Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Treaty Ratification: Why Should the United States Ratify International Treaties?

Earlier this year, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal) began urging the Obama administration to ratify a 20-year old international agreement creating a full range of human rights for children, it revived discussions about what role the promotion of human rights should play in U.S. foreign policy. The answer is simple: as the world’s lone superpower, the U.S. has the rare and important ability to influence the behaviors of governments and people around the globe.

Although the U.S. has played a key role in establishing global human rights standards – the UN Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) was inspired in part by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, and partially drafted by his wife, Eleanor [1] – the country’s credibility has been compromised because of its role in recent human rights violations. With this year marking the 60th Anniversary of the UDHR, and it being the first time the U.S. has held a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the timing couldn’t be better for the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to universal human rights by ratifying international treaties. [2] To date, the U.S. has failed to ratify several fundamental international agreements intended to protect human rights, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (commonly known as “CEDAW”) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides a global framework for the protection of children by vesting them with specific civil, social, cultural, political, and economic rights, is yet another example of a human rights agreement the U.S. has failed to ratify. Although the Treaty was signed by the Clinton administration in 1995, it has not yet been ratified – an important distinction as “signing” treaties is akin to a symbolic gesture, while “ratification” gives teeth to the agreement by creating legal obligations. Despite publicly stating its intention to ratify, the U.S. still stands with Somalia as one of the only two countries to not ratify the Treaty, while worldwide atrocities against children – including enslavement, torture, abuse, and abduction – continue daily.

While some believe that, under the Supremacy Clause, the Treaty would trump all federal laws and undermine parental authority and influence over a child’s development, in actuality, the Treaty would not override the Constitution. For one, U.S. ratifications of international treaties are often made with explanations or caveats (in what are called Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations or “RUDs”) to acceptance. If the U.S. agrees with the general principle of the Treaty, but is troubled by a certain provision, it may clarify or modify those areas of the Treaty before ratification. Furthermore, the Treaty is not self-executing – it cannot be “automatically implemented without legislative action,” giving Congress another opportunity to clarify what the Treaty will and will not mean for U.S. law.

Regarding parental rights, the CRC clearly recognizes the principle that parents “have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child,” and that parties to the Treaty are merely rendering “appropriate assistance” to parents performing their child-rearing responsibilities. In other words, ratifying the Treaty will not give the UN authority to control U.S. policies on children and there is no language in the CRC dictating how American parents are to raise their children. In fact, the CRC frequently emphasizes the vital role that parents play and recognizes the importance of a loving family atmosphere for the proper upbringing of a child.
Some opponents to ratification purport that, under the Treaty, parents will no longer be able to spank their kids.

To those who understand the language of the Treaty and the realities of its implementation, this argument is easily dismissed. At no point does the text of the Treaty refer to spanking or corporal punishment of children. What it does prohibit, is “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It also protects children from physical and mental violence, injury and abuse, neglect, and maltreatment or exploitation. Each country may interpret the Treaty as it so chooses, and many have defined such violence as beatings so severe that they leave visible marks on the body.

Overseas, the implementation of laws in furtherance of the Treaty has been largely successful. Recent reports from many of the 193 countries that have ratified the Treaty indicate that much progress is being made as a result. In countries such as Oman, Niger, Romania, and Bangladesh, governments have implemented laws forbidding children in armed conflicts, combating child poverty, and improving the health and well-being of children. The results have varied, from decreases in infant mortality rates to significant progress in the area of education.

Contrary to claims that U.S. children already enjoy the rights set forth in the Treaty, many American kids still live in poverty, and nearly a million children suffer from child abuse or neglect each year. Though the U.S. may not face all of the challenges seen in other countries, ratifying the Treaty will lend support to those countries and encourage the addressing of challenges we do still face.

In light of these considerations, it is not difficult to see why the U.S. should ratify the CRC. Not only will ratification boost U.S. credibility overseas, but it will demonstrate our commitment to ensuring the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, worldwide. Global leadership, after all, is a privilege that we must not take for granted.

-Jacy Youn, International Justice Project Legal Intern

[1] Catherine Powell, Human Rights at Home: A Domestic Policy Blueprint for the New Administration, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, Oct. 2008, available at http://www.acslaw.org/files/C%20Powell%20Blueprint.pdf
[2] Statement of Congressman John Lewis (GA), On the Reintroduction of Recommitment to International Human and Civil Rights Resolution, May 7, 2009

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