Why is the US so reluctant to sign human rights treaties?

The US is one of only three countries not to have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Last week, the United Nations shone a spotlight on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This is a little embarrassing for the US, as it is one of only three countries not to have ratified the CRC. The other two are South Sudan (which only became a country in 2011) and Somalia, which barely has a functioning government.

The provisions of the CRC hardly seem controversial – which is probably why it is so widely adopted – and centre on protecting children against abuse, neglect and exploitation, allowing them to develop their fullest potential and enabling them to participate in family, cultural and social life. But in the US there is a fear in some circles that the CRC will interfere with the rights of parents to hit their children, or to opt out of sex education. Supporters of the CRC argue that the convention acknowledges the importance of family, and protects the rights of parents.

The end result is that the US is falling short of other countries when it comes to their commitment to children’s rights. As the Economist points out, signing up to the CRC won’t necessarily involve changing a large number of local laws, with the exception of the fact that under-18s can be jailed for life without parole, and possible changes to some states’ laws on smacking children. It does however mean that the US is standing on shaky ground when it preaches to other countries about their human rights records.

The CRC isn’t the only human rights convention that the US won’t sign. It hasn’t ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the world’s primary document on women’s equality. While a number of countries have signed  CEDAW with a number of reservations, including most Arab states who have specified that they only agree to CEDAW to the extent that it doesn’t clash with Sharia law, the only other countries not to have ratified are Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Iran and the two South Pacific islands of Palau and Tonga.

It also hasn’t signed the The Convention against Enforced Disappearance, which prohibits the secret detention and abduction of people by the state. This is probably because the CIA was running secret prisons while the convention was being drafted. Nor has it ratified the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The biggest barrier to the US signing these treaties are fears that they will interfere with US’s sovereignty, which would be an easier argument to maintain if the country wasn’t quite so keen on infringing on other countries’ sovereignty in the name of human rights. If America is planning to rely increasingly on soft power and diplomacy to achieve its foreign policy aims in countries like Syria and Iran, it will soon find that this hypocrisy does come at a cost.

 

Students in pre-kindergartner class in Connecticut. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.