When the United States recently lost its seat on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said it was because US leadership on human rights was too strong for some countries. Perhaps she confused loudness with leadership.
Aside from some high-profile carping about China, the Bush administration has not said much about human rights. There was a mention of Sudan. But that was mainly a sop to the religious right, who see the civil war there as caused by the oppression of the Christians in the south by the Islamic government in the north. If one defines leadership as working with like-minded countries to form a consensus and take effective action, it is hard to see anything resembling leadership.
An opportunity for leadership now presents itself, but it remains to be seen whether it will be taken. In May 2000, President Clinton signed a treaty that bans using children under 18 in armed conflicts. It was sent to the Senate, but made no progress toward ratification. The Foreign Relations Committee under the leadership of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) saw no particular reason to act on it. With Sen. Joseph Biden (D) now chairing the committee, the measure should get more-favorable consideration.
The opponents of the measure have two objections. First, it is a protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Despite widespread support in this country and abroad, conservatives oppose this convention because they see it as an attack on the rights of parents. Regardless of the merits of that argument, the measure banning child soldiers can be signed without taking any action on or incurring any obligations under the UN convention.
The second objection has to do with the fact that the Pentagon needs to be able to enlist 17-year-olds, with their parents' permission, straight out of high school, in order to maintain readiness levels in its all-volunteer forces. The protocol only precludes using these youths in combat, however. By the time they are trained and assigned to units, it is estimated that only about 2,000 17-year-old soldiers would be in outfits that might potentially see combat. The Pentagon, which for years has based its planning on being able to fight two regional wars at the same time, has said it can handle that or any other conflict without having to use those 2,000 troops. Opponents of the protocol nonetheless suspect that this is too much to ask of the generals.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has just returned from Africa. There, some of the more despicable warlords, like Liberia's President Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, and Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, have routinely kidnapped children of all ages and turned the boys into killing machines. Part of Mr. Taylor's forces, for instance, was known as the Small Boys Unit. While the secretary would not have seen the problem of child soldiers firsthand, he should have gained a better appreciation of it. He should also recognize that there are no worthy arguments against ratification of the protocol banning the practice.
So if the Bush administration wants to do something significant with regard to human rights, it should urge the Senate to ratify the protocol. That won't end the abuse of children in this particularly cruel way, but it would put the US, along with a large number of other countries, on record as opposing it. Who knows, maybe the warlords will be more impressed by US leadership than the countries that voted the US off the Human Rights Commission apparently were.
Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of "Why Peacekeeping Fails" (St. Martin's Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor