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Rights of the child

United Nations | Controversial international treaty could win U.S. ratification

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

A treaty that enshrines children's rights in international law has languished since the Clinton years because critics say it undercuts parental rights and assaults national sovereignty. But now-with a new Congress, president, and secretary of state who started her career advocating children's rights, and a powerful senator clamoring to review the treaty this month-family advocates are focused again on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Susan Yoshihara, vice president for research of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), says the treaty pushes child autonomy by asserting "that children can be controlled by the state," she said. "They're cutting parents out of it." Children's rights activism-the kind of activism that Hillary Clinton has favored, Yoshihara said, means "children need to be protected from the family."

The treaty (ratified by all UN member states but the United States and Somalia) grants children the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, says the rise of the internet has made the "freedom of information" provision even more dangerous and outdated.

The real test is how the 18-member Committee on the Rights of Children interprets the treaty, which it has called "a living instrument, whose interpretation develops over time." These "independent experts" make General Comments that interpret the treaty but have no force of law-and they may rebuke countries (Britain, for one) that fail to implement their interpretation.

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The committee has interpreted the treaty to say that teenage girls should have "access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, contraception and safe abortion services where abortion is not against the law." The committee also urges countries to ban corporal punishment.

The UN has no way to force any country to follow the convention (evidenced by the fact that countries with poor human-rights records have ratified it). But activists may use it to push policy recommendations: The United Kingdom's Children's Commissioners presented a report that chided the British government for its failure to ban spanking. In the United States the main result is judges who use international law to justify activist rulings.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is giving the Obama administration a March 23 deadline to move toward ratification. UN ambassador Susan Rice expressed support for the treaty during her confirmation hearing but would not agree to Boxer's 60-day timetable.

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