In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was subsequently signed by representatives of 140 countries and ratified or accepted by 193, with the notable exceptions of Somalia and the United States. This was not the first time that obligations towards children had been expressed in terms of rights; an earlier Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child had been adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, although in its five brief points it never once used the word “rights,” speaking instead the language of duty: the child “must be fed,” “must be sheltered and succored,” “must be protected against every form of exploitation,” &c. The 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is similarly spare in using the language of rights, mentioning them twice under Principle 1 and not at all in Principles 2 through 10. By contrast, the CRC consists of 54 articles in which “rights” are referred to 26 times and the obligations of “States Parties” mentioned 110 times.
These differences between the CRC and the two earlier documents are significant in that they represent an historic shift which Michael Ignatieff has described as the Rights Revolution, Francis Fukuyama as the Great Disruption, and what I have elsewhere referred to as the dawn of the choice-enhancement state.
It is worth noting that, especially in the US, the CRC is controversial because it would seem to bring the state too deeply into the legitimate sphere of family intimacy. Such reservations have thus far successfully prevented the US from ratifying the Convention. Even among the signatories, several states, including the Vatican, have explicitly qualified their acceptance for various reasons. Indeed it is not altogether clear that recasting parental or societal obligations towards children as rights represents genuine progress in ensuring the latter’s well-being, especially if we do not curtail the tendency to view all rights as policed by the courts.
In one sense, of course, no one can doubt that children have the right to be loved and cared for by their parents. Yet the primary agents for fulfilling this responsibility are the parents themselves, and not the “states parties” which have signed the document, though the latter certainly have an obligation towards both parents and their children under their general mandate to do public justice. It is worth noting that the word authority appears only three times in the text of the 1989 Convention and each time refers to legal or judicial authority. When used in the plural form, authorities always denotes political authorities. Noticeably absent from all three documents is a recognition of the primacy of parental authority in nurturing the child towards maturity.
I have just completed the first draft of a manuscript on the subject of authority, office and the image of God. In the course of researching and writing this, I have become convinced that we need to reconfigure the ongoing conversation surrounding authority so as to recognize that it resides in an office – or, better, offices – given us by the God who has created us in his image. Accordingly we would be better served, in speaking of parental obligations towards their children, to focus on the authoritative offices borne by each, namely, father, mother, son and daughter.
What will a shift to the language of authority gain for us? I believe it will enable us better to account for the full complexity of the relationship between parents and minor children – necessarily an ever-changing relationship as the children grow to maturity. It will also help us to distinguish between the legitimate authoritative offices of parents and government, recognizing that, while both presumably intend the child’s best interest, the secondary authority of government is necessarily limited by the primary authority of parents. It is thus not a matter of opposing freedom, say, of parents to the authority of the state but of recognizing that different agents possess authoritative offices whose demands are different yet, properly understood, mutually supportive and equally worthy of respect.