Emory Report
November 28, 2005
Volume 58, Number 12


Emory Report homepage  

November 28, 2005
What we can do for children

Martin Marty is Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Two Octobers ago, former President Jimmy Carter posed a question and issued a challenge to the students and faculty of Emory’s School of Law: Could not one law school devote itself to addressing why the United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child? Emory’s law school took up the challenge, and its Center for the Study of Law and Religion invited President Carter back to keynote October’s conference, “What’s Wrong with Rights for Children?”

Did something have to be wrong? Evidently U.S. governmental leaders and some of their constituencies thought so. That was not the case for 192 other nations; they ratified the convention that had passed in 1989. The United States was a major drafter of the document, but is now a lonely non-ratifying nation. What about other non-signing nations? Easy: There is only one, Somalia, which has no effective government that can sign treaties and covenants.

Most of the contributors to the October conference regarded the United States’ failure to ratify to be a diplomatic mistake, a misreading of the document, or the product of an overheated domestic atmosphere, all of which combined to derail the intended result: the ratification and employment of the convention in domestic life and international affairs.

If it was indeed a failure, we can find guidance for what happens in the aftermath from the essay “To Err is Human,” by the late Dr. Lewis Thomas. He said, “The misreading is not the important error; it opens the way. The next step is the crucial one. If the investigator can bring himself to say, ‘But even so, look at that!’ then the new finding, whatever it is, is ready for snatching. What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.”

Many would find themselves in the company of those who would like to “snatch” something from the debris of this convention and make some sort of progress. In his conference keynote address, the usually hopeful Nobel laureate Carter described in one word the possibility of the United States joining the rest of the world in ratifying the convention: “hopeless.” Period.

But there are no periods for President Carter, or for the conference planners. (I delivered the closing keynote, and I don’t like to put periods on projects, either.) Energies were directed instead into what the United States should do now.

So, what is wrong with the convention, in the eyes of its opponents? Originally the United States hesitated because we wanted to protect some of our states’ rights to execute children under 18 years of age. That is changing as laws and policies are being altered.

Next is the abhorrence by many of treaties (for example, the Kyoto Protocol on the environment) in a time when we pronounce ourselves above all other nations. Rather than gripe about those two blockages, the Emory conferees concentrated on cultural, social and, of course, religious opposition.

I have devoted much attention in recent decades to modern religious fundamentalisms, ethno-nationalisms, discussions of biomedical issues and controversies over American civil life. In every case—beginning with the first one, obviously—we found that, when anything approaching religion is introduced, the temperature of the room increases, tempers flare, both sides “take no prisoners,” and compromise is hard to come by. We simply have to recognize that no one has done more to organize opposition—opposition that keeps presidents from forwarding the convention and keeps senators from voting for it—than religious leaders.

Here the critics tend to claim that their biblical world view and Christian tradition say all that need be said about the rights of the human person and (less directly but just as assuredly) the rights of the youngest, the child. Here the claim is made that religious freedom is the gift of the biblical people, Jews and especially Christians.

Yet to “open the way” and get beyond the religious, social and political objections, we need to research and converse further to find answers to questions like these:

Why did 192 other nations find ratification and the convention attractive?

Was their ratification routine, or was it a cover for their hypocrisy—because we all know that the human rights record and especially the children’s rights records in their nations fall horrendously far short of what goes on in the United States?

Or: Did they conceive that they could achieve something with respect to children’s rights because they were, by signing on, joining a community where there could be exemplarity, encouragement and mutuality?

Or, again: Might some of them care more about children and their rights than do citizens and their representatives and government in the United States?

To these we might add other questions:

If the convention is such a creative document, and if it has the usefulness advocates claim for it, why is it not more frequently cited in courts around the world (or referred to in legal arguments among nations that have not ratified it)?

Is it irrelevant, redundant?

Are the rights it would help assure simply taken for granted in legal practices in some nations, or so apparently inhibiting or intrusive that mentioning its contents would be shocking?

We might turn up illuminating and helpful answers in conversation about these questions, answers deferred or obscured during arguments among citizens who have staked out strong pro or con positions.

President Carter encouraged conferees not to be deterred by the formal setbacks to ratification attempts. In fact, he urged them to help the United States enlarge “rights” concerns beyond the usual—civil liberties and free speech—and work to free all people from perils such as victimage, war, pestilence, hunger and lack of shelter.

In the Christian gospels, while the rights of the child are not discussed, the intrinsic value of the child in the image of God and an agent or exemplar of the quest for God’s Kingdom is clear. The child is vulnerable, marginal, in need of advocates for her liberty, and thus a stand-in for others marginalized and vulnerable, the kind of people to whom President Carter pointed. And the convention is a treaty he would like to see ratified—against all hope.

Meanwhile, if the United States keeps erring by failing to support it, Carter and many others will keep pointing at all that can be accomplished in its generous name and spirit.