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Time for the US to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights

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On the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the US should join this important treaty so that it can better promote children’s rights at home and abroad.

Naseem Kourosh
22 December 2014

This year, November 20 marked not only Universal Children’s Day, but also the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a landmark international treaty designed to protect and promote the rights and well-being of children. With 194 parties, the CRC is the most widely-ratified human rights treaty in history. Yet the United States remains one of only three countries that have not ratified it. As the world celebrates the [email protected], the US should at long last join this historic treaty.

The CRC was negotiated and adopted by United Nations member states in 1989 and is considered one of ten core international human rights instruments. It is the first comprehensive instrument that recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of children, sets global standards for their treatment and protection, and promotes their healthy physical and emotional development.

The US has signed but not ratified the CRC. It has, however, ratified two Optional Protocols to the treaty, on the involvement of children in armed conflict and on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography. The protocols were ratified by bipartisan supermajorities in the Senate, but no President has ever submitted the full Convention on the Rights of the Child to the Senate for ratification.

US ratification of the CRC would signal the US’ continuing commitment to children and enhance its credibility and influence on human rights and children’s rights issues. There are both moral and practical reasons why the US should ratify the CRC. Ratification would signal the US’ continuing commitment to children and enhance its credibility and influence on human rights and children’s rights issues. This, in turn, would enable the US to more effectively encourage other nations to improve their record on children’s rights – potentially bettering the lives of millions of children. Ratification would also facilitate national dialogue and action on children’s rights by providing a framework through which policymakers can further strengthen US law.

Given these important benefits, the US’ failure to ratify is perplexing. This is especially so because the US was one of the key negotiators of the CRC text, and many of the rights and standards articulated in the CRC were strongly influenced by US law. It is also surprising given that the two other countries that have failed to ratify are Somalia, which did not have a fully functioning government for two decades, and South Sudan, which only came into existence in 2011. And both of these countries are reportedly taking steps towards ratification. The US, by contrast, has had a stable government for centuries and has long been a leader in promoting human rights and the rule of law, but has not yet moved towards ratification.

Observers note that the US’ failure to ratify may be a result of anxieties over issues like abortion or homeschooling. However, the CRC is silent on abortion, and scores of countries that both permit and outlaw abortion have ratified it without incident. It is also silent on homeschooling, and its provisions are consistent with US laws permitting homeschooling: they recognize the right of the child to education and the right of individuals and entities to establish educational institutions that adhere to a state’s minimum educational standards.

Some have also expressed concern over a treaty provision stating that, in actions concerning children undertaken by courts and other authorities, the “best interests of the child” shall be a primary consideration. But the “best interests” standard is already the norm in US law, and it governs most state proceedings concerning children. In addition, the Convention repeatedly affirms the role of the family, and numerous provisions affirm the rights of parents and promote the child’s development within the context of the family.

Furthermore, the US would likely attach to its ratification a set of reservations, understandings and declarations (RUDs). The US has adhered to this practice in ratifying other human rights instruments, and these RUDs could address concerns regarding unintended consequences of ratification.  

Finally, some have observed that countries that ratify human rights treaties must engage with treaty bodies, and have expressed concern that engagement with the CRC’s treaty body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, may infringe on US sovereignty. Yet these bodies are advisory only; a country submits periodic reports to them and they make observations and recommendations regarding the country’s treaty implementation. While their views provide authoritative interpretations of the treaty, it is left to the country itself to choose how best to comply; these bodies cannot impose laws on the US or other countries.

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Flickr/Gerry Popplestone (Some rights reserved)

School children in Bangladesh. The United States should ratify the CRC to improve its ability to protect children's rights around the world.


Moreover, the US has been engaged for over twenty years with UN committees that monitor treaties it has already ratified. It has also twice been reviewed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding the two Optional Protocols to the CRC, and the reviews went well. This engagement did not in any way compromise US sovereignty. Rather, the reviews provide a mechanism through which the US can evaluate its own progress and consider improvements to its own law. For instance, the first review inspired federal legislation aimed at ending child trafficking in the US. In addition, when the US ratifies a treaty, it can nominate its own citizens to sit on the treaty body, lending US expertise to the development of international human rights norms.

Thus, while concerns regarding ratification do not withstand closer analysis, the costs of non-ratification are significant. The US’ failure to ratify the CRC jeopardizes its claim to be a global leader on children’s rights, diminishes its efficacy in advocating for children abroad, deprives it of helpful opportunities to review its domestic efforts on children’s rights, and prevents it from contributing to the work of the Committee. Ratification would allow the US to avoid these negative outcomes and to more effectively promote the well-being of children at home and abroad.

The 25th anniversary of the CRC presents a unique opportunity for the US to take long-overdue action on this important treaty. It is time for the President to submit the treaty to the Senate, and for the Senate to ratify it. It is time for the US to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights.

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