A global children's rights treaty, ratified by every U.N. member except the United States and Somalia, has so alarmed its American critics that some are now pushing to add a parental rights amendment to the Constitution as a buffer against it.
The result is a feisty new twist to a long-running saga over the U.N. Convention on the Rights of The Child. The nearly 20-year-old treaty has ardent supporters and opponents in the United States, and both sides agree that its chances of ratification — while still uncertain — are better under the Obama administration than at any point in the past.
Opponents of the treaty contend it would enable government officials and a Geneva-based U.N. committee of experts to interfere with parental authority. Its supporters view the treaty as a valuable guidepost for children's basic rights — including education, health care and protection from abuse — and say its global goals are undermined by the refusal of the world's lone superpower to ratify it.
"No U.N. treaty will ever usurp the national sovereignty of this country," said Meg Gardinier, chair of a national coalition backing the treaty. "Ratification would boost our credibility globally."
Key part of their strategy
Gardinier says her coalition — with scores of partners such as Amnesty International and the Girl Scouts of the USA — has learned to be patient, and hopes an all-out push for Senate ratification will be mounted by the third year of Barack Obama's presidency.
The treaty's opponents say they will be ready to fight back, and the proposed parental rights amendment is a key part of their strategy.
Introduced this spring by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the amendment now has 80 of his fellow Republicans as co-sponsors in the House. The amendment also has been introduced in the Senate by Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who hasn't yet sought co-sponsors.
Hoekstra acknowledges that they are far short of the needed two-thirds support in both chambers of Congress to forward the amendment to the states, but says the dynamics could change if the children's rights treaty advances to a Senate vote.
"We better lay the groundwork," Hoekstra said in a telephone interview. "The last thing you want to be is unprepared if something pops up on the radar screen."
Hoekstra said he and his allies have been concerned by some recent U.S. court rulings that they view as erosions of parental rights, but the U.N. treaty is their paramount concern.
His brief amendment opens by declaring: "The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right."
It says the federal government and the states cannot infringe on that right without clear justification, and then concludes: "No treaty may be adopted nor shall any source of international law be employed to supersede, modify, interpret, or apply to the rights guaranteed by this article."
Potentially high hurdle
Ratification of any international treaty requires two-thirds support in the 100-member Senate, a potentially high hurdle that would — in the chamber's current makeup — require more than a half-dozen Republicans to join majority Democrats.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs a Foreign Relations subcommittee handling human rights issues, has declared her strong support for ratifying the children's rights treaty. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as first lady back in 1995, also advocated on behalf of the treaty, while Obama, during his election campaign, suggested that U.S. failure to ratify was "embarrassing" and promised to review the treaty.
But since Obama took office, there has been no public statement from the administration or Democratic leaders in the Senate spelling out a timetable for that review and a possible Senate vote.
Critics hope to intensify opposition
In the meantime, critics of the treaty hope to intensify public opposition.
"If the American public is informed on this, there's no chance it will be ratified," said Michael Farris, a conservative lawyer who founded the Home School Legal Defense Association and helped draft the parental rights amendment.
Farris recently wrote a detailed critique of the Rights of the Child treaty, contending that it potentially could bar U.S. parents from spanking their children and empower young people to have abortions and choose a religion without parental consent. Even if the treaty did not overrule the U.S. Constitution, Farris contends, it would trump all forms of state law.
Supporters of the U.N. treaty say such warnings are vastly overstated.
"The reality is that no country that is a party to the convention has seen parental rights encroached," said Jonathan Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University who has worked with Gardinier's coalition.
Todres also noted that while U.N.'s expert committee monitoring the treaty can make recommendations to governments that have ratified the pact, there are no enforcement mechanisms or penalties.
'A great tool for parents'
The treaty "has the potential to be a great tool for parents," Todres said. "It's something the parents could use to say, 'My child has the right to freedom of religion and the state cannot encroach on that. My child has education rights, health care rights, and the state cannot ignore that.'"
The effectiveness of the treaty is the subject of vigorous debate. Supporters say it has prompted dozens of countries to improve their laws dealing with children in realms ranging from education to criminal justice. For example, South Africa abolished the widespread practice of whipping juvenile offenders; Lebanon, Sri Lanka and South Korea raised the minimum age for child labor.
Critics note that various standards of the treaty have been ignored by many countries, but they worry that the United States would take its commitments more seriously and thus go too far in trying to follow recommendations of the U.N. expert committee.
A treaty supporter, professor Linda Elrod of Washburn University School of Law, said critics ignore the treaty's strong support for the role of families and parents.
"What makes me the most mad is the assumption that to give children rights takes away somebody else's rights," she said. "It should be three-pronged: Parents have a right to raise their child, the state has a right to protect the child, and in some instances the child might have an independent right. ... Why can't a child have a voice?"