The U.S. Won’t Ratify this Children’s Rights Treaty, and Minors Are Being Given Life Sentences Because of It.

Photo Credit: Ben Pruchnie Getty Images

By Molly Ruebe-Haig
Staff Writer

Prior to October 2015, only three United Nations (UN) member countries had not yet ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). These countries were Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States. Now, in 2023, the U.S. is the only nation in the world that has still not ratified the CRC. Former President Clinton signed the Convention in 1995, signaling support of its principles. However, the treaty was never passed on to the Senate for ratification because of opposition from key Senate actors. 

The UN CRC came into effect in 1990, and recognises that children, as a vulnerable group, require “special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” It awards a wide variety of rights including the inherent right to life (Article 6), prevention of arbitrary child separation (Article 9), and adequate standards of health (Article 24) and education (Article 28). It also outlines state parties’ duties to cooperate and prevent international issues such as child trafficking, the mistreatment of child refugees, and child abuse and neglect. 

The lack of U.S. participation in the CRC is puzzling, given the stance the nation takes on human rights issues. In fact, the country often portrays itself as a leader of freedom and protection of rights. So why would American politicians not want to promote universal standards of health, education, and freedom for children? Because this is on par with Republican ideals, and as such, GOP Senators have spearheaded anti-ratification efforts in defense of sovereignty concerns. 

The most influential thread of opposition came from Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Clinton. Helms submitted a resolution in 1995 stating that he would not allow the CRC to pass in the Senate under any circumstances, as it violated U.S. sovereignty and would “impede the rights of parents to raise their children as they saw fit.” This stance presents noticeable similarities to a Republican-proposed legislation introduced in October 2022, which aimed to prevent any lessons about gender identity and other LGBTQ+ topics in schools. Because treaty ratification in the U.S. requires the related Committee to schedule Senate discussion and approval, the CRC would likely not be passed. Therefore, the Clinton administration likely felt any attempts at ratification would fail before they even began. The Bush administration in 2000 stated similar concerns to Senator Helms surrounding “U.S. laws regarding privacy and family rights.”

Despite these arguments made by politicians, perhaps a more substantive reason the U.S. has yet to ratify the Convention is because it conflicts with U.S. juvenile detention laws. The CRC prohibits both the death penalty for minors under Article 37 and life imprisonment for crimes committed by minors under Article 40. At the time of Clinton’s signature in 1995, both the death penalty and juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) were legal in the United States. The Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons in 2005 later ruled capital punishment for minors unconstitutional. But 24 states in the U.S. still permit JLWOP, including Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama, and an additional 7 states permit it but have no one currently serving this sentence. 

Why do states continue to allow minors to be sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed before the age of 18? It may be because of the uniquely high number of mass shootings in the U.S.– relative to the rest of the world– that are carried out by minors. For example, the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 was committed by two teenage boys, 17 and 18 years old, who killed 13 people. 

Mass shootings have continued to rise since then, and the U.S. currently has the highest number of school shootings in the world. 

Photo Credit: CNN/Gun Violence Archive

Juveniles with possession of firearms continue to be common perpetrators. In November 2021, a 15-year-old shot and killed four students and left seven others injured. In May 2019, two students, aged 18 and 16, carried out a school shooting in Colorado. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment, the minor with the possibility of parole. In May 2018, a 17-year-old student killed ten people in a Santa Fe High School shooting.

The ethics of life imprisonment continues to be a hotly debated topic. For minors, the ethical argument is even more controversial. When the crime of mass homicide is introduced into the equation, the lines of ethics are blurred even further. As of 2020, there were 1465 juveniles sentenced to JLWOP in the U.S. for crimes committed before they turned 18. All of them were charged with homicide. How can we condemn a person whose brain has not fully developed to JLWOP, but on the other hand, how can we allow them to take the lives of others without the maximum punishment? This argument likely dominates American discussion of ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The logical solution to the U.S.’s controversial practice of JLWOP is to reform gun laws. This would minimize the ability of minors to access firearms, and reduce the potential for mass shootings committed by adolescents. However, history has shown that gun reform in the age of a partisan Senate is virtually impossible, especially when combined with the power of modern gun lobbyists. There is a multitude of other rights in the Convention that the U.S. can and should support. Whilst every U.S. state has different child protection laws, a universal set of standards would leave less room for interpretation in state court cases over issues such as child abuse, neglect, or separation. Perhaps more importantly, ratification of the CRC will endorse the U.S.’s claims to the title of the global leader of human rights. Claiming to be a beacon of freedom seems controversial otherwise. 

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