November 28, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Why did 192 other nations find ratification and the
Was their ratification routine, or was it a cover for
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
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
that mentioning its
contents would be shocking?
We might turn up illuminating and helpful answers in
conversation about these questions, answers deferred or obscured
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
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
be accomplished in its generous
name and spirit.