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UNCRCOn November 20, 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted into international law the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), one of the most important and progressive documents since the invention of kids. Children born on that day finished childhood today — happy birthday, kids! — having grown up under the most comprehensive set of child protections in human history.

The CRC laid out a set of universal rights for children. Governments of countries that have ratified the CRC are required to report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child periodically to be examined on their progress with regards to child rights in their country as specified in the Convention. In the course of eighteen years, the CRC has revolutionized child welfare around the world.

The language is simple and clear: The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that affect them. Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. They have the right to a free primary education. They should be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation, abuse, abduction, sale and trafficking. Governments must do everything they can to protect and care for children affected by war, and children under 15 should not be forced or recruited to take part in a war or join the armed forces. Stuff like that.

190 UN member countries have ratified the convention either partly or completely. Only two countries on Earth have not: Somalia and the United States.

At the time of the Convention, Somalia was riven by civil war, which may explain their failure to ratify. But what about the U.S.? Why can’t the U.S. sign a simple and effective human rights guarantee for children that is universally acceptable to the rest of the (non-Somali) world, from England to Syria to Iraq to Japan? Because American religious and political conservatives of the time saw a winning issue and organized opposition that continues to this day.

Yes, dear reader, I’m winding up a small rant. Please turn down the volume on your computer.

U.S. religious and political conservatives in the early 90s led by Pat Buchanan torpedoed our ratification of the CRC by organizing a storm of fear and ignorance. Article 14 of the Convention, Buchanan said, would forbid religious parents from raising their kids in their family faith tradition.

Here’s Article 14 in full:

1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Freedom of thought. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of religion. I should have known Satan was in on this!

The Vatican ratified the convention, for crying out loud, as did Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a number of other explicitly religious countries. None of them saw any threat of losing their religion, and there’ve been precious few children ripped from the arms of their devout parents by UN peacekeepers. But American conservatives are unrivaled when it comes to manipulating our fears. As a result, the U.S. stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world in our ability to fearfully wet ourselves over nothing.

The other problem for religious and political conservatives was Article 37a:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.

Those bastards wanted to take away our national right to execute children! Why, they can pry the lethal injection syringe out of my cold dead hands. If pot-smoking hippie cultures like Saudi Arabia and Iran want to give their kids permission to run wild, that’s their business. Our civilization depends on our ability to kill and imprison children.


Look, I know I’m sounding shrill. I hate that, I really do. I’d much rather provide light entertainment, but this kind of thing makes me feel like the top of my head is coming apart, and I don’t know how else to react. I’m exhausted from embarrassment over our collective decisions and actions as a nation. It just goes on and on. And when the international community is trying like mad to improve things for the next generation and the most privileged country on Earth can’t bother to join in…surely it matters enough to shout about.

Anyway, Happy Birthday to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thanks for the invitation. I wish like hell we could have been there.

UNICEF information page about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Full text of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

A paper on religious conservatives’ objections to the CRC

U.S. organizations endorsing the CRC
, including many religious groups

What individuals can do to encourage U.S. and Somali ratification of the Convention

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...