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Advocates call for welcome for U.N. child rights document

NCR Staff
Kansas City, Mo.

Child rights advocates must take the debate over the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child from the religious right and other conservative opponents and debunk myths that the treaty infringes on U.S. sovereignty and parental rights, said participants at a conference on the treaty.

“It’s stranger than fiction that certain faith groups have crusaded against the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said the Rev. Robert Meneilly, the retired pastor of a large Presbyterian church in Prairie Village, Kan. “It both frustrates and embarrasses me that small, outspoken, fundamentalist groups have been successful in deterring the Senate from ratifying the convention.”

The conference to discuss the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and issues related to its ratification was held here March 31-April 2. It was sponsored by a coalition of education, faith and peace groups, including the Loretto Network for Nonviolence.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets minimum international standards for the treatment of children, ensuring their safety, survival and development. Since the treaty was adopted by the United Nations in November 1989, 191 countries have ratified the convention -- every country in the world with the exception of Somalia, which has no government, and the United States.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Cynthia Price Cohen, founder and executive director of the New York-based ChildRights International Research Institute. Cohen, who participated in drafting the convention throughout the 1980s, said that in trips to Europe she is repeatedly asked why the United States has not ratified the child rights convention -- “They ask, ‘What do you have in common with Somalia?’ ”

The United States signed the convention in 1995. It now awaits Senate approval and presidential ratification. However, President Clinton has yet to send the treaty to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for consideration.

Joseph Mettimano, deputy director for public policy with the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, said resistance to the treaty in the Senate -- including from Foreign Relations Committee chair Jesse Helms -- and “public confusion on the issue” are behind the delay.

“The treaty’s opponents base their opposition largely on unsubstantiated claims regarding threats to national sovereignty and interference in the parent-child relationship,” Mettimano told conference participants. “In many cases the convention’s opponents unwittingly criticize provisions of the treaty that were added by the Reagan administration in the drafting process in an effort to reflect the rights American citizens have in the Constitution.”

Treaty opponents, including the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and the National Center for Home Education, claim ratification will lead to unlimited government interference in family life. Among other objections, they say that articles guaranteeing children’s rights to expression and information will prevent parents from denying children access to harmful influences like pornography, and that the right to privacy will permit abortion without parental notice.

A central misconception is that the convention is enforceable against individual parents, said Susan Kilbourne, assistant director of ChildRights International. The convention “is intended to set standards for governmental policies regarding children,” said Kilbourne, who, unable to attend the conference, provided the text of her speech. “It is a policy framework, not a code of parental conduct. … The civil and political rights, such as the freedoms of expression, religion and association, and the right to privacy, are protections from governmental intrusions -- not parental guidance.”

Kilbourne joined other speakers who emphasized that the convention places great importance on the role of parents, citing their rights and responsibilities in the preamble and 12 articles. In addition, Kilbourne wrote, “The convention’s monitoring body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, has been consistently supportive of parents and the importance of family. For example, high rates of abortion and teen pregnancy, the ease of access to harmful or inappropriate media, and the negative effects of divorce and family breakdown have all been subjects of concern for the committee. The committee’s comments for at least one country even refer to a distressing lack of sufficient parental guidance.”

Speakers also pointed out that the convention is strictly neutral on the subject of abortion -- noting that the Vatican was the fifth state to ratify the treaty.

Mettimano disputed the idea that the treaty infringes on U.S. sovereignty. The convention is “non-self-executing,” meaning that the treaty does not directly become part of U.S. law, but requires implementing legislation. “Our elected officials decide where, when and how these provisions will be met,” he said. “Secondly, there’s no enforcement mechanism in this treaty. So you tell me where the sovereignty issue is.”

While nations that have ratified the treaty agree to submit periodic reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, there are no sanctions for noncompliance. Nations who fail to implement the treaty will only face public embarrassment from a negative evaluation submitted by the committee to the U.N. General Assembly.

However, the committee’s scrutiny has been effective in encouraging numerous nations to use the treaty to promote the welfare of children, speakers said. For example, Mettimano said, Rwanda moved children out of adult detention centers into special juvenile institutions; Belgium and Germany extended their national jurisdictions in cases of child prostitution and pornography; and Sri Lanka reformed laws relating to child abuse, child labor and adoption.

Mettimano said that one of the areas in which informed opponents to the convention are on firmer ground is that of concerns over states’ rights. A number of provisions fall under states’ jurisdiction in the United States, including articles relating to capital punishment, adoption and education. Such issues would be worked out in the ratification process, typically by the United States taking a reservation to a particular article of the convention, Mettimano said.

Cohen encouraged participants to urge their state governments to officially support ratification, as some states have already done, including New York. “If you had every state saying we will conform our laws when the time comes, it would make a big difference,” she said. “Help the senators realize there is an atmosphere of welcome.”

Mettimano said that activists should focus their efforts not on pressuring Clinton to send the convention to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- “it could be killed on the spot, and that would be the end of it” -- but on building public support that would make ratification possible. “Let’s work on getting an environment where it’s going to be well-received,” he said.

That would involve not only combating misconceptions spread by opponents, but simply making the public aware of the issue, Mettimano said. “I would say easily that 95 percent of the American public doesn’t even know this treaty exists,” he said. “And the small percent that do know it exists have bad information. Put your focus on raising awareness, talk about the treaty’s virtues and debunk the many misconceptions and myths about the treaty.”

He encouraged use of mass media to get higher profile publicity, a thought echoed by participants who watched at the conference an anti-United Nations video produced by the Eagle Forum. “I’m convinced we’re fighting a losing battle because we’re working on an individual basis,” said one participant at an ecumenical discussion April 2. “Why couldn’t we ask UNICEF to come up with a counter video? That reaches many more people than you and me working in our local groups.”

Ahmed El-Sherif, president of the American Moslem Council, agreed. “It takes education, it takes mass media, it takes opening dialogue so that scare tactics will not work,” he said.

About 40 people picketed the conference April 1, carrying signs calling for the United States to get out of the United Nations and denouncing U.N. “interference with our children.” According to the Rev. Emmanuel Cleaver, a Methodist pastor and former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., announcements were made on a local Christian radio station asking people to come out to protest. “They don’t have any idea of the intricacies of this issue,” Cleaver said. “They’ve just been told that we are trying to take the rights of parents away.” In 1998, during Cleaver’s administration, Kansas City passed a resolution supporting the convention.

“If they were armed with information, I think they would probably be a great force for justice,” Cleaver said of the protesters. “Truth becomes the first victim. They don’t have to believe what we believe, I just want them to have the truth of what we believe.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000