Twenty-one years ago, Hillary Clinton made a promise.
Then First Lady, she was speaking at the memorial service for UNICEF's legendary executive director Jim Grant. It was a blustery February day in 1995, and more than 2,500 people had filed into New York's cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine to pay respects to a man who, Clinton would later note, "may have been more responsible for saving more lives over the past 15 years than any other person in the world."
Grant was a phenomenon. The exuberant American World War II veteran and international aid expert had taken the helm of UNICEF in 1980 and had set in motion an unprecedented wave of progress that is still being felt today. In 1982, he launched a "child survival revolution" that would save the lives of an estimated 25 million children and spur a tectonic shift in the ethos of global health.
In late January 1995, after a long and mostly secret fight with cancer, Grant became confined to a small hospital room in Mount Kisco, NY. Among the hundreds of letters that piled up in his room was a note from President Bill Clinton thanking Grant for everything he had done for children. On Friday, January 27, Grant decided he would write a reply. This wasn't about being courteous -- the shrewd UNICEF chief wanted something from Clinton, and he bet the President would not refuse a dying man. Grant's final wish, he wrote Clinton, was that the United States sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Known as the "Magna Carta for Children," the CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989. Its 54 articles (drafted with significant input from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations) afford children basic rights and protection from abuse and exploitation. Grant was the CRC's most powerful promoter, helping it become the most widely ratified human rights in history and using it to prod countries the world over to take better care of their youngest citizens.
On January 28, 1995 -- the day after he penned his response to President Clinton -- Jim Grant died. A few weeks later, the First Lady of the United States stood before those assembled to honor him. After sharing a few anecdotes, Hillary Clinton surprised everyone. She mentioned that one of Grant's "greatest hopes" was that the CRC "would serve as a standard of principle that would guide us into the next century." She paused and then continued: "Therefore . . . I am pleased to announce that the United States will sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child." Applause rippled through the cathedral.
And true to Clinton's word, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright signed the treaty a week later.
But that's where the story thuds to a halt.
In order for the CRC to take effect, the US Senate needs to ratify it by a two-thirds majority -- and 21 years later, that still hasn't happened. Facing Republican opposition, Bill Clinton never submitted it to the Senate. Succeeding administrations have let the CRC gather dust on a seemingly forgotten shelf. Before being elected, President Obama called the lack of action on the treaty "embarrassing." But with less than a year left in his term, he has still done nothing substantive to change that.
The shameful end result? The US is now the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC. Is it a coincidence that the US has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the industrialized world? A 2015 Save the Children study found that Washington, DC had the highest infant mortality rate among 25 capital cities in wealthy countries around the world.
Opposition to US ratification stems mostly from hysterical overreactions rooted in misconceptions -- that the CRC could erode national sovereignty, supersede the Constitution, or interfere with parental rights. Legal scholars insist it would do none of these things. The US generally views human rights treaties as "non-self-executing," meaning that no provision would become mandatory without specific legislation.
If Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, and every other UN member state can ratify it, why can't we? The treaty has helped improve children's well-being in these and many other places.
The US's refusal to ratify the treaty diminishes our moral leadership on the global stage. By embracing the CRC, America would not only aid vulnerable children here at home -- it would help put the needs of impoverished, invisible children around the world on the political map.
The best chance of moving the CRC forward now rests with the very woman who pledged her country would sign it more than two decades ago. Child rights advocates are hopeful that, if elected President, Hillary Clinton will finally give the children's treaty the priority it deserves.
"Hillary Clinton should need no reminding of the importance of the CRC, having herself been a strong advocate of women's and children's rights all her life, and having personally conveyed to the whole world President Clinton's solemn commitment to ratify the Convention," says Meg Gardinier, the Secretary General of the ChildFund Alliance and the voluntary Chair of the Campaign for US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The first step would be submitting the CRC to the US State Department for review, an involved and lengthy process. The next hurdle would be overcoming Republican opposition in the Senate -- a tall order, but not impossible. The key: make sure the State Department review is completed, so that CRC advocates on Capitol Hill can be ready to push ratification if political conditions become more advantageous. This would ideally be accompanied by a major public advocacy campaign (a diverse pro-CRC coalition of organizations and faith-based groups already exists and could be mobilized when the time is right).
For now, Jim Grant's dying wish remains only half-fulfilled.