It's time for the U.S. to ratify core UN conventions

June 17, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Emmy Lang-Kennedy for Mercy Corps  </span>
    People in Liberia, especially women, have become more aware of their rights since the country's long civil war ended six years ago. Photo: Emmy Lang-Kennedy for Mercy Corps

In May, amidst headlines of new military activity in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, two other stories signaled an opening for a different kind of U.S. engagement in the world that has great significance for groups like Mercy Corps.

The first was the submission of House Resolution 416, calling on the U.S. to “become an international human rights leader” by ratifying and implementing several United Nations (UN) conventions — including rights for children and the disabled, as well as measures to eliminate discrimination against women. The second signal came when the U.S. won election to the UN Human Rights Council for the first time in history, after the Obama administration ended U.S. policy that boycotted the council earlier this year.

While the hard work has just begun, U.S. sleeves have been rolled up. The potential to do good is vast.

The U.S. track record of supporting the UN and international cooperation on conventions is decidedly mixed. While countless individual Americans and U.S.-based organizations have been instrumental in leading the charge for human rights since before the UN’s founding in the 1940s, the U.S. remains one of an increasingly small group of holdouts that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Take CEDAW for example— the most controversial of the three — a convention that is often described as “an international bill of rights for women.” Despite being one of the 64 states to sign CEDAW on the first day possible in 1980, the U.S. was not among the first 20 states to ratify the convention and put it into force — nor have we been among the 164 ratifying states since. Our leadership in crafting the document is well acknowledged, as are our advocacy efforts for its ratification in other countries. We've supported women using the Convention as an essential instrument for holding their governments accountable for equal treatment of women under the law.

However, American women have never themselves enjoyed the benefits of CEDAW.

The arguments against U.S. ratification are falling increasingly flat in 2009. One of the main concerns has been that the U.S. would relinquish too much power to the international community, with the provisions of the Convention superseding federal and state laws. CEDAW, like most international agreements, allows countries to express "reservations, understandings and declarations" where there are discrepancies between the international convention and domestic law.

This is a moot point, however, since U.S. law for the most part already complies with the requirements of the Convention — and, conversely, the principles of the Convention are already in line with the letter and values of U.S. Constitution. Regardless, ratifying CEDAW grants no enforcement authority to the UN.

As for America’s new role on the UN Human Rights Council, this is a perfect opportunity for reform from within. The Council has come under sharp criticism in recent years due to the membership of some of the world’s worst human rights offenders. With China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia joining the U.S. as newly-elected members, the incoming class is no exception. Yet, being on the Council puts countries in the international spotlight, which has aided organizations’ successful pressuring of many governments to adopt or implement existing laws that protect a wide array of human rights.

I recently returned from Liberia, the small West African nation founded by freed American slaves in 1847. In the six years since Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended, one of the major success stories is the general public’s awareness about their rights. Even women in rural counties who missed the opportunity for any formal education now pore over summaries of Liberia’s inheritance law as homework for adult literacy classes. Demand for peace has transformed into advocacy for the right to an education, to equal representation in government and fair treatment in the workplace.

It is inspiring to see Liberia turning this corner. It is also a stark reminder of the work still left to do — whether it’s earning access to education in Liberia or finally achieving equal pay for America’s female workforce. Conventions such as CEDAW and bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are well positioned to help the world accomplish these and other important goals.

The U.S. Congress should expedite passage of all UN conventions identified in House Resolution 416 and leverage U.S. membership on the UN Human Rights Council to renew its effective role in making human rights in the interest of every country — including ours.