January 12, 2001
Volume 4, Number 4


Conventions negotiated by UN Member States generally establish committees
before which governments must report on their progress in implementing the
convention. Committee members tend to come from the ranks of liberal policy
makers and academics. Governments and NGOs have complained repeatedly at
what they see as the sometimes heavy-handed and ideological treatment they
have received before these committees.

Among the most notorious committees has been the one established by the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW) which has at various times criticized Belarus for establishing
Mother’s Day, directed Libya to reinterpret the Koran so as to fall within
committee guidelines, and directed Kygystan to legalize lesbianism.
Committees have no power to enforce their directives, but their reports are
an ongoing source of criticism of the governments who are not living up to
the desires of the committee members.

One of the complaints against the committees is their tendency to
reinterpret the original convention, sometimes in complete contradiction to
the convention itself. CEDAW, for instance, formally condemns prostitution
yet the CEDAW committee directed China to legalize prostitution.

Lesser known than the CEDAW committee yet no less controversial is the
Committee on the Rights of the Child that has handed down a number of
reports that governments and human rights attorneys find troubling. Most of
the controversial decisions of the Child Committee are directed at the
rights of parents. A series of human rights instruments guarantee parents
broad latitude in directing the lives of their children.

According to human rights attorney Kathryn Balmforth, “the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights explicitly protects the prior right of parents
to choose the kind of education that is given to their children, and gives
the right of parents in that regard priority over all others.” Balmforth
points out that the implementing treaties of the Universal Declaration --
the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – “are even more
specific in protecting the liberty of parents…to ensure the religious and
moral education of their children in conformity with their own

In the early days of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Balmforth
says it was “quite deferential to the rights of parents, but this deference
has disappeared over time.” In 1995 the Committee found the United Kingdom
out of compliance because parents were allowed to withdraw their children
from portions of sex education programs that the parents found
objectionable. Balmforth says the Committee is now routinely calling for
greater access to reproductive health counseling, sex education and
services, without mentioning any right of the parents.

Such ongoing overreaching by UN Committees will play a part in upcoming

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Permission granted for unlimited use. Credit required.

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