You Know International Law Is Getting Some Traction When . . .

by Peter Spiro

. . . your fourth-grader is being taught about the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Mine had a class last week in which the class was divided into groups, each one given a provision of the treaty, about which they had to develop responses and questions.  His group got article 27, recognizing a child’s right to an adequate standard of living, including with respect to food, clothing, and housing.  Their main question: why is it that the so many children don’t have these things even though the treaty says they should?  Good question!

My son goes to a lefty Quaker school in the Northeast; this kind of lesson plan is no doubt still unusual elsewhere in the US.  (The elementary school teacher that starts teaching the CRC, say, here, would probably be out of a job.)  But it may be a more routine part of primary schooling in Europe, and the UN is otherwise starting to make international law and human rights accessible to the junior set (check out this excellent short, for example).  It’s only one step from trick-or-treating for UNICEF to assimilating a kind of cultural familiarity with international law.  In a jokey sort of way, my son turned around that afternoon and claimed that the CRC gave him a right to an afternoon snack, in the same way that kids will sometimes claim they have a constitutional right to something that’s being (rightfully) denied them.  International law will grow up with this generation.

10 Responses

  1. Response…
    And wait until your child wants to speak, listen, and associate in ways that you may not prefer, and then brings up articles 13-16 (but we can’t control them anyway, nor perhaps should we).

  2. Maybe they skipped those parts in the class (margin of appreciation and all that).

  3. It would certainly be a change from when I first studied the CRC in a “Children and the Law” class at a US law school and my fellow students were horrified by the Convention! Withouth a doubt one of my “culture shock” moments.

  4. Response…
    Yes, imagine a world where each child has dignity and her own rights!
    Apparently every country has except the United States.

  5. Jordan:
    I feel like it’s not that the United States doesn’t recognize children as worthy of dignity and rights, as much as it doesn’t agree with Europe on the form of those rights. The CRC is fine as a set of aspirational ideals, but I’m unconvinced all of those ideals should be codified as legally-enforceable rights in every signatory country. (If we’re not going to make them legally-enforceable rights, then they’re just aspirational, right?)
    For instance, many states in the U.S. have state constitutional rights to an education; some even guarantee the right to a “high-quality” education. When parents have attempted to sue to enforce those state constitutional rights, courts generally throw up their hands and say as long as the state offers publicly-funded education, that’s good enough. Do we want courts making decisions about what qualifies as a “high-quality” education? Going back to the CRC, Article 28 requires State Parties to design their education systems to develop a child’s “personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.” What does a lawsuit to enforce that right look like?
    More generally, I have concerns that these sorts of conventions are basically first world problems; no one is seriously talking about enforcing the right of a child to an education in Somalia or Sudan, or even places like Georgia.
    At least some countries that have the means to do so seem to try to provide these kinds of protections and benefits just to satisfy public opinion. To paraphrase Marge Simpson, “You just shouldn’t use the law to nag.”
    This is not to say I don’t think international conventions and international law have a place, but it’s hard for me to equate “let’s all prohibit genocide, child soldiers and mistreatment of prisoners of war” with “let’s all create a right to an opportunity for all capable children to attend college.” (Article 28(2).) These seem to me to be qualitatively different propositions.

  6. re “no-one is seriously talking about enforcing the rights of children to an education in Sudan” etc:

    a google search will turn up plenty more…

  7. Response…
    They are different, and yet nearly all states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.  Treaty drafters should obviously be more careful with respect to words and phrases used.
    In connection with Article 29 (not 28), it should be read in conjunction with article 28 — “with a view to achieving this right [to education] progressively.”
     Article 24(1) with respect to health care is interesting in view of financial resources in various countries: “States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health….”  My insurance company does not pay for such a right for me.  However, perhaps there is some wiggle room in the word “attainable,” but even this word could have a very broad meaning.

  8. The CRC has almost zero support in the U.S. government. President Clinton signed it, but neither he, Bush, nor Obama have bothered to send it to the Senate for advice and consent, knowing that it has no chance of being ratified. Even CEDAW has had a hearing or two over the years!

  9. mpollard:
    Sure, there are international aid organizations that try to ensure access to education, and I think the article you linked is along those lines. To my mind, international aid organizations fall more under the “aspiration” framework than the “legally enforceable right” framework, though. To me, a legally enforceable right under an international treaty at least implies a threat of international coercion or force if the state party signatory doesn’t comply with it. Exhorting international aid NGOs isn’t the same thing. After all, the NGOs aren’t bound by the treaty, the state party is.

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  1. […] Admittedly, at a “lefty Quaker school in the Northeast”: “You know international law is getting some traction when your fourth-grader is being taught about the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” [Peter Spiro, OJ] […]