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U.N. conference will focus on rights, joys, plight of children


In September 2001, the United Nations General Assembly will have a World Conference on Children as a follow-up to the World Summit on Children in 1990. Central to the upcoming conference will be joy at what has happened since the adoption in 1989 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This treaty’s 54 articles spell out for the first time in history the basic economic, political and cultural rights of children. The convention has now been ratified by all of the nations of the earth except Somalia and, alas, the United States.

One of the major U.S. groups assisting in the planning for the United Nations Conference on Children is the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/). As a member of the advisory group to this unit, I receive an amazing array of information on what nations are doing to comply with the obligations they assumed when they pledged to live up to the commitments of the treaty.

Such advances have built on the work of UNICEF, which for 50 years has brought food and medicine to the more than 25 percent of the world’s children who are often needy, sometimes destitute. More than 150 UNICEF country programs work with scores of nongovernmental agencies like Save The Children to urge national legislatures to put into enforceable law the promises their countries made when they ratified the treaty.

A recent study done by Save The Children reviews the progress in six countries -- Ghana, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Sweden and Yemen. The records of these nations are uneven, but for a decade these countries tried to improve the conditions of children. Agencies created in these countries could well flower and transform the lives of children.

Another weapon to induce compliance is the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which regularly monitors the 189 signatory nations. A group of experts on children meet in Geneva to study required periodic reports of the parties to the treaty. The process is far from perfect. Some nations are late, some are not specific in their reports, and, worst of all, there are no legal methods of requiring compliance.

The United Nations has six international committees that monitor the adherence of signatory nations to human rights treaties. This whole system has unfortunately never become widely known except among experts and human rights activists. But through the reports of these supervising entities, now in scores of volumes, the persistent failure of nations that infringe on human rights is now a matter of public record. The shameful conduct of nations that have miserable human rights records will almost inevitably hurt them in the eyes of the world and in the judgment of the corporations that would like to do business in those nations.

Some of the reports of nations that fail to fulfill their promises to children will begin to surface as the U.N. 2000 World Summit on Children approaches. Advocates of the rights of children are preparing to put the spotlight on those nations that neglect their commitments. The Children’s Rights Caucus, which includes the International Catholic Children’s Bureau among its three-dozen members, has a 10-point agenda for the forthcoming U.N. special session on children.

The caucus notes that one-third of all births, some 40 million babies annually, go unreported worldwide with adverse consequences to the children involved. There are 300,000 children required to serve as soldiers. Some 130 million children -- 21 percent of all school-age youngsters in the world -- have no access to basic education. Girls make up 60 percent of that group.

Over 30,000 children die each day from preventable causes, while the HIV/AIDS epidemic has orphaned over 10 million children under the age of 15.

It is, of course, embarrassing in the extreme that the United States has not ratified the convention. Religious and humanitarian organizations in the United States were instrumental in the development of the convention; they were there Nov. 20, 1989, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted this magnificent document on the rights of the child.

Somalia is the only other nation that has not ratified; there is no functioning government in that country.

The Clinton administration from the beginning urged the U.S. Senate to ratify the convention. Vague rumblings that somehow the convention is anti-family have deterred the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Jesse Helms, R-N.C., from advancing the treaty. For strategic reasons, the Clinton administration has not actually sent the treaty to the Senate: This denies senators the opportunity to belittle the treaty and its opponents the platform to mount vehement and organized protests. Furthermore, the White House has expressed a preference that the Convention on the Elimination on All Discrimination Against Women be ratified first. That treaty almost received two-thirds of the necessary vote but was narrowly defeated on the floor.

When the Senate ratifies the convention, the United States will be required to present a full report on its compliance with the promises it has made. Then the entire world will know that in America 13.5 million children live in poverty, 12 million have no health insurance, and 13 children are killed each day by guns.

The emergence of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 reminded the world of the high level of love that humanity has always had for children. The family of nations at the 1990 World Summit on Children pledged billions of dollars to assist children.

The U.N. special session on children scheduled for September 2001 will attract heads of state, as well as representatives of the Holy See, which was the fifth nation to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At that event nations will promise their love to children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child adds the force of law to the power of love. A new and wonderful era in international law may well have arrived.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000