(This article originally appeared on NationofChange. It has been reprinted here with permission.)
The 2014 Sochi Paralympics has refocused attention on disabled athletes across the globe. It has also reopened debate on whether America should ratify the United Nations’ Disability Treaty, which seeks to bring equal human rights to the 15 percent of the world’s population currently living with a disability.
The United States was one of 158 countries to sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009. But in 2012, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the CRPD, citing multiple excuses (“bad timing” among them), despite a personal plea from disabled veteran and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
It was Dole’s own party that would deny the ratification, with only eight Republicans offering an “aye” vote alongside Democrats, the rest offering chastened but resolute “nays.”
Compare this to 1990 when Republican President George Bush I signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. Then, it passed by an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate, with only 34 legislators opposed. It may seem strange then that the CRPD, itself modeled on America’s Disabilities Act, has met such resistance. But, as its critics maintain, the UN’s version is different in several important respects.
Sources of Contention in the CRPD
Proponents of the CRPD are seeking the same social and civil improvements to the lives of the disabled that were achieved by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA was the first civil rights law to comprehensively prohibit discrimination against disabled individuals. This includes discrimination in the workplace, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications. It was an ambitious law, and its enforcement ambitiously executed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Given two years to implement the law’s employment provision, the EEOC conducted 62 public meetings across America to coordinate with employers on new regulations. The new regulations were passed one year under the deadline.
Throughout the ‘90s, the EEOC helped resolve numerous claims of discrimination against the disabled, providing new health benefits to workers with AIDS, equal opportunity to wheelchair-bound employees and winning back pay and compensatory relief to plaintiffs wrongfully discharged.
Today the protections provided by anti-discrimination laws are taken as a matter of course in American services. Such protections are not universally available.
In many countries the disabled are viewed as sub-human and their civil rights nonexistent. They are commonly found within the poorest segment of countries’ populations, denied healthcare and education. These individuals can become the victims of sexual abuse and violence, their “gynecologic and obstetrical care withheld and considered inappropriate and unnecessary.”
But it is the very language of the CRPD that provides for “sexual and reproductive health” that has made American Republicans balk at ratification. The very term “sexual and reproductive health” has led to the suspicion that it could covertly allow for a “global right to abortion.”
Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum has also drawn attention to the “dark and troubling implications” of the CRPD’s Section 7. The Section, as in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, states that, “In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
Under current U.S. law, a child’s parents are the ones charged with its best interests. Santorum argues that Section 7 of the CRPD will cede this authority to the government, which will itself be in thrall to the United Nations. Santorum, the father of a special needs child, then extrapolates from there:
“In the case of our 4-year-old daughter, Bella, who has Trisomy 18, a condition that the medical literature says is ‘incompatible with life,’ would her ‘best interest’ be that she be allowed to die? Some would undoubtedly say so.”
It is difficult to imagine an authority that would deny a 4-year-old life, especially one concerned with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but Santorum’s argument has gained traction amongst his party members. In the same article for WorldNetDaily, he notes that America has also refused to ratify the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child – largely due to this language.
This is true. America is the only member of the U.N., apart from Somalia and South Sudan, to not ratify the CRC. (It should be noted that both Somalia, a broken nation, and South Sudan, a new nation, are in the process of ratification.) America is also the only U.N. member, apart from Haiti, to not ratify the Basel Convention, which regulates the flow of hazardous waste from industrialized nations to developing ones.
And that is an essential reason why the American government refuses to ratify the CRPD. Any international accord that can be perceived as diminishing American sovereignty is dismissed out of hand.
When we compare these perceived threats to the very real threats to American sovereignty posed by the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement – which could potentially supersede U.S. federal courts; incentivize domestic businesses to invest in offshore, low-wage countries; allow foreign firms to sue the American government for financial, health and environmental compensation; and override American labor standards – the argument loses some steam.
Is the United States’ Sovereignty in Danger?
No. In arguments such as these the impression is always one of reassuring a narcissistic gorilla that its 800 pounds aren’t going anywhere. Signing a U.N. convention, as the U.S. has already done, is an endorsement of its moral principles. Ratification is a commitment to its legal principles. But there is no authority in place to force the United States to do anything.
The United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD) has issued a simple two page fact sheet that dispels the myths surrounding the CRPD. Ratification will only require the U.S. to submit periodic human rights reports. It will require no change in laws or policies. The United States “is party to over 10,000 treaties and international agreements,” none of which have yet weakened its global leadership. A U.N. Committee will offer advice and recommendations to ratified members, but no country is required to follow them.
Frankly, the U.N.’s lack of enforcement is what makes Republicans fear of it so comical, but it also provides a tragic punchline.
As Eric Posner argues in Slate Magazine, too often human rights treaties are used as empty propaganda by unscrupulous nations. Uzbekistan, which ratified the CRC, enforces child labor in its government-sponsored cotton harvests. Saudi Arabia, “a party to the convention banning discrimination against women,” forbids women from traveling or working without permission from their male guardians. Ethiopia, Russia and Vietnam all violate the civil rights they’ve agreed to protect. The list goes on.
So Why Bother?
That U.N. conventions are meaningless is often coupled with the conservative argument that the U.S.’s current federal laws already provide the anti-discrimination protections needed for its citizens. Why is it necessary to ratify the CRPD with the ADA already in place?
Because America is not Ethiopia, Russia or Vietnam. Because America is the 800 pound gorilla that passed the ADA in the first place, and a public commitment to its international dissemination is not merely a political gesture but a commitment to seeing it properly upheld among fellow countries. To ratify would be an act of solidarity with the world, as well as the numerous American veteran and disability associations that support it.