National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 26, 2003

Winning a Magna Carta for children


In 1990 the United Nations created a new world voice for children. It promulgated the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To the delight of the world the convention was rapidly ratified by every nation on the earth except Somalia and, alas, the United States.

This Magna Carta for children gave rights for the first time in history to the 40 percent of the human race that is under the age of 18. Those rights center on food, health, education and the family. The 192 nations that have ratified the convention have promised and pledged that they will do all in their power to bring the guarantees of the 40 articles of this document to all of the minors within their jurisdictions.

The vast network of nongovernmental organizations that monitor compliance with the convention are now beginning to plan for the 15th anniversary of this remarkable development unparalleled in history. Some effects of the convention are astonishing. In South Africa, for example, the rights of children were deemed so important by the government that the legislature decreed that all mothers of children under 12 should be released from jail because the best interest of children dictated this result. There is also a new all-African charter on the rights of the child that allows minors to participate in the discussion of their economic and social rights.

In Latin America there is now a special rapporteur, or investigator, on the rights of children. There also exists in many nations a growing awareness of discrimination against girls going to school. Across the globe there are 42 million fewer girls in school than boys. This practice has been described as “gender apartheid.” The convention acts as a catalyst, prompting, for example, a cabinet position for children in Bangladesh. Some countries have created ombudsmen for children.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child sits in Geneva and monitors the compliance of each nation. One can see that a new child-centered jurisprudence is being developed.

But it is also clear that the status of children is not always being improved even in highly developed countries. In the United Kingdom 3.9 million children live in poverty compared with 1.4 million in 1980. France and Japan continue to discriminate against illegitimate children in clear violation of the convention. Several nations disregard their obligations under the convention, which requires special care for disabled children.

The United States poses a problem and indeed a scandal for the whole world by its refusal to ratify the convention. President Clinton signed the document and urged the Senate to approve the treaty but a tiny group of conservatives somehow claim that the convention is anti-family. They are not deterred by the fact that the Holy See was the fifth nation in the world to ratify the convention.

The children of the United States would benefit if the United States ratified the treaty. America then would be required to report on its compliance at regular intervals to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. Its reports would be monitored and publicized by the United Nations. The process of review would bring to the attention of the whole human family the failings of the United States. The world would know, for example, that there are more children under the poverty line in America than in any other industrialized country. The committee would also point out that the United States is the only developed nation that executes persons who committed a capital crime when they were under 18. The U.N. group would also call to the notice of the world the fact that over 50 percent of all African-American children go to schools that are segregated or racially imbalanced.

In the absence of that moral force, nongovernmental groups in the United States need to be super-active. Among the best agencies for children in the United States, the Children’s Defense Fund has a special place. Founded and developed by Marion Wright Edelman, the Children’s Defense Fund has just celebrated its 30th birthday. This agency, which has never taken government funding, has a unique credibility.

The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “The test of the morality of society is what it does for its children.”

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 2003

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