Leiden Law Blog

Children’s Rights and the 2016 U.S Presidential Election

Posted on by Daniella Zlotnik in Private Law
Children’s Rights and the 2016 U.S Presidential Election

On November 8, 2016, the U.S will elect a new president, and he or she will have to address the many challenges  facing U.S children today. But what can the Presidential Campaign tell us about the future of children’s rights, and the possibility of a U.S (and universal) ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)?

The U.S and the UNCRC

The UNCRC is the leading human rights instrument that is dedicated to the protection of children and the promotion of their rights. Since it was adopted by the UN General Assembly the UNCRC has been ratified by every country in the world - except the U.S.

Historically the U.S had a key role in the drafting of the UNCRC and in 1995 it was signed by president (Bill) Clinton. However Clinton did not continue the ratification processes required under the U.S Constitution: submitting the UNCRC to the approval of the U.S Senate. Thus the signing remained a declarative act. In 2008 President Obama described the U.S failure to ratify the UNCRC as ‘’embarrassing’’, but no steps to continue with the ratification process were taken.

Article 46 of the UNCRC states that the convention ‘’shall be open for signatures by all states’’. This provision is now reserved only for the U.S, and a closer look at the 2016 presidential race seems to suggest that the provision will not be enacted any time soon.

Children and the Presidential Race

Many issues relating to children’s rights could (and should) have been at the forefront of the presidential campaigns, such as child poverty, education, health-care and discrimination of children from ethnic and religious minorities. Yet, in practice, the race did not adequately touch upon those issues and the question of a future ratification of the UNCRC was never raised.

In fact, given the hurtful language and the focus on personal accusations and scandals, the burning question concerning children and the presidential debate was ‘’will you let your kids watch it?’’.

In particular, Trump’s speeches included insults and racist threats, and his campaign was reported to have had a negative impact on children. A Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Report found that the heated campaign between both nominees, and specifically Trump’s rhetoric, generated anxiety and fear among school children. Educators reported that Trump’s campaign inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in classrooms and increased bullying. It also noted that students of color were afraid of being deported and expressed concern over both their and their family’s future.

Clinton also received criticism for using children as political tools. Her campaign portrayed children as vulnerable and in need of protection and good ‘’role models’’. In her speeches, children were considered as passive observers (‘’our children are watching’’) and only as ‘’future’’ citizens. Some argue that the use of children in her videos was exploitative and in any case the Clinton campaign use of children was parent (voter)-oriented. Children were not presented as resilient, right-bearers, or opinion-holders.

Is there a Champion for the UNCRC?

Trump did not address the UNCRC, nor publically embrace the cause of children’s rights (though in a recent speech, Melania Trump said that as first lady she would act to protect children from cyber-bullying). In particular Trump advocates reduced federal regulation and increased state sovereignty in legislation and decision-making. This stands in contrast to the ratification of any international instrument, which will require federal intervention, standard-setting, and legislation amendments.

A Clinton win may offer hope for children’s issues. In the debates Clinton advocated affordable child-care and quality education, and stated that she has ‘’made the cause of children and families really my life’s work’’. Indeed, as a legal scholar, Clinton (then Rodham) was one of the first to publish academic literature on children’s rights in the U.S (Rodham, 1973, 1979). She also worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, promoted the Children’s Health Insurance, and was involved in legislation on matters of education, non-discrimination and child health (the impact of her work on children and families is illustrated in a recent campaign video).

While Clinton is best suited to push for the UNCRC, her views on children’s rights are considered conservative (Lindsey & Sarri, 1992), and promoting the ratification still requires a significant amount of political will, bi-partisan support, and public advocacy.

The Long Road towards a UNCRC (Universal) Ratification

Ratifying the UNCRC could re-establish the U.S as a human rights leader. It will also mark the first universal human rights instrument, and can further anchor children’s rights and protections on the global agenda.

However the cause of children’s rights, and the real issues impacting U.S children, were largely missing from the election race. Children were portrayed as passive and vulnerable, their voices were not represented in the discussion, and the rhetoric used even had an adverse effect on their well-being. It is also unclear if any of the nominees would act to ratify the UNCRC in office. Thus a universal ratification remains out of reach.

Still, if were to suggest a Hollywood-type ending: 2020 will mark the 25 year anniversary to the signing of the UNCRC by Bill Clinton. Hillary could come full circle and position herself as one of the greatest champions for children if she were able to continue the work and ratify it then. An act that will make article 46 of the UNCRC - for now - obsolete. 

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