On December 7, a panel of policy makers, advocates, and award-winning authors gathered in NYU School of Law’s Tishman Auditorium to discuss the United States’ stance on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the role of literature in promoting children’s rights. Co-sponsored by PEN's Children's Book Committee, the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy, and NYU's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, the event featured an introduction by John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law Philip Alston, and was moderated by Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991-2008.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the United Nations in 1989, and establishes basic human rights to children: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse, and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. As of 2009, the CRC has been ratified by every country except the U.S. and Somalia, though Somalia announced plans for ratification in November.
“Since 1989 this convention has actually made an enormous contribution in terms of changing the perception of children and their legal status around the world,” said Alston. “It has had relatively little influence in the United States.”
On December 10, 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama released a statement asking Americans to “rededicate ourselves to the advancement of human rights and freedoms for all, and pledge always to live by the ideals we promote to the world." Laura Murphy, former director of the ACLU’s Legislative Office in Washington D.C., read these words to the audience, stressing that the U.S. needs to bridge the divide between its international and domestic policies on human and civil rights. While Alston pointed out that the U.S. has taken the lead on creating many international treaties on human rights, including the CRC, Murphy noted that among G20 nations, the U.S. is a party to the fewest treaties on human and civil rights.
Jonathan Todres of the Georgia State University College of Law voiced some straightforward reasons why the U.S. should ratify the CRC: “[Children] are victims trafficking, they are exploited in sweat shops and on farms, they are prostituted. Children are denied access to health care, they are denied the resources they need to complete their education and develop to their fullest potential, and too many children suffer severe forms of abuse and neglect,” Todres said. “And to be very clear, I am speaking just about children in the United States.”
The importance of recognizing the individuality and the feelings of children was brought to the forefront by the authors on the panel through readings and personal stories. Walter Dean Myers, author of Dope Sick and Sunrise Over Fallujah, told about conversations with teenagers in prisons around the U.S., and the need to arm children and communities with the language and a voice to speak for themselves about abuse, neglect, and poverty. Deborah Ellis, author of Off to War and The Breadwinner Trilogy, agreed, stressing that the voices of children too often go unheard. Winner of the 2005 John Llewellyn Rhys prize for his first novel, Beasts of No Nation Uzodinma Iweala rested the responsibility on individuals to lead by example, and to have the ability to put oneself in others’ shoes, and not to ignore other perspectives.
The final speaker, Susan Kuklin of the PEN American Center’s Children’s Book Committee, affirmed the role of authors in giving voice to those who cannot speak out. “We write for the future: future readers, future writers, and future thinkers,” Kuklin said. “Writing for kids is really a sacred trust, and it is not taken lightly…We must take on hard-hitting subjects.”