In 1989, the UN wrote The Convention On The Rights Of The Child.  The U.S. signed party to this treaty in 1995, but we've not yet ratified it.  The U.S. is now the only UN member state which has not yet ratified this international convention. 

Our current Federal, state, county and city laws throughout the U.S. do comply with some of the UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child.  In the U.S., youth are permitted to work, but they are never required to.  All youth have access to schools, and basic medical care for students is provided at all schools.

The U.S. has never conscripted youth, and people who opt to join the military at the age of 17 are only permitted to do so when they can provide documentation in which their parents or legal guardians have given written consent for them to do so.  People in the U.S. military who are 17 years old are permitted to train for combat, but they are not permitted to serve in combat missions until they turn 18. 

However, there are at least four aspects regarding the rights of youth that the U.S. is not currently in compliance with the terms of this treaty.  The U.S. is not in compliance with this treaty with regard to access to abortion for women who are under the age of 18.  Our healthcare system’s policies regarding the rights of people who are under the age of 18 who are sent to substance abuse rehabilitation programs and to psychiatric hospitals do not comply with this convention.  Our policies regarding the detention of immigrants who enter into the U.S. illegally who are under the age of 18 also violate the terms of this convention.  

There are also some states in which life sentences without the possibility of parole are still permitted for teenagers who have committed murders.  The sentencing laws which allow this would have to be overturned if the U.S. were to ratify the UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child. 

During the 1980’s, the U.S. had contributed to writing the terms of this convention.  In 1995, President Clinton instructed Madeleine Albright to sign this convention, but he never submitted the convention to Congress for ratification after she’d signed it.  President Bush II never sent this convention to Congress either. During his campaign for President in 2008, Barack Obama had stated that he’d intended to consider submitting this convention to Congress for ratification, but he did not submit it to Congress during either of his two terms as President.  No one within the Trump administration has mentioned this convention since Donald Trump became President in January of 2017.

Abortion Rights For Women Who Are Under The Age Of 18

Abortion was legalized in the United States in 1973.  In the 47 years since 1973, laws in a number of states have been approved which effect women who are under the age of 18 who are seeking to terminate pregnancies.  In some states, there are laws which require women who are under the age of 18 to have written consent from one of their parents or guardians when they seek abortions, and some states currently have similar proposals pending.

Under the terms of the Convention Of The Rights Of The Child, an abortion would be considered a medical procedure, and it is a teenager’s decision whether or not to opt to terminate their own pregnancy.  The requirement for a parent’s or guardians’ written consent for a teen who is intending to have an abortion would no longer be permitted.

All public schools in the U.S. do have school nurses who will provide medical care to students.  However, in recent years in some states, school nurses have not been permitted to offer assistance with regard to birth control and contraception to students.  If the U.S. were to ratify this convention, the nurses in all schools would have to offer assistance with regard to birth control and contraception to all students who want it.

In 2000, mifepristone pills became available in the U.S.  Mifepristone pills are an alternative to abortions.  There are concerns that some states will attempt to restrict minors’ access to mifepristone.  With the specific exception of instances in which mifepristone could endanger a woman’s own health, all women who are under the age of 18 will need to continue to have access to mifepristone if the U.S. ratifies the Convention On The Rights Of The Child.

The Right To Refuse Unnecessary Psychiatric Care And Unnecessary Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Programs

There are also many thousands of instances in every state each year in which parents send their children or teens to psychiatric hospitals, to psychiatric units within hospitals or to alcohol/ narcotics rehabilitation facilities, and some of the people who are sent there don’t actually have serious mental health or substance abuse issues. 

There are situations in which teenagers do pose a danger either to themselves or to other people or they are incapable of taking care of their own health, and in these situations, they clearly do need to be hospitalized.  However, throughout the U.S., teens are routinely hospitalized for excessive amounts of time, and they are often dangerously overmedicated. People should only be required to take medications in instances in which they pose a threat to themselves or to others, in all other instances, medication should be optional. 

The issues of teens who have been hospitalized unnecessarily, hospitalized for excessive amounts of time as well as overmedicated have begun to receive a little bit more attention in recent years because in recent years there have been a number of memoirs written by people who felt that they’d been hospitalized or institutionalized unnecessarily in the U.S. during their teen years, and they feel that the experience of having been hospitalized or institutionalized ended up harming both their mental health as well as their physical health.  

It is not always easy to determine whether someone has a serious mental health or substance abuse issue, or whether they’re merely having a bad day or experiencing very minor problems, especially when the patients are teenagers.  Our current guidelines for determining whether someone who is under the age of 18 can be hospitalized, the amount of time that they can be hospitalized for and whether they should be required to take medications result in many young people being hospitalized unnecessarily as well as excessively medicated every year, and these guidelines will have to be overhauled if the U.S. were to ratify this convention.

The Rights Of Citizens Under The Age Of 18 Compared With Rights Of Non Citizens Under The Age Of 18 In The U.S.

Our civil and human rights record with regard to youth who are not U.S. citizens is much worse than our civil and human rights record with regard to children and teens who are U.S. citizens, and this has come under close scrutiny in the mainstream media in 2018 and 2019 because of the children and teens who become separated from their families when they’ve attempted to cross from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California.

It is important to remember that the Convention On The Rights Of The Child is intended to protect the human and civil rights and the health of all youth throughout the world, regardless of citizenship, and this includes people who are in countries that they do not have legal permission to enter.  No country is required to have a blanket policy of offering citizenship or visas to everyone who wants to move there, but countries are required to make certain that people who do enter into their borders without documentation are given meals and minimal healthcare so that they do not starve to death or die before they are deported.

Undocumented youth who have attempted to enter into the U.S. illegally from Mexico have been detained at Federal detention centers.  Reporters are rarely permitted access to these detention centers, so there’s a lot that we don’t know about the conditions within them.  In 2019, six children and teens have died in Federal custody.

Capital Punishment And Life Sentences For Teens Who Commit Murders

The U.S. has not executed a teenager since 1959, and capital punishment for people who had committed murders while they were under the age of 18 was finally outlawed entirely in 2005. 

However in some states, judges do still impose life sentences without the possibility of parole to teens who have committed murders.  If the U.S. were to ratify the Convention On The Rights Of The Child, the states in which life sentences without the possibility of parole is still permitted for teenagers who have committed murders would have to change their sentencing laws so life sentences without the possibility of parole would no longer be allowed for teenagers.

The Possible Exemption For Religious Groups Will Have To End

At the beginning of this article, I’d mentioned that in the U.S., youth are never required to work.  There are exceptions in some religious groups. In some religious groups, the leaders of the groups do attempt to require the youth within those groups to work.  These situations are rare, but they do still occur occasionally. Requiring minors to work is illegal, but the leaders of those groups do legally have the right to attempt to claim that using children and teenagers to assist in agricultural harvests or other labor is consistent with the religious values of their community and therefore it is within their First Amendment rights to require children to work.

A famous example of this from recent years occurred in some communities in Utah and northern Arizona in which Mormons were using children to harvest nuts during the harvest season during school hours. Their schools are privately funded and non-accredited, so they were initially able to engage in this practice without interference from the courts.  This is illegal, and a recent Federal court decision forced the companies which had been engaging in this practice to pay compensation to people who had been forced to work as children.

If the U.S. were to ratify the Convention On The Rights Of The Child, privately funded schools in religious communities would no longer be able to engage in the practice of using school children to assist in agricultural harvests, claiming that this is a part of their religious education.  This would be clearly defined in international law, and they could no longer claim this it is part of their First Amendment rights because this is consistent with their religion’s customs.

Protocols To The 1989 Convention

Since 1989, there have been three protocols to this convention.  In 2000, the UN General Assembly wrote the Optional Protocol To The Convention On The Rights Of The Child On The Involvement Of Children In Armed Conflict as well as the Optional Protocol On The Sale Of Children, Child Prostitution And Child Pornography, both of which was entered into force in 2002.  Although we’ve not ratified the original 1989 Convention On The Rights Of The Child,  the U.S. government has ratified the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.  The U.S. has signed party to the Optional Protocol On The Sale Of Children, Child Prostitution And Child Pornography.

In 2011, the General Assembly wrote the Optional Protocol To The Convention On The Rights Of The Child On A Communications Procedure, which became effective as of 2014.  The U.S. has not signed party to nor ratified the 2011 optional protocol to this convention.

2020 Will Be An Election Year- Why Are We Hearing Nothing About This Convention?

If a President were to opt to send this convention to Congress as well as sign party to the protocols and send the protocols to Congress for ratification, and if the U.S. Congress were to approve ratification of this convention as well as some or all of the protocols, the U.S. Federal government as well as state governments would have to modernize their laws to comply with the terms of this convention. 

So far, none of the people who are presently campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President for 2020 have yet mentioned this convention.  And as far as I know, none of the third party candidates have mentioned this convention yet either.

We need to ask ourselves if we want to remain the only country in the entire world whose government refuses to ratify this convention.  If you feel that the U.S. ratification of this convention as well as our potential signing party to and ratifying the 2011 optional protocol is an issue which you feel is important to you, talk to people who work at your local television and radio news shows, talk to people who write for your local newspapers, talk to your Congressmen/ Congresswomen and talk to people who are running for office.

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...