Friday, September 29, 2006

Is spanking children a violation of international human rights law? Susan Bitensky's new book says it is

As a parent who did spank his child and thought it did her a world of good, I will be interested in Susan H. Bitensky's new book, Corporate Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation (Transnational Publishers 2006), arguing that corporal punishment of children is a violation of international human rights law.

It will not surprise regular readers of this blog, if there are any, to know that I view this kind of conclusion - I will defer as to the argument until having seen the book - as the kind of thing that alas gives the concept of international human rights a bad name, at least in such benighted places as the United States. It is the sort of thing that gives skeptics about human rights law fodder for years to come. (And, mirabile dictu, today, Saturday, September 30, 2006, the New York Times has a front page story on corporal punishment persisting in the nation's schools, along with a picture of junior high school principal Anthony Price, a burly African American man, holding a sizable looking paddle in his hand. Story by Rick Lyman - and forever locked behind the Wall at the NYT.)

(I would be interested to know if Human Rights Watch's children's rights division agrees with Professor Bitensky. I would also be interested in Michael Ignatieff's reaction, as he once passingly discussed the issue in the the New York Review of Books or someplace as the sort of thing that would be obviously beyond the reach of human rights law, while at the same time, Ignatieff-style, acknowledging all the many ways in which international human rights law should regulate parents in their intimate dealings with their children.)

Truth be told, I thought arguments around these issues in human rights were dead and buried years ago, when the human rights movement, faced with Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, and then all the issues arising from torture and mistreatment in the war on terror, etc., decided it was perhaps time to get back to basics and quit arguing about these kinds of endlessly expansionary diversions of human rights law based around the ancient "the personal is the political" axiom. But I guess I was wrong.

Additionally, I critically discuss a concept that, from the abstract, features in the book - the legal as the therapeutic - in an older paper in the Columbia Law Review that I recently posted to SSRN, here, The Therapeutic as Rights-Talk.

Here is the abstract from SSRN:

The core of this book is a detailed analysis of the status of corporal punishment of children, including so-called reasonable spankings by parents, under international human rights law. The analysis leads compellingly to the conclusion that such punishment is indeed a human rights violation, consonant with modern norms about right and decent treatment of juveniles. The book further provides a comparative analysis between the domestic laws of the fifteen nations that absolutely ban all corporal punishment of children (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and Israel) and exemplars of domestic laws in the many countries that still permit some physical chastisement of children (United States and Canada).

Because a good number of readers may be surprised to learn that this disciplinary practice has become a human rights violation, the book also presents an in-depth exegesis of the psychological evidence and historical and philosophical reasons warranting prohibition of all corporal punishment of children as an imperative policy choice. The work probes as well why, once that choice is made, it is essential to use legal bans on the punishment because they have uniquely pedagogical and therapeutic roles and give permanence to humanity's hard won understanding about protecting the young from violence and legalized violence in particular.

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