In blocking adoption by the United States of a global convention to protect the disabled, the Republican right signaled on Dec. 4 that it intends to stall or kill all international treaties sent to the Senate for ratification by the Obama administration. Even pleas from a frail and crippled Bob Dole, a former senator, in his wheelchair and from Senator John McCain, a wounded and tortured war hero, failed to budge fellow Republicans in the name of humanity and justice.
The Senate action took place, coincidentally, only a few days before an eye-opening report from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute revealed the growing number of American states, cities and towns that are embracing and at times using the same international treaties the Senate rejects.
In Congress, however, the isolationist GOP is happy to bully other nations but not help their people achieve rights Americans enjoy. Proponents of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities say that American laws protecting and enhancing the lives of the disabled were considered models in drafting the international pact. But zealots on the right simply added it to a shabby, lengthening list of other stalled treaties that they see as ploys by foreigners, United Nations bureaucrats, socialists or vast gay and feminist conspiracies to take control over American life as we know it – or as they would like to imagine it.
The disability convention that the Republicans blocked does not have the force of international law, but only expects countries that ratify it to establish their own policies and laws to protect the disabled, abolish any laws and practices that may discriminate against them and combat stereotypes and prejudices in society toward them. Countries that join the convention are expected to designate a government official to ensure that the convention is honored and report to an independent international experts’ committee on progress made.
The 40 articles in the convention cover every aspect of life, with provisions from equal rights in property ownership and bank loans to freedom from abuse in care, medical experiments performed without consent or denial of health insurance. Countries are asked to eliminate physical obstacles and barriers to the disabled and allow them to live independently if they choose to, with access to in-home support. Personal relations are to be protected, with no bars to marriage or parenthood. Appropriate education is to be guaranteed, as is the right to work.
Supporters of the convention argue that as with other international agreements, the US should have a place at the table where matters involving rights of the disabled are discussed, and should be there to demonstrate their commitments to people affected, both at home and abroad, and be prepared – and unafraid – to be held up to scrutiny.
Only eight Republican senators voted with the Democrats, depriving the administration of a required two-thirds majority to ratify the convention. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, angrily denounced opponents of the humanitarian measure as ignorant of the facts and motivated by blind partisanship and a visceral hatred of the UN, which has no powers to force the US to do anything and does not write treaties, which are negotiated by governments.
Facts never got in the way of former senator Rick Santorum, a once-and-future presidential hopeful, when he produced his severely disabled daughter, Bella, in front of television cameras this year to denounce the convention. Hailing its defeat this month, he wrote in The Daily Beast that ratification “would put the state, under the direction of the U.N., in the position of determining what is in the best interest of a disabled child, replacing the parents who have that power under current US law.”
The Friday Fax, an online publication of the self-styled Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which dogs UN headquarters to sniff out progressives, had its aha! moment when it detected the words “sexual and reproductive health” in the convention. “Treaty monitoring bodies have used a similar term to pressure countries to liberalize their abortion laws,” it said. A lot of people believe this stuff; some of them get elected to the Senate.
JoAnn Kamuf Ward, associate director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights in the US Project, who supervised and drafted the report – “Bringing Human Rights Home: How State and Local Governments Can Use Human Rights to Advance Local Policy” – said in an interview that Americans across the country are countering politicians’ assertions that global treaties infringe on US sovereignty. “When we see that human rights are actually percolating up it’s a challenge to that notion,” she said.
In states from Oregon and its housing rights, to Vermont and universal health care – and in cities as diverse as San Francisco, El Paso and Fulton, Ga. – Americans are gaining national and international recognition of rights-based policy making, she said. They form connections with foreign counterparts and work with internationally appointed rights monitors. Americans are involved as well in promoting and incorporating environmental agreements that have not been ratified nationally.
“Local leaders also gain recognition on the world stage, and that’s something that’s important for US cities, especially in such a globalized world,” Kamuf Ward said.
The Obama administration has made considerable progress in the UN Human Rights Council on issues such as lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender rights and the legal status of women. In the past, a few global rights documents have been ratified by the Senate, including the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. But when the topic turns to social, gender and economic issues in Congress, there has always been controversy and inaction.
Washington continues to be stymied on the broader task of supporting international norms, to the dismay of other democracies. Yet all treaties over more than half a century, not only on human rights but also in disarmament and the environment, have been influenced by American negotiators, beginning with the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with Eleanor Roosevelt leading the US team.
Among the human-rights conventions the US has signed but not ratified are the Convention on the Rights of the Child (only the US, Somalia and South Sudan are holdouts) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which 187 countries of 193 UN members (among them all other industrial nations) have ratified, leaving the US on the side of nations like Iran and Sudan.
Beyond human-rights agreements, the US has never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, designed to curtail nuclear weapons development; the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court, which the late Jesse Helms warned President Bill Clinton would be “dead on arrival” if the White House sent it to Capitol Hill for ratification; and the Law of the Sea Treaty, which has the support of both maritime interests and the Pentagon.
Lorelei Kelly of the New America Foundation, an expert at the intersection of technology and policy making, has been doing extensive research on what has gone wrong on Capitol Hill in the last couple of decades that contributes to the “anti-intellectual spirit of Congress” and a decline in members’ comprehension of complex issues. In a new paper, “Congress’ Wicked Problem,” she writes: “Before 1995, committee staffs were … more often shared. Joint hearings between committees and between the House and Senate were more common as well.”
Today’s situation stands in stark contrast, she says, as Congress has failed to make use of new technologies and objective shared information, while locked in ever more divided camps.
To underline her point, Kelly quotes Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who defeated Richard Lugar, a Republican moderate and foreign policy wonk, in the party primary (only to lose in November after saying that pregnancy resulting from rape was something God intended). Mourdock defined bipartisanship as “Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
This article was adapted from a version that first appeared on TheNation.com.