Why Is the US Ignoring the World's Children?

IN the past two years, the world community has made important strides in defining international priorities. Whether it is the environment, endangered species, or democratic principles, people everywhere have begun to decide what resources and values must be protected.

But while the world undergoes dramatic changes, the United States has fallen behind in a crucial area of international responsibility: the protection of the world's children. At a time when the US must increasingly lead by its moral example, the Bush administration has ignored the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the treaty that strives to assure the basic needs of children around the world.

Two years ago last November, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic treaty designed to serve as the standard of international law in the area of children's rights. Generated with substantial US involvement, the accord establishes minimum international standards for the survival, development, and protection of children. For the first time, the world community put into writing its commitment to a better future for those who will take us there.

But after putting the finishing touches on the treaty, the US virtually abandoned it. Though more than 100 nations have ratified the Convention since November 1989, President George Bush has refused to forward it to the Senate.

Administration lawyers claim they want to ensure that the convention fits into our legal system. But similar concerns in other treaties have always been successfully addressed. The haggling over the peripheral legalisms really stems from a fear that the convention will oblige the US to actually live up to its goals. But while administration lawyers deliberate, children suffer and die.

The Bush administration's failure to give the convention higher priority has left the US, historically a leader on children's issues, behind the great majority of the world.

While all of our Western allies have either ratified or signed the convention, the US stands instead with such non-signatories as Iraq, Libya, and Cambodia - reprehensible company at a time when democracy and human rights are sweeping the world.

The convention is not simply a lofty collection of heartfelt beliefs. In many ways, it mirrors our own Constitution, asserting the rights of free expression and religion, nationality and family ties, and the highest attainable standards of health and basic education. The treaty also establishes international standards for protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation, neglect, and illegal narcotics trade.

We don't like to think that children are vulnerable to such horrors. But they are. More than 1 million children in developing countries die each month from causes such as vaccine-preventable diseases and diarrheal dehydration. Poverty and mistreatment kill millions more.

Nor are children at risk only in third-world countries. Almost 40,000 American babies die before their first birthday each year, and one in five children lives in poverty in the US. Just in the last two years, children in my state of New Jersey have suffered through a major measles epidemic. The US needs this treaty as well.

Those nations that have signed the convention know that its mandates are necessary. Whether it is stopping a preventable disease like measles, or ending child labor abuses, poverty, and illiteracy, we need to meet our obligations to the next generation.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a long-overdue human-rights treaty. It ascended to acceptance as international law in a mere 10 months. The convention has high principles and a strong legal foundation. That it does not have the support of the US is a shame President Bush should erase immediately.

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