25 Nov So It Turns Out US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child Would Be Pointless
Internationalists critical of U.S. “sovereigntism” almost always point out that the U.S. is one of only three states in the world that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Karen Attiah is the latest to take up this old talking point in the Washington Post.
The United States is part of an elite trio of non-ratifiers, along with Somalia, a country that is virtually in anarchy and consistently appears in the lowest ranks of countries in terms of human development, and South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which dealt with a fair share of civil conflict. Back in 2008, Obama said that it was “embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land.”
Attiah argues that the rest of world seems to be making lots of progress in improving child welfare, presumably because of the CRC, and the U.S. is falling behind. But this argument buries the lede. Why?
Because even if the U.S. accedes to the CRC, it is almost certainly going to do so without passing new legislation or enacting new programs to live up to the treaty’s obligations. As it has done with other human rights treaties it has ratified, the U.S. will also declare the CRC non-self-executing, which means it cannot be enforced by US courts absent subsequent legislation by Congress or the States. It is highly unlikely that US law or policy will be affected dramatically by joining the CRC if these limitations are imposed.
Rather, the argument for joining the CRC is usually not about changing US policy, but simply about the need for the US to be a member in order to credibly promote and support CRC rights and the interest of children around the world. As an analyst from Human Rights Watch notes in the Economist, “It is awkward when the US tries to promote child rights in other countries—they all remind us that they’ve joined the treaty and we have not.”
If the data Attiah cites is accurate, though, US non-ratification isn’t having much of an impact on whatever benefits the CRC is providing. Of course, it may be the case that US non-ratification is limiting whatever additional benefits US promotion of the CRC as a member would provide, but this seems unlikely.
Of course, if the CRC is unlikely to change US law or policy, why should anyone oppose it? This is indeed a mystery. The best case I can come up with is that CRC opponents do not trust the Congress, the President, or the courts to honor the non-self-executing pledge that the US has imposed on all other human rights treaties. This is not totally unreasonable since some leading scholars have questioned the non-self-execution doctrine in this case. But US courts have not yet shown any interest in forcing human rights treaties into US law against the wishes of the president and Senate, so this fear is somewhat overstated at this stage.
In the end of the day, Attiah’s reporting answers her own headline-question. The US hasn’t ratified the CRC because doing so would not change the status quo much, if at all. US policies domestically will be basically the same with or without the treaty, and (as Attiah points out) the rest of the world will do just fine whether or not the US joins. So US ratification will accomplish pretty much nothing, which is as good a reason as any for why it is not going to happen.