Senate Rejects UN Disability Treaty

UPDATE: Well that was dispiriting. In a 61-38 vote, the US Senate failed to ratify the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities. Only a handful of Republicans joined Democrats in supporting ratification, so the measure fell 5 votes short of ratification.


In just a couple hours from now, the US Senate will vote on ratification of the Convention on Persons with Disabilities.  If passed with a two-thirds majority (which means 66 “yays,” since one Senator is out) this would be the most significant international human rights treaty ratified by the USA since the Senate adopted the Convention Against Torture in 1992.

Social conservatives make up the bulk of the opposition to this treaty, but the treaty may still prevail. Former Senator Bob Dole, a disabled World War Two veteran and Republican, will be in the Senate chamber for the vote to lobby for its ratification. Senator John McCain is another prominent supporter of the treaty.  There is no opposition to this treaty among the senate Democrats, so ratification really depends on whether or not a little more than a bakers-dozen of Republicans vote for the treaty.

John Kerry is very much leading the charge for ratification. This morning, he crafted a useful blog post dispassionately explaining why some of the more common criticisms of  the treaty are factually misguided.

So let’s examine the facts.

We can start by permanently retiring the myth that this Treaty somehow infringes on our sovereignty or the principles of federalism.

True, this Treaty creates a committee that can issue non-binding recommendations. Is that a sufficient reason to vote against it? Absolutely not. The fact is, this committee can review reports submitted by nations on the steps they’ve taken to implement the Convention, and it can make non-binding recommendations. It can make suggestions. That’s it. Nothing else. It doesn’t have the power to change laws or take any action in the United States, and its recommendations have no legal effect in our state or federal courts.

I know some have concerns about other treaties and their compliance bodies going beyond their mandate. That argument has been used before–and it’s irrelevant here. What the compliance committees for other treaties do will have no bearing on the Disabilities Convention.

What about federalism? Does this Treaty violate the delicate balance between the state and federal government with respect to children with disabilities? Would it “trump state laws” and serve as precedent in state and federal courts?

Wrong again–on both counts. The Treaty doesn’t affect the balance of power between the federal government and the states on these issues in any way. Nor does it require any changes to existing state or federal law. But don’t take my word for it. The Justice Department and former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that any assertion to the contrary was simply incorrect.

But we’ve also heard the myth that U.S. ratification of this Treaty will somehow affirm the establishment of rights that are not recognized under U.S. law. Treaty opponents can point to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and cry wolf all they want, but facts are stubborn things.

So let’s be clear: the Disabilities Convention is a non-discrimination treaty. It won’t create any new rights that do not otherwise exist in our domestic law. What are the U.S. obligations under this Treaty? Simple: prevent discrimination on the basis of disability only with respect to rights that are already recognized and implemented under U.S. law. In other words — keep doing what we already have done for the 22 years since we proudly passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As for the notion that this treaty supports an expansive “social” rather than a “medical” definition of the term “disability,” shifting the focus from physical to attitudinal barriers for persons with disabilities, don’t let the critics fool you.

It’s true that some countries were advocating for an unacceptable definition of “disability” during treaty negotiations. But those efforts failed. They lost. We won. The counterarguments of the United States–and Dick Thornburgh–were successful and the flawed definition was not included in the treaty. Bottom line: the Treaty leaves it up to each country to apply the term “disability” consistent with its domestic laws.

You can tune into CSPAN 2 around 12 pm today for the vote.