This week, the United Nations hosts the Mother of all Meetings—the Special Session on Children. No less than 71 heads of state, 70 other top government leaders, and a zillion members of 830 non-government organizations will attend. The meeting’s purpose: to build upon the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. And if you don’t know about this 1989 document, you should. Endorsed by 191 countries, some call it the most ratified human rights treaty in history. Only Somalia has failed to sign on.

Actually, make that Somalia and the United States. In what the Convention calls an “almost solitary refusal to do the decent thing,” America has (once again) horrified the rest of the world by declining to sign a document that in the Convention’s view seems only to affirm the “dignity and worth of the human person” and tries “to promote social progress.” But behind the noble language hides much mischief.

True, you’d have to be Dr. Evil to deny that many of the goals implicit in the Convention and pursued in its name are basic to child well being. The treaty calls on nations to promote prenatal and childhood health care. It seeks to end child labor and prostitution, and the trafficking in children. An optional protocol to the treaty, which the U.S. may ratify, requires nations to stop using child soldiers. Nor is the treaty simply ink on paper. Over the past ten years, thanks in part to the Convention, the mortality rates of children under five have fallen more than 10 percent, while polio has been virtually eradicated, as have iodine and Vitamin A deficiencies.

But though it has clearly led to some good, the Convention suffers from the same excesses that marred the American children’s rights movement in the early 1970s. It not only seeks to protect children from abuse and neglect—what we might loosely call rights of protection that no sane person would oppose; it also calls for far more controversial autonomy or “expressive” rights that can trump the rights of parents and need to be handled with great care. Especially troubling, and the source of American reluctance to sign on, are provisions that give children rights “to freedom of expression,” “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds,” “to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “to freedom of association.” Advocates point out that the Convention also calls on governments to “respect the rights and duties of parents . . . to provide direction to the child.” But it sure looks like the treaty would come down on the side of the child who’s downloading porn from the Internet rather than any parent who might try to stop him.

Like all legal documents, the Convention is open to various interpretations. So far, however, the official reading appears to take a radical view of expressive rights. The pending draft of “A World Fit for Children,” the report that likely will come out of the current session, for example, stresses the right of children to “sexual and reproductive health care”—meaning, among other things, contraception and abortion. Americans, with one of the longest traditions of children’s rights in the world, have been intensely debating such matters for over a decade now, just as they’ve squabbled over other examples of children’s expressive rights. In her recent book Another Planet, Elinor Burkett describes a Minnesota high school principal who has to decide whether her charges have a free speech right to wear to school T-shirts emblazoned with logos like “Pimp” or “Steel Erection.” Though the U.N. hasn’t yet weighed in on such controversies, the notion that disputes like those over abortion and the limits of free speech should be decided by bureaucrats wielding an international treaty violates not only common sense but our very ideals of freedom and self-government.    

Even more absurd is the idea that those bureaucrats would impose such a radical vision of children’s rights on countries with no human rights tradition at all. What the Convention’s architects don’t seem to grasp is that children’s rights as expressed in the document is a Western notion—a natural, if sometimes excessive, product of democratic individualism. The truth is, without free institutions, neither adults nor children have rights. But instead of taking on the hard and controversial work of promoting democracy and free markets, child advocates, who often overstate children’s capacity to instigate social change, believe they can bring about progress by going right to the kids. UNICEF director Carol Bellamy, for instance, argues “healthy and educated children are a critical force driving economic development.” But as we saw with Mohamed Atta, the Ph.D. hijacker from a country with a stagnant economy, healthy, educated kids with no economic prospects and heads full of undemocratic ideas can become the agents of Armageddon, not of a better future.

The irony of the Special Session on Children is that while the United States, where kids are so free they can divorce their parents and sue their schools, understandably hangs back, representatives of countries that often brutally mistreat their young will spend the week clinking glasses in the name of children’s rights. Please welcome: the Sudan, where seven-year-olds are sold as slaves, Pakistan, where young girls can face “honor” killings for socializing with the opposite sex, and India, with its millions of bonded child laborers. But at least these child paradises have done the “decent thing” and signed an ambiguous, overbearing, and ultimately counterproductive treaty.


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