Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The international “smart set” regularly chastises the United States for not ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). One need only look to a recent report by the CRC’s treaty committee for full justification of U.S. reticence.

Human-rights “experts” on U.N. treaty bodies like the Committee on the Rights of the Child often take liberties with international law and make demands for policy changes that go well beyond any reasonable interpretation of the treaty text. But the new report establishes a new standard by criticizing the Holy See for its attitudes toward homosexuality, gender stereotyping, contraception, and abortion, urging it to “undertake a comprehensive review of its normative framework, in particular Canon Law, with a view to ensuring its full compliance with the Convention.”

In essence, the Committee members are demanding that the Catholic Church abandon its fundamental religious doctrine to satisfy their interpretation of the CRC. Bear in mind that, when it ratified the CRC, the Holy See specifically included several reservations and declarations, including one stating clearly that it “interprets the phrase ‘family planning education and services’ . . . to mean only those methods of family planning which it considers morally acceptable, that is, the natural methods of family planning.” Unsurprisingly, the Committee takes issue with this and “recommends that the Holy See undertake the necessary steps to withdraw all its reservations and to ensure the Convention’s precedence over internal laws and regulations.”

The official response to the report is a model of moderation. After expressing regret over the Committee’s “attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of [the] human person and in the exercise of religious freedom,” the Holy See “reiterates its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child, in line with the principles promoted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine.”

Commentators have justifiably lambasted the report. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) noted that, in making “political statements about Catholic doctrine on abortion, contraception, and marriage, issues at the core of the Church’s teachings about human rights and the dignity of life,” the report tramples on the religious-freedom principles outlined in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Particularly outrageous is the Committee’s urging the Church to abandon its moral opposition to abortion. From the Catholic Church’s perspective, what greater violation of a child’s rights can there be than to deprive it of life?

The situation is ripe for mockery. For starters, the members of the Committee — supposed experts on children’s rights — include representatives from Bahrain, Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Sri Lanka. The U.S. State Department reports numerous violations of children’s rights in these nations. A few lowlights:

Bahrain: “Children were also subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. . . . Authorities detained children . . . and subjected them to various forms of mistreatment, including beating, slapping, kicking, lashing with rubber hoses, threats of sexual assault, burning with cigarettes, and verbal abuse.”

Egypt: “Abuse of children and discrimination against persons with disabilities remained problems . . . and child labor remained a serious problem.”

Ethiopia: “Other human rights problems included . . . violence and societal discrimination against women and abuse of children; . . . exploitation of children for economic and sexual purposes; . . . and child labor, including forced child labor.”

Russia: “Children, particularly the homeless and orphans, were exploited for child pornography. . . . The law does not define child pornography, criminalize its possession, or provide for effective investigation and prosecution of cases of child pornography. . . . Law enforcement officials reportedly abused street children, blamed them for unsolved crimes, and committed illegal acts against them, including extortion, detention, and psychological and sexual violence.”

Saudi Arabia: “There were reports during the year of child marriage. . . . According to some senior religious leaders, girls as young as age 10 may be married,” and “forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers, domestic servants, and children.”

Sri Lanka: “Violence and discrimination against women were problems, as were abuse of children and trafficking in persons. . . . Limits on workers’ rights and child labor remained problems.”

These nations are passing judgment on others regarding children’s rights?

The U.N. itself has a long history of problems with sexual abuse and a decidedly checkered record of holding those responsible to account. The Catholic Church’s problems with sexual abuse and transparency are widely known and must not be ignored, but this is clearly a case of the pots judging the kettle.

Ultimately, the Holy See shares blame for the CRC report — after all, it made the mistake of ratifying the CRC in 1990. As a state party to the Convention, the Holy See has no choice but to periodically submit itself to the Committee for judgment.

The treatment of the Holy See in this matter has direct relevance for the U.S., which is routinely criticized for being one of only a few nations (Somalia and South Sudan being the others) that have not ratified the CRC. The Clinton administration signed the CRC in 1995, but successive presidential administrations have never sent the treaty to the Senate, owing to concerns expressed by a number of senators that the treaty body would abuse its mandate and that U.S. courts could apply the treaty to U.S. domestic law in unforeseen ways.

Clearly, the Committee regards its authority expansively. In its report it insists that, by ratifying the CRC, the Holy See “has committed itself to implementing the Convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City State but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.”

Given this statement and the CRC Committee’s disregard for and disapproval of the Holy See’s reservations and declarations, is it reasonable to believe that the Committee would respect U.S. reservations, declarations, and understandings — particularly those relating to federalism and the U.S. Constitution — should it be so foolish as to ratify the CRC?

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs. Steven Groves is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Senior Research Fellow at Heritage.