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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.