UN Disabilities Treaty Moves Forward on Capitol Hill

July 26, 2012|By Ryan Kaminski, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a stunning display of bipartisanship, voted 13-6 to send the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to the full Senate for consideration. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006, the CRPD is the core UN framework for protecting the rights of more than 650 million people living with disabilities worldwide. While the United States has of late moved incredibly close to joining the 117 other countries that ratified the accord, recent spurts of misinformation and erroneous claims about the CRPD threaten to delay, or even preclude, U.S. ratification of the convention.

When the United States signed the CRPD in July 2009, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice laid out a laundry list of types of discrimination the treaty seeks to alleviate. They include higher rates of unemployment, lack of choice in deciding which communities to live in, a higher risk of poverty, and obstacles to receiving education, among others. Ambassador Rice also concluded that discrimination targeting disabled persons "hinders economic development, limits democracy, and erodes societies" and is, quite simply, unjust.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the prevailing wisdom was the United States was on track to ratify the CRPD on July 26, the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was a groundbreaking law signed by President George H.W. Bush that many viewed as the model for not only other disability-related nondiscrimination legislation in other countries, but also the CRPD itself. As such, the Obama administration, more than 165 disability groups, and 21 veterans organizations—including Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion—and a bipartisan alliance of legislators hoped to make the United States the 118th country to ratify the accord.

Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole noted in a statement, "U.S. ratification of the CRPD will improve physical, technological and communication access outside the U.S., thereby helping to ensure that Americans—particularly, many thousands of disabled American veterans—have equal opportunities to live, work, and travel abroad." The former congressional sponsor of the ADA also added, "The U.S. ratification of the CRPD will continue our country's distinguished tradition as a world leader for people with disabilities as evidenced by the ADA."

Nevertheless, hopes that the CRPD could be ratified on July 26 were deferred when Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) put a hold on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's consideration of the treaty last week. A spokesperson for DeMint noted, "The United States is already the world leader in addressing the needs of the disabled and it's foolish to think Americans need to sign away our sovereignty to exert our influence around the world." Groups like the Home School Legal Defense Association have also suggested the CRPD will interfere with the practice of homeschooling and other parental authority. Others have voiced concerns that the term "reproductive health" in the Convention could be hijacked to advance the cause of abortion.

The problem is none of these claims carry much water when you look at the CRPD itself. 

Indeed, despite alarmism about faceless "international bureaucrats" taking control of U.S. domestic policy concerning the disabled, advocates have argued that ratifying the convention would actually not require the U.S. to spend any money or change any laws.

On the contrary, ratifying the CRPD can contribute to U.S. leadership and autonomy on a variety of fronts. After ratifying the treaty for instance, the United States would be eligible to participate on the CRPD expert body charged with assessing compliance with the treaty. The United States would also have the opportunity to regularly participate in conferences of parties to the CRPD. Both of these channels would help ensure that the United States could advance and uphold the ADA as a model to ensure the rights of disabled persons and principle of nondiscrimination are upheld not just within its borders, but abroad as well.

Next, despite worries the convention will interfere with the rights of homeschooled children and their parents, the word "homeschooled" does not actually appear anywhere in the CRPD text. Critics, though, have warned Article 7(2), which reads, "In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration" is a latent attempt for the UN to put its nose where it doesn't belong. However, inferring this small clause could be construed as manipulating the rights of homeschooled children clearly relies on a legally torturous—and ultimately flawed—reading of the convention's provisions. While nobody is suggesting the CRPD is perfect, concern about the UN getting involved in homeschooling is flatly not a reason to reject this treaty.

Finally, the phrase "reproductive health" has drawn ire for some CRPD detractors who note it could be used to establish abortion as a human right. Critics, however, commonly ignore that the U.S. explicitly clarified interpretation of that provision as link to abortion during the final drafting of the convention in 2006. In particular, the U.S. delegation stated, "The United States understands that the phrase 'reproductive health' in Article 25(a) of the draft Convention does not include abortion, and its use in that Article does not create any abortion rights, and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion." During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's mark-up of the CRPD, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) also advanced an amendment clarifying that the CRPD that the United States understands the convention as a "non-discrimination instrument" and that "nothing in the Convention, including Article 25, addresses the provision of any particular health program or procedure."

Now, it's critical that the bipartisan majority in favor of ratifying the Convention stand strong and maintain the momentum for securing the two-thirds majority vote in the Senate required for ratification. This, overall, will require three things: correcting misinformation when necessary; supporting the voices of the broad coalition of legislators, veterans groups, and other disability-related stakeholders supporting ratification; as well as thinking about the hundreds of millions of disabled persons worldwide—including 54 million Americans—who stand to benefit from the treaty's provisions.

Read more posts on UNA-USA's members-only, Voices on the UN.


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