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Youth Rights are Human Rights

Posted in 2015, Across the Country Wednesday, 09 December 2015

Human Rights Day

By Brian Evans, CFYJ State Campaign Coordinator

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most widely adopted human rights treaty in the world. With the accessions earlier this year of Somalia and war-torn South Sudan, every single nation on earth has ratified it except for one – the United States.  

The U.S. notoriously lags behind much of the industrialized world when it comes to engaging with the United Nations and signing on to human rights instruments (the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women – CEDAW – is another example, as is the U.S. Senate’s recent rejection of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). But when it comes to the CRC, the U.S. literally stands alone. Why is that?

To be ratified in the United States, an international treaty requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, and a strong opposition, citing concerns about usurpation of U.S. sovereignty and undermining of parental rights, has thus far prevented the CRC from passing. Opponents of the CRC also claim to fear a spike in lawsuits asking for the government to financially support the social and economic rights established by the treaty.

These arguments do not hold up to serious scrutiny. Acceding to the CRC will not put our children, or the U.S. government, under the thumb of international forces beyond our control. But it could serve as a helpful guide for advocates and policy-makers seeking fair and more equitable treatment of our children. For example, on the question of youth in the adult criminal justice system the CRC says that “every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults.” There is no good reason for the U.S. not to strive to meet this standard.

Many U.S. social justice movements have begun to leverage international human rights mechanisms to enhance their efforts; and pushing the U.S. to finally ratify the CRC would be an important step forward.  However, the movement to get children out of the adult system hasn’t been waiting for that ratification; as advocates and state legislatures in 30 states have shown, removing children from the adult criminal justice system is smart policy—to provide youth with a second chance and the tools necessary to succeed, and in keeping communities safe. 

In Spring 2014, the U.N. Human Rights Committee reviewed U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty the U.S. ratified in 1992. In its review, the U.S. was called on to: “…ensure that juveniles are separated from adults during pretrial detention and after sentencing, and that juveniles are not transferred to adult courts.”

The UN Human Rights Committee also added, in a direct reference to the (at the time) 10 U.S. states that had still not “raised the age” of adult court jurisdiction to 18, that the U.S.: “…should encourage states that automatically exclude 16 and 17 year olds from juvenile court jurisdictions to change their laws.”

In short, sending kids to the adult criminal justice system is already recognized as a violation of their human rights.Today, December 10 – International Human Rights Day – is a good day to remember that to meet human rights standards it has pledged to uphold, the United States (and the state governments therein) must end the jailing of children with adults, and the transfer of children to adult court