Editor’s note: One of many major issues facing President George W. Bush is the United States’ relationship with the United Nations. Correspondent Mary Jo Anderson reports on what appears to be a new signal to the U.N. being sent by the Bush administration.

NEW YORK — Some nations were caught off guard yesterday, as a United States delegation to the United Nations clearly signaled a new direction in U.S. policy under the Bush administration, calling for greater “parental authority” when crafting policy on children.

Country delegates, ambassadors and special representatives gathered for UNICEF’s second preparatory meeting for the upcoming Special Session on Children, Sept 19, 2001. Though a Bush appointment to the U.N. ambassadorship has not been made public, Ambassador E. Michael Southwick, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, presented the U.S. statement on the draft document under consideration by the preparatory committee.

Observers in the gallery broke out in cheers after the ambassador concluded his presentation. The statement referred to the “erosion of parental authority” and suggested that nations be invited to develop objectives pertinent to “their own goals and in line with conditions and circumstances in their own countries.” Other popular points for those who welcomed the U.S. statement were the calls for monitoring to be done at the national level and a focus on education as President Bush has adopted for American children.

The U.S. address followed two days of a roll call of nations, each expressing its basic goals for the draft document under discussion. The document will replace the decade-old World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. The key factor in the U.S. presentation was its emphatic position on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or CRC.

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child may be a positive tool for promoting child welfare for those countries that have adopted it. But we believe the text goes too far when it asserts entitlements based on economic, social and cultural rights. … The human rights-based approach … poses significant problems as used in this text.”

The draft document that delegates were discussing throughout the week makes frequent reference to the CRC, but the U.S. statement was careful to distinguish between the CRC and the Plan of Action that was the result of the 1990 World Summit for Children. The U.S. rejected attempts to make the CRC the “litmus test to measure a nation’s commitment to children.”

The European Union had adopted the opposite stance. On Wednesday, Ambassador Thomas Hammarberg, the head of the Swedish delegation, spoke on behalf of the European Union and 13 other nations aligned with the EU’s statement to the assembly.

“In our opinion the rights-based approach should be the lead theme throughout the text,” Hammarberg said, adding that “the full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the overarching objective.” Also on Wednesday, however, the Holy See, the Vatican’s observer mission to the U.N., delivered its statement stressing that rights of the child must be seen in the context of the family.

Tension among pro-family groups had heightened in the weeks leading up to the second preparatory meeting. They fear that the U.N. Special Session will adopt new international measures that could threaten parental rights and give sweeping new rights to adolescents — rights to reading material of their choice, rights to unsupervised contraceptive and abortion access, rights to assembly — without the safeguard of parental reins.

“Rights to information according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child permits media of the child’s choice; books, videos, the Internet. Article 13 means as a father I can’t screen my daughter’s consumption on the Internet? What if my 12-year-old son wants to collect Internet pornography?” asked a South American delegate who requested anonymity.

Osama Halawani of Saudi Arabia found the U.S. statement “most reasonable” in its refusal to accept the U.N.’s CRC treaty as the sole framework for the protection of children. The U.S. and Somalia are the only nations that have not ratified the convention. In the U.S., many legal experts question the treaty’s intrusiveness into domestic policy. Certain activists claim the failure to ratify a convention that virtually the rest of the world has accepted is a diplomatic and political embarrassment for Americans.

Some Europeans have criticized U.S. participation at the U.N.’s preparatory sessions because it has failed to become a party to the treaty. Despite the Clinton administration’s agreement with the EU on most issues that more traditional cultures found problematical, the U.S. had not signed the CRC.

A member of the Finnish delegation, Pia Heilo, found the U.S. statement disappointing: “It is against many of the provisions we are fighting to achieve here.”

Yet others found problems with the underlying assumptions in the CRC and the draft document before the delegates, which is based, in part, on the CRC.

“Wherever you read in the draft document or in the CRC ‘diverse forms of the family,’ that’s a red flag,” said Anna Halpine of World Youth Alliance. Such language could mean a homosexual liaison as in France, where a Pact of Civil Solidarity applies to both heterosexual and homosexual “domestic partners.”

Opposing arguments from more than 400 non-governmental organizations that favor a strong U.N. guarantee of children’s rights insist that the world community must address the growing mistreatment of children. They cite child slavery, forced labor, forced early marriages, lack of nutrition, child prostitution and a mushrooming population of AIDS orphans. Youth representatives added their voices to the support for an international guarantee of rights.

Jorg Tremmel of the German-based Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations has proposed lowering the voting age to 13. He cites the recent Florida case of 12-year-old Lionel Tate convicted as an adult of first-degree murder. He points out that if a youth can be prosecuted as an adult, “then that same 12 year-old is capable of understanding the voting process.”

Conservative U.N. watchers focus on the growing tendency by some bureaucrats and policy makers to aspire to utopian goals: universal education, health care, clean environment and equal access to the political process. While these hopes are noble, say seasoned diplomats, they are not realistic, and legitimate goals must be substituted.

The U.S. statement made reference to this tendency: “In its present form, the draft is a confusing mix of political and legal actions. … Its treatment of domestic obligations and international support is unbalanced and unrealistic.”

Following the plenary session, the U.S. delegation held a press conference. Attendees spilled out into the corridors and questions were shouted through the doorway.

Southwick fielded questions about a new U.N. ambassador from the U.S. and noted, “It is usually a political appointment, but it is early in the Bush process.” Questioned as to whether the U.S. would ratify the CRC, the ambassador replied, “It is highly unlikely.” In further comments he observed that the legal protections for children in the U.S. were “among the strongest in the world.”

Several people inquired about the change of direction in the U.S. position on particular issues featured in the draft document. Others questioned the presence of new faces on the U.S. delegation. Delegation coordinator, Darcy Zotter explained that the process “is transparent” and that “a range of opinion” had been sought.

Zotter invited representatives from non-governmental organizations to seek appointments to the delegation. However, she continued, “The delegation, despite any one member’s personal position, must support the Bush administration’s position.”

Read U.N. opposing ‘motherhood, fatherhood’? in today’s edition

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