This past week marked yet another of 2009's 20th anniversaries highlighting the challenges we face to protect the world's afflicted. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), passed in 1989, has now been ratified by 193 countries -- except the United States and Somalia. Its 20th anniversary prompted the usual round of calls on the United States to ratify it, but ratification would not necessarily improve the lives of the world's children. The Obama administration says it is reviewing the CRC, but the reality is that like some other human rights treaties, the technicalities of U.S. law and problems with some aspects of the CRC make ratification anytime soon unlikely.
Vulnerable children are a common denominator in many foreign policy challenges today -- whether an orphan who needs to be adopted, a child soldier or trafficking victim who needs to be reunited, an unaccompanied minor refugee who needs to go home, or a poor child whose family needs support to stay together. Instead of the CRC, a far more productive focus for child advocates would be to urge Secretary Clinton to fix the broken U.S. policy and aid apparatus on global children's issues. A good start would be to designate someone at the State Department, ambassador-level or higher, to coordinate all child protection issues across the U.S. government.
International children's issues currently fall afoul of the U.S. government's dysfunctional foreign aid system. There is bipartisan consensus that the system is broken. Secretary Rice attempted foreign assistance reform through transformational diplomacy, and the Obama administration has its State-led Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and pending legislation on the Hill. But I doubt change is imminent. For the foreseeable future, gaps will remain in culture, approach, and purpose between State, USAID, and other U.S. agencies with international programs -- and vulnerable children around the world will continue to fall through the cracks.
Every child's right to a family, their best protection against abuse, is enshrined in the CRC. But protecting that right requires finding permanent solutions for each orphan, abandoned or separated child. From a U.S. policy perspective, responsibility for each category of children as well as the solutions available to them are spread across numerous offices and departments from State, to USAID, to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and others. The divisions run wide and deep, but the issue where American foreign policy interests come together around children -- or more often collide -- is over inter-country adoption.
Americans adopt more children from abroad than any other nation and international adoptions have more than doubled since 1989. Adoption is not right for every child without a family nor is it the full solution to the orphan crisis brought on by HIV/AIDS. But for many needy children adoption is the only way to have a permanent family. Yet adoptions must be done right. Unfortunately, weak laws and regulations in developing countries, preferences for infants over older children, and the money involved can lead to inappropriate adoptions and, in extreme cases, baby selling. Such problems have forced the State Department's Office of Children's Issues to stop adoptions from specific countries like Cambodia and Guatemala until officials could ensure that they were legitimate -- a necessary but tragic outcome for families and children caught in the pipeline.
As a member of the Policy Planning Staff under Secretary Rice, I developed an initiative that would have improved interagency coordination and created bilateral partnerships and a trust fund at UNICEF to help countries strengthen their own child protection systems. Though there was wide support including from the Secretary herself, the initiative was derailed by petty turf issues, scarce resources and resistance to new approaches -- all common bureaucratic dysfunctions. Opposition to international adoption also played a role. A USAID officer told me that he maintains a firm wall between international adoptions and any assistance he oversees for orphans to keep it from being "tainted." The problem is that the same authorities in developing countries in charge of adoptions are also in charge of other vulnerable children. The bureaucratic wall helps no one -- not the abandoned child languishing in an institution even though a family is willing to adopt him or the government official trying to stop bad adoptions and place children safely into families in her own country. It needs to come down.
It will take a mandate from the top to push the bureaucracy past these problems and Secretary Clinton is perfectly placed to direct it. As a former Senator and long-time child advocate, she knows of the strong bipartisan support in Congress for adoption and orphan issues. The secretary can task someone on her staff, possibly an existing assistant secretary, with the mandate to implement a comprehensive strategy to protect children globally. An "ambassador for children" could chair a senior policy coordinating group to include HHS and others to oversee strategic diplomacy, technical assistance, exchanges, and public-private partnerships to help developing countries improve child protection systems and provide better oversight of all adoptions. An effective coordinating mechanism could unlock significant resources from Congress, the private sector, faith-based groups, and other international partners.
Assisting countries that want to improve their own governance is the best way to reduce the abuse, exploitation and neglect of orphans and vulnerable children anywhere. It doesn't require ratifying a new treaty, just some leadership and more effective cooperation.
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