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US must join world in backing Convention on Rights of the Child

by Huy S. Pham

(Star Tribune, Sunday, October 4, 1998, p. A23)

Almost everyone, regardless of political persuasion, agrees that Americas children are our most precious resource and that their welfare is among our most urgent national priorities.

Unfortunately, a babys chance of surviving to age one is worse in the United States than in 20 other industrialized countries. If this U.S.-born baby happens to be black, its chance of living to its first birthday is worse than that of infants in such developing nations as Costa Rica, Cuba and Sri Lanka.

And, according to a recently released study by the National Center for Children in Poverty, nearly one in four American childrenabout 5.5 millionlived in poverty in 1996. That gives the worlds richest nation the highest rate of child poverty of any developed country.

These high rates of child poverty and infant mortality are closely linked. A 1995 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the mortality rate was 60 percent higher for infants born to mothers with income below the poverty level. Certain groups of children are especially vulnerable. In 1994, for example, the poverty rate among black children was 44 percentmore than three times that among white childrenand black infants died at more than twice the rate of white infants. Of the approximately 32,000 infants who died in the United States in 1994, almost one in three was black, even though black infants were only 16 percent of the babies born alive that year.

This inequity is unconscionable in the worlds wealthiest nationand, whats more, its likely to worsen as a result of the current rush for welfare "reform."

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the gap between our self-image as a country that cares for its children and our appalling failure to actually do so than the United States failure to ratify the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention represents the minimum standards of childrens rights.

Of the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations, 191 have ratified the conventioncountries north and south, rich and poor, democratic and despotic. Only two countries have not: the United States and Somalia. One is the leader of the free world; the other doesnt even have a functioning government.

Whats going on here? The answer is very simpleour children are being held hostage to partisan party politics. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls the Childrens Convention a "pernicious document" and has vowed to block ratification. And the Clinton administration, embroiled in other controversies, hasnt felt strongly enough about the rights of children to forward this treaty to the Senate for ratification.

Helms and other opponents of ratification charge that the convention would undermine both our national sovereignty and the rights of parents. This is nonsense.

The convention recognizes the child's inherent right to life and articulates an obligation of governments to "ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child," guaranteeing "a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development."

The convention establishes a framework, but only through domestic legislation can specific provisions be implemented in our country. Different countries are implementing the convention in different ways, according to their governmental systems and resources. This is no more a threat to our national sovereignty than any of the dozens of multinational treaties to which the United States already is a party, covering everything from trade to environmental conservation, from military security to racial discrimination.

And the Childrens Convention, far from undermining the role and authority of the family, repeatedly emphasizes it primacy. Article 5 of the convention, for example, clearly says: "States Parties [ratifying governments] shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of provide...appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present convention."

Why should the United States ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child? Because ratification of this convention would make the protection of children a national and international priority. Our country must address more vigorously the socioeconomic and racial inequities in infant and child death rates.

Ratification will help federal, state and local governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations, focus on the measures that need to be taken if our nations children are to have an equal opportunity for survival and healthy development.

The United States must assume its proper role in protecting childrens rights at home and abroad. Now is the time for us to start living up to our self-image of the United States as a country that cares about its children. Around the world, 191 other countries are waiting for us to make the convention on the Rights of the Child the first truly universal human rights treaty.

Huy S. Pham, Minneapolis, is co-editor of Minnesota Advocates book "Global Child Survival: A Human Rights Priority."