An old story is becoming new again, worrying many homeschooling and independently minded parents across the country. The UN Convention on Rights of the Child first made headlines in 1989 when the first signatures were attached to the agreement. Now, 20 years later, only two countries remain who have not ratified the bill—Somalia and the United States. Both have stood against ratification, but the Obama administration has been indicating that their stance may change.
A change from opposition to support of the bill would mean making citizens of the U.S. subject to international law on children’s rights. On the surface, without deeper knowledge of the bill, it sounds admirable. However, parents who homeschool, supplement their children’s education with outside teaching sessions, or who simply want control over the content of their child’s educational life could find themselves restricted in their ability to make choices for their children. Understanding the background and potential interpretations of the bill is critical for parents with a true interest in their children’s well-being.
Structural Background of The UN Convention on Child Rights
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is made up of three parts. There is the main body of the convention and then two optional protocols. The optional protocols prevent the forced use of children as combatants and oppose sexual trafficking of children. These optional protocols have been approved by the United States, along with much of the world, without incident. The issue lies with the core articles in the main body of the convention.
Within the main body, there are 54 articles mandating different “rights” for children and obligating national government bodies to protect and enforce these rights. Some are clear administrative rights, such as definitions for the age of legal majority. Others are more murky rights that have been subject to broad interpretation from judges. For example:
- In Article 3, the “best interests of the child” clause is introduced as a mandate for consideration in all actions concerning children, as well as mandating that “competent authorities” shall set the standards for appropriate safety, health, and supervision levels for children.
- Article 13 mandates that children have access to all kinds of information without restriction, and Article 17 mandates that the state should produce appropriate educational materials for children and ensure they receive it.
- Article 19 mandates states to take action to ensure children are free from negligence or abuse, and Article 20 requires states to protect or assist children in removing them from such situations.
- Article 28 outlines responsibilities for governments with regards to education, including the creation of compulsory primary education and recommending that states take “measures” to encourage the right kinds of school attendance for children, and Article 29 outlines the kinds of content that are deemed appropriate by the UN body.
Each of these articles has the potential to cause changes in local and national laws for parental freedoms and right as a result of the way that the interpretations slant.
Homeschooling Impacts Then and Now
When the treaty was first presented, many American homeschooling and parent’s rights groups objected to elements of the text. They pointed out that there were no standards in the text for choosing “competent authorities” and objected to the idea that total strangers could determine what was right or wrong for their children. As a result of organized opposition, the ratification of the bill was put on hold in the U.S. Homeschool and parenting groups were left relatively untouched though they remained on alert for possible changes to their ability to choose their children’s educational paths.
With the Obama administration’s statement that they intended to pursue ratification, parents are again on the move and defensive of their freedoms to choose what is right for their child. The fear is that Articles 3, 13, and 28 would be used to state that Christian or private curriculums violate children’s best interests and create a neglectful and abuse situation as defined by Articles 19 and 20. As a result, state agencies could force alternative social agendas to be observed and take custody of children. These fears are not totally unfounded based on the way the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been interpreted in other parts of the world.
In England, a 2009 report on home education proposed that the local authorities be granted access to private homes and the right to speak with children alone to monitor what viewpoints their parents might be teaching them. This recommendation was based on the principles of Articles 13 and 29. It’s a follow up to an ongoing battle in the UK over parents rights that dates back to 1995, when the UK was dinged by the international body for allowing parents to remove their children from public sex-ed classes without the consent of the child. The motion is still under discussion.
In Botswana in 2010, four families homeschooling their children may be forced by local authorities to put their children in public school. The parents are 7th Day Adventists, and the local authorities alleged that by keeping their children at home they are violating Botswana’s “UN treaty obligations” to ensure children are at school. If the parent do not enroll their children, they could be fined, jailed, or even have their children seized.
These are just recent examples, but they give an indication of what could happen in the U.S. Parents unhappy about the prospect of losing choice over homeschooling vs. public school enrollment, as well as the presence of a local authority in their homes monitoring their children’s viewpoints, are not alone in the world at this point. The question is simply what is to be done in reaction to governmental forces who want to have control over what is or isn’t right for your children.
What Can Be Done
For parents interested in retaining their autonomy over their children and keeping government groups out of the child-rearing process, there are a few avenues which can be pursued to oppose the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Supporting globally active groups opposing the Convention, being locally active in voicing opposition, and staying in contact with elected officials to let them know you disagree will all help. The key is to not be complacent and to keep a sharp eye on the progress of the ratification of the bill to see whether it will really happen now . . . or later.
Other articles in this issue: