WASHINGTON — Washington. Let the fact be acknowledged: Over a great part of the world, millions of children live and die under appalling conditions. Recently we have looked into the eyes of the pitiful children of Kurdistan and Bangladesh. Only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by their plight.
But today's topic is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. President Bush is coming under heavy bipartisan pressure to initial this treaty and to send it to the Senate for ratification. In this regard we are talking not about compassion, but about law.
We are talking, indeed, about an addition to what the Constitution defines as ''the supreme law of the land,'' binding upon the judges in every state, ''anything in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.'' Treaties have to be taken as seriously as constitutional amendments. Once ratified, they cannot easily be renounced.
This particular treaty goes back to November 1959, when the U.N.'s General Assembly unanimously adopted a Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The document laid down 10 guiding principles. For example: ''The child . . . shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.''
In 1989, 30 years later, these sentiments found their way from the non-binding Declaration to the binding Convention. Over the past 18 months, 135 heads of state reportedly have signed the compact. President Bush finds himself in the company of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia and South Africa. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., finds this ''intolerable.''
I find it not intolerable at all. Closely examined, this treaty is grandma wolf in her nightcap. What very big teeth it has! If we were to take it seriously -- and I insist we must take it seriously -- the president and the Senate would be committing the United States to obligations that are wholly unacceptable under our constitutional system.
At a casual glance, the teeth are well-concealed in gummy prose. All kinds of qualifying phrases appear. For example, a child of a broken home would be guaranteed a right to have contact with both parents ''except if it is contrary to the child's best interests.'' The child shall have a right to freedom of expression, but the exercise of this right may be subject to restrictions that are ''provided by law and are necessary.'' Parties to the treaty must take certain actions that are ''appropriate'' or ''adequate.''
This gauzy fluff is disarming. The text rolls on and on. It mandates all kinds of curious requirements. The signatory nations shall take appropriate measures to ensure that parents and children learn ''the advantages of breast-feeding.'' They must be educated in ''the prevention of accidents.'' Does education in accident prevention truly require an international treaty?
Article 28 is sharper. Signatories ''shall make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means.'' Article 24 demands that we recognize ''the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.'' Who is to judge ''the highest attainable standard''?
Aha! An answer is in Article 43: ''For the purpose of examining the progress made by states parties in achieving the realization of the obligations undertaken in the present Convention, there shall be established a Committee on the Rights of the Child. . . . The committee shall consist of 10 experts of high moral standing and recognized competence in the field covered by this Convention.''
In sum, the United States would find the entire spectrum of our family law subject to examination by a committee of 10 ''experts.'' States that failed to adjust their civil and criminal laws according to the experts' judgment would find themselves pilloried before the world. Under our system these laws overwhelmingly are state laws. If Senator Dodd wants to look for something truly ''intolerable,'' let him look at the prospect of one massive federal code on the care and feeding of children.
To oppose this feckless mishmash of good intentions and bad law is not to oppose the kind treatment of children. Of course not. In this field let us do the best we can here at home, by our own compassionate lights, and let the international do-gooders, with our blessing, go their busy way in peace.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.