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Monday, July 9, 2012

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Background and Policy Issues

Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

U.S. ratification of the United Nations (U.N.) Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter referred to as CRC or the Convention) may be a key area of focus during the 112th Congress, particularly if the Barack Obama Administration seeks the advice and consent of the Senate. CRC is an international treaty that aims to protect the rights of children worldwide. It defines a child as any human being under the age of 18, and calls on States Parties to take all appropriate measures to ensure that children’s rights are protected—including the right to a name and nationality; freedom of speech and thought; access to healthcare and education; and freedom from exploitation, torture, and abuse. CRC entered into force in September 1990, and has been ratified by 193 countries, making it the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. Two countries, the United States and Somalia, have not ratified the Convention. The President has not transmitted CRC to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification.

Despite widespread U.S. support for the overall objectives of the Convention, policymakers have raised concerns as to whether it is an effective mechanism for protecting children’s rights. The Clinton Administration signed the Convention in February 1995, but did not submit it to the Senate primarily because of strong opposition from several Members of Congress. The George W. Bush Administration opposed CRC and expressed serious political and legal concerns with the treaty, arguing that it conflicted with U.S. laws regarding privacy and family rights. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 focused renewed attention on the possibility of U.S. ratification. The Administration has stated that it supports the goals of the Convention and that any decision to pursue ratification of CRC will be determined through an interagency policy review. Perhaps more than other human rights treaties, CRC addresses areas that are usually considered to be primarily or exclusively under the jurisdiction of state or local governments, including education, juvenile justice, and access to healthcare. Some of these conflicting areas will likely need to be resolved by the executive branch and the Senate before the United States ratifies the Convention.

The question of U.S. ratification of CRC has generated contentious debate. Opponents argue that ratification would undermine U.S. sovereignty by giving the United Nations authority to determine the best interests of U.S. children. Some are also concerned that CRC could interfere in the private lives of families, particularly the rights of parents to educate and discipline their children. Moreover, some contend that CRC is an ineffective mechanism for protecting children’s rights. They emphasize that countries that are widely regarded as abusers of children’s rights, including China and Sudan, are party to the Convention. Supporters of U.S. ratification, on the other hand, hold that CRC’s intention is not to circumvent the role of parents but to protect children against government intrusion and abuse. Proponents emphasize what they view as CRC’s strong support for the role of parents and the family structure. Additionally, supporters hold that U.S. federal and state laws generally meet the requirements of CRC, and that U.S. ratification would strengthen the United States’ credibility when advocating children’s rights abroad.

This report provides an overview of CRC’s background and structure and examines evolving U.S. policy toward the Convention, including past and current Administration positions and congressional perspectives. It also highlights issues for the 112th Congress, including the Convention’s possible impact on federal and state laws, U.S. sovereignty, parental rights, and U.S. family planning and abortion policy. In addition, the report addresses the effectiveness of CRC in protecting the rights of children internationally and its potential use as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

Date of Report: June 2, 2012
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R40484
Price: $29.95

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