Across the globe, celebrations in honor of Universal Children's Day are taking place. Today marks 25 years since the establishment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the treaty that guarantees the human rights of children worldwide. The treaty is notable for its widespread acceptance; as of this year, every country in the world has ratified it — except the U.S.
Nearing the end of his term, Obama is surely reflecting on the successes and failures of the change he promised. Immigration reform, climate change policy and the fight against global terrorism have seen little movement. On the other hand, shining successes during Obama's tenure include the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. Both victories include the expansion of human rights for vulnerable groups like the uninsured and LGBTQ people. Presidential action on the children's treaty would add to Obama's existing human rights legacy by providing protections for American children. It would also help to reestablish U.S. credibility in global discussions about human rights.
According to a UNICEF report, the treaty has significantly improved the lives of children worldwide. In the U.S. context, it provides a focus on children's needs while simultaneously protecting parental rights.
As a lame-duck president, Obama has nothing to lose politically in taking action on the children's treaty. Initial opposition to the treaty was focused on the use of the death penalty among minors, but this point is now moot given recent changes to U.S. law.
Moreover, opposition claims that the treaty is a threat to national sovereignty can be easily rebuked by an examination of the international treaties that the U.S. does participate in. Case in point is the U.N. Race Convention, which the U.S. signed in 1965, but didn't ratify until 1994. As the Black Lives Matter movement has shown, the U.S. hasn't solved racial injustice now, let alone in 1994. But, by ratifying the Race Convention, the country began the process of critical reflection through diplomatic dialogue.
U.S. participation in human rights mechanisms provides the impetus for important conversations about how to support individual liberties, not undermine national sovereignty. Ratifying the children's treaty wouldn't cause domestic protections to lose force — rather, vulnerable children would gain further protections. Existing U.S. laws — like the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act — and child labor policies would be underscored by international protections included in the children's treaty.
The children's treaty is "continuing to improve the lived realities of children throughout the world," said Dawit Mezmur, chairperson of the U.N. committee that monitors the treaty.
Without a doubt, it will take more than a presidential push to the Senate for ratification of the children's treaty to become a reality. One needs only to look as far the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been languishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for over 35 years. Yet without presidential action, the children's treaty will remain in limbo between the executive and legislative branches forever — a fate perhaps worse than "dying" in committee.
For many years, Somalia and the U.S. were the last two countries in the world not to have ratified the children's treaty. Following Somalia's recent ratification, the U.S. stands alone as the holdout against children's rights. Is this the America President Obama wants to leave to our children?
Evans is an assistant professor and director of the Institute of Human Rights at Emory University.