UNITED NATIONS - When the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF) commemorates the 20th anniversary of its landmark international treaty protecting the rights of children next week, there will be two countries skipping the celebrations: the United States and Somalia.
"It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land," presidential candidate Barack Obama said last year during his election campaign.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was adopted unanimously by the United Nations back in 1989, will be 20 years old on Nov. 20.
Described as the world's most rapidly and universally ratified human rights treaty, the Convention has been ratified by 193 states.
But the only two countries that have not ratified the treaty have nothing in common.
"Somalia is understandable," Kul Gautam, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general and ex-UNICEF deputy executive director, told IPS.
It has been a failed state without an effective government for over two decades, he added.
"But the United States does have a functioning government, which claims to be a great champion of human rights in the world. It baffles non-Americans, and even many Americans, as to why the U.S. is reluctant to ratify this Convention," Gautam added.
When he was on the campaign trail last year, President Obama also said it is important that the United States return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights.
"I will review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights," Obama vowed, before being elected president last November.
Meg Gardinier, chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, told IPS that the United States extensively scrutinizes treaties before taking final steps toward ratification.
This careful review, necessary to ensure compliance with existing law and practice at the federal and state levels, can span decades.
"Concerns, frequently misdirected and misguided, have prevented the U.S. from endorsing a human rights doctrine its democratic principles have influenced," she said.
"The political will required to ratify the CRC must be reinvigorated under President Obama who reminded us that: 'America has carried on because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents,'" she said.
"Our founding documents - namely the U.S. Constitution - shaped the [CRC], the world's most rapidly ratified human rights treaty," she added.
The Convention recognises every child's right to develop physically, mentally and socially to his or her fullest potential, to be protected from abuse, discrimination, exploitation and violence.
The treaty also gives children the right to express their views and to participate in decisions affecting their future, in accordance with the child's evolving capacities.
Asked about the U.S. stance, Gautam told IPS that some opponents of the CRC in the United States have argued that ratification of the CRC would impose "all kinds of terrible obligations that maybe harmful to America and its children and families".
These, he said, range from "how possible U.N. interference might compromise the sovereignty of the U.S. and undermine its constitution; to how the CRC might weaken American families and role of parents in bringing up their children."
Additionally, the opponents have misinterpreted the CRC as possibly bringing about a culture of permissiveness, including abortion on demand, and unrestricted access to pornography; and how it might empower children to sue their parents and disobey their guidance.
"Such concerns are not unique to America. Many groups in other countries have expressed similar fears from time to time," Gautam said.
"But we have now had 20 years of experience in over a hundred countries to judge if such concerns are justified," he added.
In the United States, the ratification of the CRC, like all other international treaties, is in the hands of the Senate.
The former administration of President George W. Bush, which dismissed most international treaties with contempt, had no plans to lobby the Senate for the ratification of CRC.
An Asian diplomat told IPS that despite President Obama's best intentions, he doubts whether CRC ratification will be a priority for a U.S. Senate currently preoccupied with two politically sensitive issues: health care and climate change.
"I was told that Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has a higher priority than the CRC," he added.
CEDAW was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979. And the United States is the only country in the industrial world which has not ratified the 30-year-old treaty which strives for a world without gender discrimination and protects the rights of women worldwide.
"It's an irony," said the diplomat, "that the CRC remained unratified by the United States despite the fact that UNICEF has always been headed by a U.S. national. It obviously did not help."
The United States signed the CRC in 1995 shortly after the former UNICEF Executive Director Jim Grant died. It was his goal that there would be universal ratification of the CRC by 1995.
At that time, Senator Jesse Helms, the right-wing neo-conservative head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he would not accept any further treaties for U.S. ratification - and so the process toward U.S. ratification was halted.
At the U.N. Special Session in 2002, a group of U.S. non-governmental organisations (NGOs), dismayed at the dismissal of the CRC and its principles by some U.S. delegates, pledged to re-establish a Campaign for US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Gautam said that at this historic juncture, the whole world is looking to President Obama and his administration with enormous hope and expectation of a renewed American leadership on many major issues facing humanity.
In the eyes of the rest of the world, he said, the failure of the U.S. to ratify the world's most universally embraced human rights treaty, stands out as a strange enigma.
"Now that the Obama administration has committed itself to regain the lost American moral leadership in the world, and to follow a more multilateralist approach, child rights activists not just in America but all over the world, are hopeful that the US will finally ratify this important Convention," he declared.
Asked how confident she was that the Obama administration will rectify the anomaly, Gardinier told IPS: "There is cautious optimism that the CRC will be ratified in the foreseeable future."
She said plans are underway to secure ratification by 2011.