What’s Wrong Wednesday: Senate Kills Disabilities Treaty

On Tuesday, December 4, 2012, the US Senate vote failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (yes 61, no 38; needed 66 to pass). The 38 who voted against the treaty basically could not recognize the fundamental human rights of people with disabilities. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) voted NO; Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) voted YES; Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), voted YES; MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), voted YES.

United Nations-drafted Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, sometimes labeled the “international ADA,” was negotiated under President George W. Bush and was signed by President Obama in July 2009. It has been signed by at least 153 countries in addition to the United States.

There are eight guiding principles that underlie the Convention: 1) Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons. 2) Non-discrimination. 3) Full and effective participation and inclusion in society. 4) Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity. 5) Equality of opportunity. 6) Accessibility. 7) Equality between men and women. 8) Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities

The treaty was expected to get broad bipartisan support in the Senate, as well as the support of the US Chamber of Commerce and a number of American multinational corporations including General Electric. But a wave of opposition emerged last month; the eleventh-hour opposition is related to the opposition of some Senate Republicans and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA). Santorum claims the treaty “would put the state in the position of determining what is in the best interest of a disabled child,” and allow the government to overrule parents when making decisions about their disabled children.  The Heritage Foundation’s (conservative) advocacy arm, Heritage Action, has also taken up the cause of opposing the treaty based on the idea it infringes upon American sovereignty. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council claimed, “The global community could force America to sanction sterilization or abortion for the disabled — at taxpayer expense.”

In a press conference Monday, December 3, 2012, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ), called those assertions “ridiculous” and unfounded. They were joined by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), the only quadriplegic member of Congress, and Republican Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general and governor of Pennsylvania.

“Anyone who suggests that this committee is a threat to American sovereignty is simply not telling the truth,” Kerry said. “This treaty does not require one change in American law. This treaty does not require or permit anybody to go to court in America. It merely sets a standard in the rest of the world to lift up their treatment of people with disabilities… What it does is make it easier for Americans with disabilities, for veterans with disabilities, to travel, work live, study, and visit overseas. That’s all it does.”

McCain said much of the opposition is from conservative lawmakers and groups who typically do not approve of cooperation with the United Nations. In this case he urged his colleagues to export the US example.  “America is a more loving and caring nation because we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act,’’ McCain said. “This treaty is simply an expansion of that kind of rights to people all over the world who don’t have them today. It is not an infringement of American sovereignty.’’

“Ratifying the convention in the Senate would reaffirm America’s position as the global leader on disability rights,” President Obama said, “and better position us to encourage progress toward inclusion, equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for persons with disabilities worldwide.”

So much for global inclusion, equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities.