Keynote Statement by Kul Chandra Gautam
National Symposium at Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, D.C. 2 June 2009
I feel privileged to join Professor Yang-Hee Lee, the Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, to share with you some international perspectives on why – not just some concerned Americans, but human rights activists all over the world feel – it is high time for the United States of America to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
As a UNICEF staff member, when I travelled around the world, one of the most frequently asked questions to me was, why is it that along with Somalia, the US is the only country in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Rrights of the Child. I could never provide a convincing answer to that question.
So you can imagine how heart-warming it has been for someone like me who has devoted all of his professional life working for the rights and well-being of children around the world, to listen to the lectures and debates yesterday involving so many highly knowledgeable and committed US citizens, and to witness the outpouring of support for the US ratification of the CRC.
Of course, we are here among generally like-minded people, preaching mostly to the already converted. But even among the skeptical and unconverted ones, who would not be touched by Marion Wright Edelman’s inspiring call to action; or by the weight of research and evidence on the relevance of CRC presented by some of the leading academics, advocates and practitioners of child rights in this great country.
Critics and cynics sometimes say that many of us child rights activists are driven or misguided by some naïve, idealistic or unwise motives, or by some self-serving global agenda. For the life of me, I just cannot figure out what could such sinister agenda be?
We were all children once. And most of us have children or grand children, or nephews and nieces of our own.
We may come from different countries and different cultures, but we all share very common hopes and dreams for our children. Whether you are from Africa or Asia, Europe or Latin America, from the hills or the plains, from a rich country or a poor community, we can bet what all of us wish for our children:
A long and healthy life; an ability to learn and earn; to grow to their full human potential in a peaceful, just and prosperous world where they can participate in social and cultural pursuits; not only for the well-being of their own families but hopefully for their community at large.
Isn’t that what we all want for our children?
That is exactly what the Convention on the Rights of the Child seeks to do. In the 21stcentury, that does not sound like a terribly radical proposition. It ought to be a common minimum programme that unites all of humanity.
Yet we know that for some, the word “rights” can be scary, especially when it comes to children.
Throughout human history, people have recognized that children have needs. They need our tender loving care. They need to be protected against disease and malnutrition. They need to be sheltered against abuse and neglect. They need to be provided with opportunities for education and recreation.
But the notion that children have rights, not just needs, is indeed a revolutionary idea of the 20th century.
Barely two centuries ago, the divine right of monarchs, was the only right recognized in most societies. All other “rights” were actually privileges that the Kings and Emperors granted to their subjects as a matter of their benevolence.
Even the most advanced democracy in the world, with the best written constitution, the United States of America, did not consider women and blacks as having equal rights with white men until less than a century ago.
It was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – painstakingly crafted with the guidance of a great American leader, Eleanor Roosevelt, and promulgated by the UN in 1948 – that codified for the first time in human history that all human beings have certain inherent and inalienable rights.
Still, unlike civil and political rights, some socio-economic and cultural rights, including those concerning the well-being of children, were historically seen as aspirational goals rather than basic human rights.
The coming into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was, therefore, a major landmark of historic significance in the evolution of human rights – and indeed of human civilization itself.
The CRC recognizes every child’s right to develop physically, mentally and socially to his or her fullest potential, to express his or her opinions freely, and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future.
Since the CRC came into force, some important new and additional international standards have been adopted to promote, protect and fulfill children’s rights, such as the Optional Protocols to CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, which have actually been ratified by the US.
Thanks to the CRC and its call for child participation, today children are not only seen, but their views and voices are heard in serious public and policy debates.
In many countries children’s parliaments have been established to help children learn and practice democratic and participatory decision-making. To protect and promote child rights, institutions of Ombudsmen and child rights commissions have been established in many countries
In my home country of Nepal, we are right now in the process of drafting a new national Constitution. And in the spirit of the CRC, we are trying to get children’s rights enshrined in the Constitution, incorporating the views of children themselves.
In recent years, children and young people have even attended the G-8 Summits and offered their views to the world’s most powerful leaders.
It has now become a common practice for some of our organizations, like UNICEF, Save the Children and others to ensure that every major meeting they organize on child rights, actually involves some direct child participation. And we have learned from experience that such participation is truly educational and beneficial for both children and adults alike.
To the surprise of many adults, when asked, children and young people often come up with ideas and perspectives that are fresh, creative and more innovative than what the jaded minds of even the wisest adults can imagine.
Coming to the US, this is a nation of extraordinary wealth. Most children in this country are beneficiaries of this affluence. Their parents have jobs that enable them to provide a decent standard of living, health, education and social welfare. Most children live in comfortable homes and safe neighbourhoods; go to decent schools and receive some of the best health care in the world.
The US also has a great constitution and many progressive laws for the protection of children and their well-being. Invoking this, some Americans argue that as provisions of the US constitution and laws are already strong and often superior to what is contained in the CRC, the CRC is unnecessary and undesirable because it might actually lead to lowering the standards of child protection rather than strengthening them.
But as my colleague Yang-Hee Lee will tell you, the experience of other highly developed countries indicates that the genius of CRC is such that it can be relevant and beneficial for allcountries – rich and advanced as well as poor and underdeveloped.
And in the case of the US, there is room for some humility. As we have heard, studies by the Children’s Defense Fund, UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, and others show that compared to the wealth of the US, a shocking number of children continue to lack the basics of life.
According to CDF’s reports, children in America lag behind most industrialized nations on key child indicators. The United States has the unwanted distinction of being towards the bottom of the league among industrialized nations in relative child poverty, in the gap between rich and poor, in teen birth rates, low birth weight, and infant mortality, in child victims of gun violence, and the number of minors in jail.
For many of us outside the US, it is incomprehensible how the richest nation on earth lets every sixth child live in (relative) poverty; how its laws allow a child to be killed by guns every three hours; or how so many children and families can live without basic health insurance.
It is equally difficult for outsiders to understand why a nation that can afford $2 billion dollars a day in military spending; and that can offer a trillion dollar bail-out package to huge Wall Street banks and corporate giants that brought its economy to its knees, cannot rescue its children from sickness, illiteracy, violent crimes and poverty.
Now, let us be honest – just ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child is not going to dramatically change the situation of America’s children. But the CRC would help establish a critical national framework to improve the lives of children, especially those who experience marginalization and discrimination.
The CRC’s framework could help formulate clear goals which officials at all levels of government, private organizations, and individuals can use to shape and implement domestic policies and programs to better meet the needs of children, their families, and communities.
If after ratifying the Convention, the US were to fully comply with its obligations under article 4 which calls for undertaking measures to the maximum extent of its available resources, the situation of children in the US could definitely improve dramatically.
In addition, the CRC’s international reporting requirements would encourage and indeed compel the US to assess the status of its children and develop action plans to ensure crucial improvements, perhaps even learning from the experiences of other countries.
For example, the reporting process under the Optional Protocols to the CRC, both of which the U.S. ratified in 2002, has helped identify strengths and areas where improvement is needed with regard to U.S. efforts to address the issues of the sale and trafficking of children, child prostitution and pornography, as well as involvement of children in armed conflict.
Internationally, U.S. ratification of the CRC would help enhance this nation’s role as a global leader in human rights. As a party to the Convention, the U.S. would be eligible to participate in the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the international body that monitors the CRC’s implementation) and work toward strengthening and encouraging further progress for children in all countries that have ratified treaty.
Now, many opponents of the CRC in America have argued that ratification of the CRC would impose on this country all kinds of terrible obligations that maybe harmful to America and its children and families.
These range from how possible UN interference might compromise the sovereignty of the US and undermine its constitution; to how the CRC might weaken American families and role of parents in bringing up their children; how it might bring about a culture of permissiveness, including abortion on demand, and unrestricted access to pornography; and how it might empower children to sue their parents and disobey their guidance.
All these fears are just imaginary and fanciful. In its website: www.childrightscampaign.org, the US Coalition for CRC has listed some of the common myths and real truths regarding these worries about the possible negative impact on American children.
Such concerns are not unique to America. Many groups in other countries have expressed similar fears from time to time. But we have now had 20 years of experience in over a hundred countries to judge if such concerns have any validity.
Chairman, Yang-Hee Lee will be able to tell us, having reviewed a large number of country reports from rich and poor, liberal as well as conservative countries, following many religious traditions, that such concerns have never been borne in fact and experience.
At this historic juncture, when the whole world is looking to President Barack Obama, with so much hope and expectation of a renewed American leadership to help tackle the major problems facing humanity, I hope we can all press for America to put the survival, development and protection of children at the centre of its national as well as international development agenda.
To their credit, the successive US governments of different political parties in recent decades have been great supporters of child survival globally. There has been commendable bi-partisan support in the US Congress for global child survival programs through USAID, UNICEF and a number of other organizations, including several major PVOs and faith-based organizations represented at this symposium.
But in the eyes of the rest of the world, the United States of America also stands out as a country that has so far failed to ratify the world’s most universally embraced human rights treaty dealing with children – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I do not know how many of you in this audience have actually read the full text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would commend it to you all. It is one of the most progressive, and one of the most balanced and thoughtful treaties that deals with both civil and political rights and social and economic rights of children.
It was written with great care, deliberation and strong participation and leadership of distinguished American scholars and experts. In the decade-long drafting process, the United States made a great contribution in shaping the CRC. But to this day, most U.S. citizens remain unaware of the extraordinary human rights treaty their country helped create.
Since the UN General Assembly adopted it in 1989, CRC became the world’s most rapidly and universally ratified human rights treaty in history. A record 193 States parties have ratified it. Only 2 countries have not done so yet – Somalia and the USA.
Somalia is understandable. As you know, it has been a failed state without an effective government for over 2 decades. But the US does have a functioning government, which claims to be a great champion of human rights in the world. It baffles non-Americans, and even many Americans, as to why the US is reluctant to ratify this Convention.
Not only has the US failed to ratify CRC, but whenever there are important negotiations at the United Nations on various development and human rights issues, and other Member States try to put in a strong reference to child rights and CRC, until last year the US delegation always tried to delete, weaken or water down any such references.
As a senior UNICEF official, I have been witness to many inter-governmental negotiations at which the US delegation was at loggerheads with other Member States on the issue of CRC. I must confess that I found most of the arguments put forward by the US delegates in opposing the CRC rather flimsy, unconvincing and driven by narrow domestic political considerations of the most un-enlightened kind.
Dismissal of the CRC and its principles by some U.S. delegates during negotiations of the outcome document of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2001-2002 was shocking. Their criticism underscored a lack of unified action and advocacy over the years by U.S. proponents of the CRC in addressing incomplete or misleading information about the Convention.
It was very sad for me as a friend of America, who studied at some great American universities, lived and worked in the US for many years, and who is greatly inspired by the ideals of US democracy and commitment to broader human rights, to see my American colleagues, including my American bosses who were Executive Directors of UNICEF – like Jim Grant and Carol Bellamy – deeply frustrated and embarrassed by the US government’s reluctance to join the CRC.
Now, to be fair, there have been many leaders in the US government – including at the highest level, who have been very supportive of the CRC. I want to recall and share with you a most touching episode.
In January 1995, Jim Grant, the then head of UNICEF, well-known and much loved by many of us in this room, was hospitalized with terminal cancer. From his death-bed he wrote to President Bill Clinton, pleading with him, as an American citizen, that the US government sign-on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He died a few days later.
The following month at a memorial service for Jim Grant at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the then First Lady Hillary Clinton came with a message from the President. She said that in response to Jim Grant’s last wish, President Clinton had instructed Madeline Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN, to sign the Convention.
The whole Cathedral erupted in applause at this news, breaking the tradition of an otherwise serene and somber occasion of a memorial service. The following week, Madeline Albright did sign the Convention.
However, fearing that many conservative Senators would not support it, the Clinton administration did not forward the Convention for ratification to the Senate. When President Bush took over, the new administration made it clear that it had no intention whatsoever to pursue ratification of the Convention.
Now that the Barack Obama administration has committed itself to regain the lost American moral leadership in the world, and to follow a more multilateralist approach, and honour US commitment to international conventions, all of us, child rights activists not just in America but all over the world, are hopeful that the US will finally ratify this important Convention.
During last year’s presidential campaign, at Waldon University in Minnesota, Presidential candidate Barack Obama said:
“It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights. I will review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.”
Like all of you, I hope President Obama will keep this campaign promise. I know all of us attending this symposium are eager to help him to do so.
Certainly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should need no reminding of the importance of CRC, having herself been a strong advocate of women’s and children’s rights all her life, and having personally conveyed to the whole world some 14 years ago President Clinton’s solemn commitment on behalf of the US Government to ratify the Convention. The new US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice is known to be equally committed to the CRC.
This national symposium convened by the US Coalition for the ratification of CRC, involving so many prominent American civil rights organizations, child rights-oriented NGOs, religious groups, and academic institutions could not have come at a better time to re-energize the campaign which was largely dormant during the years of the Bush administration.
The very essence of human rights, as Martin Luther King Jr. used to remind us, is to protect the weak and vulnerable, the disempowered and disenfranchised, from the tyranny of the strong and the powerful.
Children cannot vote, and their voices are not heard in the councils of power where policies are made and resources are allocated. Protecting their rights is, therefore, the obligation of all enlightened adults, and of all democratic states.
In a very fundamental sense, human rights begin with the rights of children. And a society that does not invest to the maximum extent of its available resources for their survival, protection and development, really fails to honour its human rights obligations.
We know passing a law or a Convention alone does not solve all problems. But please do not under-estimate the power of the message that the new US administration would send to the world by ratifying the CRC.
To many people in the world, the United States of America is not just a country, it represents an ideal – the ideal of democracy, of the rule of law, respect for human rights, and a certain global moral leadership.
That ideal was deeply compromised and the reputation of the US tarnished around the world when the previous administration chose to follow an arrogant, unilateralist approach, disparaging its allies and the United Nations, withdrawing its support for the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, essentially abandoning its commitments under the Geneva Conventions, even condoning torture – all in the name of national security and fighting terrorism.
President Obama’s decision to close down Guantanamo, and his emphatic statement that the US can both ensure its people’s security and uphold the values of human rights and decency on which this country was founded, has been well received around the world.
I can assure you that there would be a similarly positive global reaction if President Obama and the US Senate showed a similarly bold and enlightened leadership in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Besides and beyond our advocacy for the US ratification of CRC, we need to ensure that collectively we all give real priority to implementation of practical programmes for the well-being of children, here in the US and around the world.
The well-being of children is everybody’s business. It cannot just be left to a few government departments or child-oriented NGOs. That is why I am so glad this symposium has participants from many walks of life.
Effective partnership is key to dramatic progress for children. In my long experience working for child rights around the world, I have often found one special model of partnership that has produced great results. It involves a tripartite partnership involving governments; NGOs, including religious, faith-based and inter-faith organizations, and international agencies such as UNICEF.
The combination can vary from country to country, and indeed from community to community. But strong partnership is key to great success.
Seeing a large number of faith-based and inter-faith organizations, at this symposium, I would like to make a pitch for an idea that some of us have been working for a number of years, namely A World Day of Prayer and Action for Children.
While prayer and action for children are certainly needed every day, a designated World Day of Prayer and Action could enable the world’s religious communities to inspire other stakeholders to take united action to protect the rights and promote the wellbeing of children.
To harness this great potential, it is proposed to observe A World Day of Prayer and Action for Children every year coinciding with Universal Children’s Day on the 20th of November, which is also the anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if on that day, all over the world, in every community, in all churches and mosques, temples and synagogues, and other places of worship, prayer services were held on a common theme that relates to the wellbeing of children and protection of their rights?
For example, here in the US, prayers and activism could focus initially on ratification of the CRC as a common theme, until the CRC is actually ratified.
To accompany the prayers, one or two common but specific and measurable actions could be carried out for the survival, development and protection of children, nation-wide or region-wide, in all places of worship or in their vicinity. Depending on local circumstances, such prayers and action may be held by particular religious denominations, as well as by interfaith groups, as appropriate.
Specific activities could include, for example, immunizing children against infectious diseases; combating HIV/AIDS; educating parents on the importance of early child development; campaigns against gun violence or teen pregnancies; raising awareness of child rights; or addressing climate change, and action to promote religious harmony, peace education, ethics education, etc.
The themes for prayer and action selected each year would be worthy of universal respect, and not be partisan, political or divisive. In developing countries, internationally agreed human development goals for children, such as the Millennium Development Goals, could be the main focus of such action.
A World Day of Prayer and Action for Children would , therefore be, a day of solidarity among religious and secular organizations united by their common aspiration and shared vision of a world in which all our children will grow up to their full human potential, with their rights to safety, security, integrity and dignity honoured in all societies.
If such a Day were commemorated with some publicity here in the US, it could not only make a positive impact in the lives of children here, but could also send a powerful signal to the whole world that religions can be a unifying force for promoting the rights and wellbeing of children, and in imparting among children appreciation for diversity, solidarity and interdependence.
That would be a perfect anti-dote to the current abuse of religions in many parts of the world for promoting fanaticism, obscurantism and even terrorism in the name of religion.
I am aware that quite a few of the organizations represented here already have certain days designated for prayer and action for children and other worthy causes. Those days need not be discontinued or replaced, because, as I said, we want every day to be the day of the child.
But given the symbolism of united action, our common focus on getting the CRC ratified in the US, and our solidarity with children all over the world, I would urge all of you to seriously consider finding ways to join in the world-wide celebration of a common World Day of Prayer and Action for Children every year in November, starting this year 2009.
Our colleague Meg Gardinier has more information and brochures on the proposed Day of Prayer and Action. She will soon be developing a simple and user-friendly website, and will advise us all. Meanwhile, you can access more information at: http://www.gnrc.net/en/initiatives/prayerday.html
Let me conclude with the hope and prayer, that with the strategies we are devising at this symposium, and with your energetic efforts, the US will soon ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
With the backing of the world’s most powerful and influential State, and its citizens, the CRC can become a bulwark for the defense of children’s rights and a beacon of hope for the world’s children.
Yes, the world has many other problems, and the US has many other priorities. But most other problems can wait, children cannot. They have only one chance to grow – and we all have a duty to help them survive and thrive.
After all, there is no nobler cause than the survival, development and protection of children, who today represent half the world’s population, but all of its future.
(Mr. Gautam, a citizen of Nepal, is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF )