Julia Steiny: Only America Refuses to Sign the Children’s Rights Treaty

(Photo: Ilyas Ahmed, UN Photo)

(Photo: Ilyas Ahmed, UN Photo)

By Julia Steiny

I can’t imagine a clearer set of ideals for the modern world than those set forth in the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The document’s 41 Articles are the conditions of a treaty among nations aiming to focus governments on creating healthy conditions for children.  It’s a monument to idealism.  And it’s particularly relevant now because it spawned a Child-Friendly Cities movement that is very active in some places.

It’s also relevant because only one nation is not part of the treaty, and that would be us, the United States. More on that in a moment.

High school history classes make us think of treaties as documents that carve up post-war territories or establish the details of trade alliances.  This one is aspirational.  It addresses the question: What would the conditions of young people’s lives be like if all nations had it right?

For over a decade, the United Nations coordinated the work of international committees negotiating the Convention’s specifics.  Portions were lifted directly from the U.S. Constitution, a document admired internationally.  In drafting it, the world community came together for the sake of kids.

A passage from its Preamble says:  “The child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society and be brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”

Today, the Convention remains the most widely accepted international treaty in history.

One by one, 194 countries signed on. 

And last year the treaty celebrated its 25th anniversary as Somalia, one of the last two hold-outs, came aboard.

God knows Somalia is not a model of being kind to its children.  Among other provisions that Somalia disregards is Article 36, which states “Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare.”  Somalia, while by no means unique, exploits children sexually and for their labor, and conscripts them into deadly wars.  The UN has been working there to ease children’s plight.  But the point is that signing on only commits the nation to an ideal, however distant.  The Convention is not a contract and has no legal authority.  Its authority is moral.

So what makes the U.S. balk? 

Here’s the Article that was the deal-breaker for both Somalia and the U.S.:

“Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”

Opposing this provision seems particularly sad as the U.S. is finally making some effort to curb its famously huge prison population.  The 1990 faith in the efficacy of punishment is only just now starting to unravel.  For the record, no evidence supports punishment, either as a way of teaching community-appropriate behavior or as a deterrent.

To be sure, some dangerous people, including youth, need to be kept out of the mainstream until we can trust them.  But even here, in our famously punitive country, courts are beginning to agree that it’s just too early to write off and kill kids 17 and younger.  In recent years the Supreme Court, as well as state courts, have been chipping away at the penalties for serious juvenile crime.  Harsh mandatory minimal sentencing is becoming less mandatory and left more to the discretion of judges.  States have fallen out of love with burgeoning prison budgets and so are willing to re-think their practices.

Like Somalia, the U.S. has flaws.  But right now would be an excellent time to embrace kids’ well-being and sign on to a set of healthy ideals.

Granted, the process for the U.S. to sign a treaty is cumbersome, and in today’s political insanity it’s probably impossible.  But our refusal to join speaks volumes about our national apathy towards children.  Only good lives in that treaty.  America’s signature now could help reestablish our nation’s optimism, idealism and inclusiveness.  We could use the morale boost.

Even in our divisions, kids seem like they could unify us.  Heck, if Somalia can stand up for ideals, so can we.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny