October 31 , 2005
‘Hopeless’ UN convention on children draws Carter’s support
BY April Bogle and Mary Loftus
Former President Jimmy Carter pledged his support to help secure U.S. ratification of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—despite declaring it a nearly hopeless cause—during a conference on children’s rights hosted by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), Oct. 20–21.
“Let me be blunt about it,” Carter said. “I don’t see any chance in the near future, maybe in the lifetime of some of us, for the United States to ratify the UN Convention unless there is a provision in it of non-applicability to the United States,” Carter said. He delivered the opening keynote address at the conference, “What’s Wrong with Rights for Children?,” to an audience of 500 that over flowed Tull Auditorium in the School of Law.
During the question-and-answer session, Carter acknowledged, “I would like very much to see it get ratified ... and I’d be very glad to help with the campaign, by the way.” But even without ratification, he said, Americans could and should help to make many of the convention’s promises real for children. Particularly promising, in Carter’s view, were its concerns for children’s social, cultural and economic rights.
“He did anything but throw the proverbial wet blanket on the proceedings,” church historian Martin Marty said of Carter during the former’s closing keynote address.
The CSLR hosted the event in response to a challenge Carter posed to the law school two years ago, when he and Marty held a public conversation about children in peril and urged those in attendance to take action.
This year’s conference featured children’s rights scholars, advocates, and UN and domestic government officials who analyzed the UN convention and explored the issues surrounding it. U.S. resistance to ratification, they said, stems from the nation’s history of sovereignty and general refusal to sign international treaties and agreements. It also comes from religious groups who fear the convention calls for parents’ rights to be undermined and from states who insist on having their own family laws and criminal justice, which includes prosecution of minors as adults.
Many of the speakers, including Carter, emphasized that concern for eroding parental authority was misplaced, since the convention contains an “escape” clause for parents, which recognizes “responsibilities of parents to provide appropriate direction and guidance.”
“I guess 192 nations of the world have taken advantage of that distinct clause,” Carter said.
Jaap Doek, chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, said of the convention, “The most fundamental requirement is that the child is recognized and fully respected as a human being with rights.”
Philip Alston, a professor of law at New York University (NYU) and world-renowned human rights scholar, said, “The convention is only a starting point, a tool, for those who want to bring about deeper change.”
Landon Pearson, a senator from Canada, where the convention has been ratified, said that implementing the convention in her country is the main challenge. “Our countries share a common perception of the family as a protected area,” Pearson said. “Too many people in North America simply do not believe that children should have rights.”
Martin Guggenheim, NYU professor of law and author of the recent book, What’s Wrong with Children’s Rights, said he supports ratification but fears it wouldn’t improve anything. “American children aren’t even promised health care,” he said. “They are twice as likely as adults to be living in poverty. No convention will alter these conditions.”
Martha Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, countered that she believes the convention is a powerful tool to educate the public and governmental officials about children as rights’ holders and to bring about domestic pressure for reform in this country and around the world. “The convention repositions the child,” Fineman said. “They are no longer simply possessions of their parents or future citizens of the state ... but human beings with rights.”
Marty closed the event with a challenge of his own: to pursue the convention debate not as an argument but as a conversation, where questions are posed and explored so that both sides may learn. “We might turn up illuminating and helpful answers,” Marty said.
Emory’s International Law Journal, a sponsor of the event, will publish a full set of conference papers next spring. Other conference sponsors include the John Templeton Foundation and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.