The United States and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The position of the United States towards the Convention

November, 2005

The United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world that have failed to ratify the Convention. Although the United States signed the Convention on February 16, 1995, the treaty has never been submitted to the U.S. Senate and the United States has stated that it has no plans to ratify the convention.

During negotiations for the Special Session in February 2001, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Southwick stated that "it is misleading and inappropriate to use the Convention as a litmus test to measure a nation's commitment to children. As a non-party to the Convention, the United States does not accept obligations based on it, nor do we accept that it is the best or only framework for developing programs and policies to benefit children."

The United States hasn't ratified the Convention

Some critics in the United States have lobbied heavily against ratification of the convention, claiming that the convention will undermine parental authority, interfere with parents' ability to raise and discipline their children, and will elevate the rights of children above the rights of parents. In reality, the convention repeatedly refers to the importance of the parent-child relationship, and requires governments to respect the rights and duties of parents.

The most significant contradiction between the convention and U.S. law and practice is in relation to the death penalty. The Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the use of the death penalty for offences committed before the age of eighteen. However, twenty-two U.S. states allow executions of juvenile offenders, and currently there are eighty-two juvenile offenders on death row in the United States. In the last five years, nine executions of juvenile offenders were carried out in the United States, and two more are scheduled in the next month. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran are the only other states to have carried out such executions in the last three years.

During the negotiations for the Special Session, the European Union, supported by numerous other governments, sought the inclusion of language prohibiting the use of the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed by children. The United States, joined only by Iran, rejected the proposal.

The United States has other problems with the Convention

Traditionally, the United States has recognized civil and political rights (such as the rights to expression, assembly and due process), but not economic, social and cultural rights (such as the right to education, health care and an adequate standard of living). The convention includes both. Also, the United States also argues that many of the issues addressed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child lie primarily within the jurisdiction of the states, rather than the federal government. For example, in the United States, individual states are responsible for education, and for setting laws related to the administration of juvenile justice.

Federalism in the U.S. should not be a bar to ratifying the Convention. Other countries with federal systems have ratified the Convention, including Brazil, Germany and Mexico. The U.S. may also adopt a reservation or understanding to address this issue, and in fact, has done so in the past in relation to other international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).