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Affirming Children's Rights

On Feb. 16 the United States became the 177th country to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The pact, which affirms that children everywhere deserve thoughtful care and protection, became international law in 1990.

The convention grew out of tireless work of many people - in the UN, in countries around the world, and in nongovernmental organizations that serve children - to promote a statement of principles that would be a basis for addressing some terrible problems faced by children in widespread parts of the globe. These problems include the induction of young children into combat service, the economic exploitation of millions of children as virtual slave labor, substandard nutrition and health care, and little or no access to education.

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Focusing attention on such problems is a beginning. Efforts to address them, and to move nations toward compliance with the convention, will demand a whole new level of commitment, diplomacy, and understanding.

Even countries that want to abide by the convention's principles may face tremendous challenges in breaking habits and traditions that truncate children's futures.

Some of the elements in the convention may run afoul of current political thinking in Washington.

One provision, for example, supports justice procedures specifically applicable to people under 18 accused of a crime. Questions could arise as the convention moves through the ratification process in the US Senate.

The reasons for slow US action on the convention sprang from concerns that it could infringe on the ability of individual US states to formulate their own laws with regard to adoption, education, and child welfare - areas traditionally reserved to the US states.

But the convention, signed by UN ambassador Madeleine Albright, will include attachments and reservations spelling out these American concerns. Presumably, that arrangement could have been made earlier, avoiding the long lag in US participation.

But the main point now is that Washington has signed on, which should give added force to a measure that should prove useful in helping millions of young people live more fulfilling lives.

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