratify an international convention banning the torture of children: Somalia and the United States.

Illustration by Matt Chase

This month, the indictment of N.F.L. player Adrian Peterson on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child has galvanized an impassioned discussion on corporal punishment. The conversations became even more heated after released photos of Peterson’s son, who had wounds on his leg allegedly caused when Peterson struck him with a tree branch. Peterson claimed he was only disciplining his son and did not mean to injure him.

The large body of research on spanking has revealed that as a form of punishment it’s largely ineffective—in fact, long-term studies reveal that physical punishment has lasting adverse effects, including depression and anxiety. But the fact is that even in the United States—and perhaps especially in the United States— supporters of spanking exist, and they are a vocal, and apparently powerful crowd. It’s the very same demographic of people who fight diligently to keep the United States from signing the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The CRC, which was ratified by the United Nations in 1990, includes 54 articles that declare the basic rights of children necessary to ensure their social, physical, and economic wellbeing. Since the U.N. General Assembly first introduced the treaty, 194 nations have signed onto it. Only two members of the U.N. have yet to ratify the convention: Somalia and the United States.

It may seem counterintuitive to oppose a document expressly created to protect the rights of children, but the U.N. convention contains statutes that many socially conservative and faith-based groups find disagreeable. They’ve organized around a “parental rights” platform, arguing that the CRC infringes on parents’ ability to raise their children without government intervention. They’ve even proposed a Parental Rights Amendment for the U.S. Constitution, which would prevent international rights groups like the United Nations or the federal government from intervening in a child’s upbringing. The resolution—number 37 in the Senate and number 50 in the House—has the sponsorship of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and House Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC 11th District). The amendment would pose a direct challenge to the United Nations Convention.

Parental rights’ groups decry Article 37 of the convention (not to be confused with the Senate resolution), which states that no child should be subjected “to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”. Parental Rights, an organization that has spearheaded the campaign against adoption of the CRC, argues that this language would constitute a total ban on spanking—although, this doesn’t actually seem to be the case for many of the resolution’s signers. Countries that have signed onto the CRC, like Botswana and Brazil, have not incorporated it into their national laws or do not enforce it. Upon ratifying the convention, many governments made conditions that the CRC would only be enforced insofar as it is compatible with their preexisting national laws.

Parental Rights, among other socially conservative groups opposing the CRC, doesn’t just represent a minority opinion on spanking in the U.S. The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, which the university has conducted every year since 1986, found that although spanking has slipped in popularity in the past two decades, it remains acceptable as a form of discipline among 70 percent of respondents.

But the CRC statute on corporal punishment isn’t the only thing Parental Rights— which has the support of fundamentalist Christian groups and the Home School Legal Defense Association—take issue with. They also oppose Article 16 of the U.N. treaty, which declares a child’s right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and Article 13, which protects a child’s “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” Religious groups fear the latter would prevent them from removing their children from school-mandated sex education courses. Libertarian critics of the CRC argue that the entire convention infringes on United States sovereignty.

Back in 2009, Susan Rice, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the Obama administration was considering revisiting efforts to sign the treaty. Since, then, however, the only people making moves are the parental rights lobby, who just last March won the support of the Missouri House of Representatives. State legislators will vote on a law that would reportedly ensure that parents have the “fundamental right to exercise exclusive control over the care, custody, and upbringing of their minor children.”

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

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