Sunday, March 1, 2009

Clinton and Human Rights in China: Ratifying the CRC and CEDAW at Home, Speaking with Greater Legitimacy Abroad

The week of February the 16th marked the departure of the newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her first mission abroad. Clinton headed to China with an expectation from many Americans that human rights would be a primary topic of conversation. While the Secretary of State had private meetings with women’s organizations on human rights, Clinton explicitly placed the public human rights conversation with the Chinese government aside, focusing instead on the economic relationships between the two nations; this was of course to the dismay of many human rights NGOs.

The events on this trip bring about an opportunity to reflect on the U.S. and its own relationship to human rights; but even more so, its current moral currency in calling on other nations to address these issues. Even putting aside the human rights record of the prior US Presidential Administration, it could be argued that the US faces significant challenges of legitimacy in probing other countries on rights protections. This is due to the unusual sense of ‘exceptionalism’ in the US, reflected, for instance, in the nation’s historic political decisions to avoid the ratification of two key UN conventions: the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In the most positive sense, we applaud Secretary of State Clinton for at least meeting with the women’s groups privately. Clinton has long been a key supporter of human rights and is no stranger to vocally discussing these pressing issues in this area of the world. She has had past conflicts with Chinese officials over human rights, and was not swayed then. In the late summer of 1995, consistent with her lifetime commitment to women's issues, First Lady Clinton spoke at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, and the truths she spoke angered Chinese authorities so much that they pulled the plug on her live TV coverage.

For a number of reasons, this first meeting with China may not have been the most judicious moment for strong criticism. The exact fragility of the situation was illustrated in a separate set of events. At the time of Clinton’s visit, China happened to be involved with its first report on human rights in the periodic review of the United Nations Human Rights Council. All member states must produce a report every four years. The review contained a combination of praise and criticism of China from fellow nations. China was notably admired in the report for the nation’s progress in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal of poverty reduction. It was duly criticized for its serious failures in the area of civil and political rights—specifically for the country’s stance on the death penalty and freedom of speech.

Of most interest was China’s reaction. Ignoring the praise and reacting to what it perceived as denigrating comments, the soon-to-be president of China declared: “There are some foreigners who had eaten their fill and had nothing better to do, pointing their fingers at our affairs.” This comment shows that, at the very least, tact is needed when discussing human right violations with China. This is corroborated by the fact that shortly after Clinton returned home, a US State Department report on human rights was released. It of course listed a number of widespread abuses in China. An official report from the Chinese government replied, “The US practice of throwing stones at others while living in a glass house is a testimony to the double standards and hypocrisy of the United States in dealing with its human rights issues.”

Nevertheless, while China may be highly sensitive, the nation has, by ratifying the CRC and CEDAW, at least opened itself up to international review. At least in these areas, China has taken a good faith step, exposing itself to formal critiques from international peers.

The US must similarly open itself up to review on the issues of women’s rights and the rights of children. There are a host of reasons to do so, few more important than the moral legitimacy the US will gain through the ratification process—the ability to more convincingly lend human rights criticisms internationally. Secretary of State Clinton’s enthusiasm for human rights provides exciting potential for the US. Her future trips and initiatives could only have a greater impact if she were to encourage ratification here in the US. While we would never discourage the Secretary of State from voicing her human rights concerns, encouraging ratification on our own soil is a good first step to a more effective rectification of abuses abroad.

--Brad Olson and Julie Kornfeld, Northwestern University, Rights for Our Future

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Child Execution

The execution of children, any government’s imposition of the death penalty on those younger than 18 years, was not fully eradicated in the U.S. until 2005. The U.S. Supreme Court case finally banning the practice, Roper v. Simmons, determined that crimes committed from a qualitatively different level of maturity could not receive such final and irreversible punishments. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia criticized the ruling based on an argument of national sovereignty. He insisted that the U.S. should be the “sole arbiter of our Nation’s moral standards,” and that the decision was attributable to foreign courts and international influence.

Looking back at Roper v. Simmons, it seems that the sharing of international norms can be a good thing; ending child execution being only one example. The prohibition of child execution is an international norm, and can be found in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). If the U.S. were to finally ratify the CRC, our nation would likely benefit from further areas of exchange and catch up in more areas in relation to the rights of the child.

Like other child rights violations, the practice of child execution is still occurring internationally. If the U.S. were to ratify the treaty, it may have a stronger foundation to fight this practice elsewhere.

Currently there are five countries that still allow child executions: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran. Iran has stood far in the lead. Last year, there were 8 child executions, and another just last month. On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, Rahim Ahmadi, who was 15 at the time his crime was committed, was executed, apparently for killing a man in self-defense.

    "the day before the incident happened, Reza and two of his friends confronted me. They beat me and ran away and of course, I hit them back. The next day, the three of them came after me again. I was standing at my front door, when they attacked me. I managed to grab a knife away from one of them. In self-defense, I stabbed Reza. I had not planned to kill anyone and if I had not hit Reza, they would have hit me". – Rahim (Stop Child Executions News and Updates)

In order to read more about Rahim's story go to

Given this human right; given that acts of youth should not be judged at the same level of maturity and decision making as adults, it is disappointing that so many others like Rahim will face the same consequences in Iran and elsewhere.

Despite Rahim’s story, Iran has made mild progress in the direction of abolishing child executions. Unlike the U.S., Iran has ratified the CRC. There has subsequently been pressure from the international community to end the practice. In Iran’s attempted to follow through with its treaty obligations, Iranian leaders have seriously considered a ban, although it is not clear that it will cover all crimes. Based on recommendations from the UN, they have also established special courts for children.

There is still a long way to go for Iran, and when it comes to the rights of the child, almost every other country has room for substantial progress. All nations have room to grow in a vast number of areas in relation to the rights of the child. The voices of children are often ones that are left unheard. Through international cooperation, mutual exchange, and shared checks and balances, every nation can put its values in better line with the needs of the world’s children.


Lynette Go and Brad Olson, Northwestern University, Rights for Our Future

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The New Child Health Insurance Bill Provides Momentum for the Systemic Reform of Child Rights in the US

In last year’s campaign for the U.S. Presidency, Barack Obama admirably deemed himself as "a champion for children." Given his recent child advocacy plan, he has begun to show a serious intention to live up to that title. In the plan, he has promised that every child will be granted health insurance. The plan will also expand educational opportunities for children in low-income families, extend other necessary resources for these families, support and supplement the foster care system, and provide better protections for children within the U.S. from violence and neglect.

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that it is the right of a child to enjoy the highest attainable standards of health. Consistent with this crucial Convention, on February 4, 2009 President Obama signed the Children's Health Insurance Bill. The recently passed Child Health Insurance Bill expands the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to increase coverage to 11.1 million children. Currently SCHIP provides coverage for 7 million children who are otherwise ineligible to receive Medicaid. This action is in line with an eventual goal to secure health insurance for every child within the U.S.

In contrast to the Bush Administration, within weeks of being in office, the new administration can be said to have well surpassed the previous administration's accomplishments in supporting child rights. The past administration not only failed to advocate for the expansion of child health care but when the legislation presented itself in near finality, the initiative was vetoed. Since August 2007, the U.S. House has voted at least seven times in favor of an expansion to child health insurance but without exception, with heavy-hands and dulled consciences, these efforts were thwarted by the Bush Administration. President Bush himself, alone, vetoed two similar bills that proposed the expansion of health care coverage for children.

Given the common goals of the CRC and the Obama-Biden Child Advocacy plan, it is time for the new administration to the international system to work with the U.S. and all other nations on its policies for the health and well-being of the child. As Nancy Pelosi stated on the passing of the Child Advocacy plan: "This is the beginning of the change that the American people voted for in the last election, and that we will achieve with President Barack Obama."

Now that the expansion of child rights is in the air, this may be the best opportunity for the U.S. to ratify the CRC and its universal approach to promoting the well-being of all children. Like the current Obama Administration efforts, the CRC emphasizes the importance of the mental and physical health of the child as well as the necessity of preventive health care. Child advocates of all shapes and forms, should work in concert toward the final ratification of the CRC. We the American people are now responsible for helping President Obama work toward the fulfillment of his campaign promises, and demonstrate to him that indeed, U.S. children, and all the children of the world, are at the top of our priority list. Now is the time to press Washington to ratify the CRC.

--Julie Kornfeld and Brad Olson, Northwestern University, Rights for Our Future