What is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)?
The CRC is an international agreement that describes the basic rights of children. It is the most comprehensive framework for helping governments ensure that children are protected from exploitation and abuse and that children are provided with what they need to live and thrive.
Article 4 of the CRC states that “States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.”
The CRC was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and signed by the United States in 1995. Since then, all 193 member countries of the United Nations—except the United States—have ratified the CRC.
There is Still More to Do for Children’s Rights
Despite significant progress on children’s rights since the CRC was adopted, the task is far from finished. For example, exploitative industries continue to take advantage of child labor and to perpetuate child trafficking to produce food and fiber.
Industries that exploit children to produce products for export include meat, tobacco, cotton, wool, and many others. The clothing and textile industry exploits children at every stage of production—including shearing sheep for their wool, tanning leather with toxic chemicals, picking cotton, and sewing. Nearly 10 percent of the world’s children are forced to work.
US ratification of the CRC would be a significant step toward continuing to improve the lives of children around the world, including by
- ensuring that children are not exploited by industries seeking cheap and compliant laborers.
- ensuring access to adequate health care. More than five million children under five-years-old died in 2019 from preventable and treatable causes of death.
- ensuring children are able to attend school. In 2020, 258 million children were entirely denied access to education.
- ensuring adequate access to healthful food and clean water. Children in dozens of countries continue to experience high rates of disease, delayed development, and death due to lack of adequate nutrition.
US Ratification of the CRC Will Help Children Around the World
Ratification of the CRC is part of the answer to ensuring children’s rights are protected and promoted. US ratification of the CRC would benefit the nation’s standing in the world and would help the US increase its role as a positive global force for children.
Since 2017, the US has come under increased scrutiny by the international community for policies such as separating the children of undocumented immigrant families.
Ratification would boost US credibility as diplomats and NGOs from the United States advocate for children abroad.
While the US should be able to comply relatively easily with CRC obligations, other countries may still need assistance, even if they are Parties to the agreement. For example, Somalia, the most recent country to ratify, only ratified the CRC in 2015.
If the US were a Party to the CRC, it would have to report periodically to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which makes recommendations and interpretations for each country Party.
Since the CRC does not cover every issue pertinent to child rights, this reporting requirement would provide an opportunity for the US to showcase new efforts to advance child rights.
In 2000, the United States ratified two treaties related to but separate from the CRC: the CRC Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, and the CRC Optional Protocol on Children Associated with Armed Forces. Full ratification of the CRC would allow the US to better advocate for the enforcement of these protocols.
US Ratification of the CRC Will Help Children in the United States
The US ranks 56th out 196 countries in the world—worse than almost every other wealthy country—on the Realization of Children’s Rights Index, which grades countries based on how well children’s rights are realized and respected.
The US domestic policies that would be required as part of implementing the CRC would result in further benefits to children at home, including
- reducing food insecurity, which affects approximately 11 million children in the US and is expected to rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- improving the status of people without permanent shelter. Approximately 20 percent of unhoused people in America are children.
- improving access to resources to prevent and treat child mental health issues.
- ending the prosecution and incarceration of children as adults, including incarceration practices such as solitary confinement.
The US Can Ratify the CRC with or without Senate Consent
The United States is the only country in the world with strong domestic opposition to ratification. Opponents to ratifying the CRC have consistently expressed only one specific argument: the concern that the CRC would usurp the family unit and undermine the rights of parents.
However, the CRC text explicitly names the family as the fundamental group of society, speaking of the family as the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of children.
Under the CRC, governments must respect that parents bear primary responsibility for providing care and guidance for their children. Since implementation and enforcement of the treaty would fall completely upon US federal and state laws, civically engaged parents would have the opportunity to influence US interpretation of CRC obligations.
There are two scenarios for ratification of the CRC.
1. Sixty-seven senators would need to agree to ratification. It may be difficult to get such strong bipartisan support for the CRC given historical opposition. Fortunately, not all international agreements require Senate consent for ratification.
2. In the second scenario, the President would submit ratification documents on the CRC without Senate consent. This scenario would mean that the President intends to comply with the obligations of the CRC, even without sixty-seven senators agreeing.
With other international agreements on human rights, the United States has typically included clarifying language along with ratification stating that the US will not implement parts of the agreement until domestic law is in place.
As long as the obligations of an international agreement are not inconsistent with existing legislation, the President can ratify without Senate consent.
 “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor,” United States Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, accessed January 31, 2021.
 Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and Trends, 2012-2016, International Labour Office, 2017.
 Jonathan Todres et al., “The Trauma of Trump’s Family Separation and Child Detention Actions: A Children’s Rights Perspective,” Washington Law Review 95, no. 1 (November 2019).
 Howard Davidson, “Does the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Make a Difference?” Michigan Law Review 22, no. 2 (2014): 497-530.
 “Ranking of Countries According to Their Respect for the Rights of the Child,” Humanium, accessed January 31, 2021.
 “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020,” Feeding America, October 2020.
 Ellen L. Bassuk et al., America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness, American Institutes for Research, November 2014.