What Do Somalia and the United States Have in Common?

by Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator

You might be inclined to say “not much” since, as the New York Times noted, for the last 17 years Somalia has been ripped apart by anarchy, violence, famine, and greed. Yet, the United States and Somalia are the only two nations that belong to the United Nations and have not formally signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

To date, 193 countries have signed the convention, which requires countries to abide by and work toward a set of principles regarding the way children should be treated. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors the progress being made by each country and files an annual report, helping to highlight problems and create incentives for remediation.

Admittedly, children in the United States do not suffer the types of exploitation that others do in some of the countries that have signed the CRC, but the American refusal to sign this basic international convention is mystifying and disappointing. In 1995 Madeleine Albright, acting as a delegate to the UN, signed the CRC on behalf of President Clinton, but the convention has not been ratified by Congress.

Some believe that one obstacle to the signing has been death penalty cases that involve executing minors, which would be banned under the CRC. Some conservatives have argued that the international treaty might interfere with parental rights.

At the National Consumers League, we believe that these concerns are not well founded and that children should have the right to a free, healthy, and productive life—and that international treaties that declare basic rights be entitled to children can play a beneficial role in advancing children’s interests. As the film Slumdog Millionaire made clear, there are still parts of the world where children are horribly abused—possibly even maimed—so that they can earn more money.

One CRC article that particularly interests us at the League is Article 32 on Child Labor: “Governments should protect children from engaging in work that is dangerous, inhibits their ability to obtain an education, or jeopardizes their health and overall development. Governments are responsible for setting a minimum age limit for employment, regulating the hours and conditions of employment, and establishing and enforcing sanctions against those who violate such provisions.”

Many of the 30-plus members of the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL coordinates, believe that the United States may actually be in violation of this article because migrant farmworker children are allowed to work at such young ages (12 and 13), are exposed to pesticides and other occupational hazards, and suffer an alarming school dropout rate. We don’t understand why the United States would have a minimum work age for one industry—agriculture—that is different than that in other industries. Why should a 12-year-old onion harvester be legally allowed to work for 12 hours in 100-degree heat when that same child cannot legally work in an air-conditioned office?

The CRC articles are very straightforward principles that the rest of the world has readily agreed upon: children have the right to survive, they should not be trafficked or exploited sexually, and they should not be allowed to fight in wars. The time has come to pass this much-needed international treaty. When he was in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama endorsed the CRC.

To learn more about the CRC and its ratification, please visit the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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