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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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times