AFTER hesitating for half a decade, the United States has signed a controversial convention designed to protect the human rights of children.
The treaty, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and has since been ratified by at least 169 nations.
But it has faced stiff opposition from conservative groups in the US who charge, among other things, that it legitimizes abortion, expands the rights of children to sue parents, and enables children to join cults and gangs over the objection of parents.
The charges are disputed by treaty backers, including most US children's-rights groups.
The Clinton administration's decision to sign the convention was announced last weekend by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at a funeral service for James Grant, who served for 14 years as the director the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. It was signed yesterday in New York by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright and will eventually be submitted to the Senate for ratification.
The convention grew out of the UN-designated ''Year of the Child'' -- 1979 -- which called attention to the plight of children as victims of war and civil violence, famine and disease, and exploitative labor practices. It sets minimal standards for the political, cultural, economic, and civil rights of children.
Role of family disputed
At the heart of the conservative critique is a fear that the treaty will infringe on the rights of parents and thus undermine the family.
''We have a lot of concerns since the convention treats children as autonomous beings outside the context of the family,'' says Cathy Deeds of the Family Research Council in Washington. ''It does not recognize the family as the primary guardian of children and their rights.''
By its broad definition of children's rights, critics say, the treaty could embolden children to sue their parents. A parent's command to switch off the TV, for example, could be interpreted as a violation of a child's right under the convention to ''seek, receive, and impart information,'' Ms. Deeds says.
Defenders insist that the convention emphasizes the primary role of the family in the development of children and was never intended to draw courts into such family matters. Any legal action undertaken against a parent, moreover, would have to be based on existing state and federal laws since the convention itself contains no enforceable rights for children, backers note.
In most states children already have the right to sue parents, usually through court-appointed guardians, for injury from violence or extreme negligence.
No convention enforcers
Opponents are also concerned that the convention will infringe on the sovereign rights of the US.
Under the convention, signatory nations are required to report to a UN committee on their compliance with the convention two years after ratifying and at five-year intervals thereafter. But the treaty contains no enforcement mechanism.
''There won't be any UN police force to come around and enforce it. It is more a matter of moral persuasion,'' says Stuart Hart, president of the National Committee for the Rights of the Child.
''It's not as though the treaty contains a set of self-executing laws that will change US government policy. It's more a statement of aspirations, a tool to measure how decently the nation is treating its children,'' says James Weill of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington.
The treaty formally came into effect in 1990, after the 20th country ratified it. It has now been ratified by more nations within a shorter period of time than any other human rights treaty. Several former Soviet republics and Gulf states, including Iraq, are among the handful of nations that have still not signed or ratified the agreement.
''The treaty provides a good set of standards, Dr. Hart says. ''But it's up to individual countries like the United States to breathe life into them.''