The former Republican majority leader, a disabled veteran and now 89, made his visit in a wheelchair. Colleagues came up to greet him – and then they turned and voted down the treaty.
Most Americans have probably never heard of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international agreement that aimed to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities.” With 61 for and 38 against, the vote fell just five shy of the 66 required for ratification. The vote looked close – but the numbers belie the intensity of the conservative opposition.
A small community has worked hard to mobilize opposition to US ratification. Just hours after the vote, the website of the Home School Legal Defense Association ran a banner that said “Thank You for Supporting Freedom. Your calls prevented ratification of the UN CRPD,” the treaty’s acronym. One of its outlandish criticisms is that ratification would require abortion on demand.
Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative Eagle Forum exhorted people to “keep the calls coming” to urge senators to vote against the treaty. These organizations insisted that ratification would weaken the rights of parents to raise their children and violate US sovereignty by allowing the UN to run roughshod over the rights of individual states to determine their own policies.
Their arguments are spurious. Ratification would have allowed the UN merely to review US policy, but would not give UN personnel any authority to change it, or to require any action at all. We have ratified similar human rights treaties, most notably the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, with no harm done to American sovereignty.
By failing to ratify the convention on disabilities we do not protect American sovereignty. Instead, we compromise America’s ability to assert global leadership on disability rights and we leave the US in bad company. The convention opened for signature just six years ago and quickly garnered the ratification of 126 countries. We are already an international pariah by virtue of failing to ratify treaties on the rights of women and of children.
The US stands with six other countries in failing to ratify the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Tonga. Every UN member has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, except two: Somalia and the US. With all three of these failed treaties, conservatives mobilized opposition on the basis of specious claims about the impact of ratification.
Conservatives such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona have a point when they say that many of the signatories of the disabilities treaty have poor records on actually protecting the rights of the disabled. But this view misses how human rights treaties work.
By establishing clear standards for rights and requiring regular reports on progress toward compliance, treaties like the one on disabilities empower ordinary citizens to demand that their governments comply with these obligations. Public pressure at the domestic level is what makes international human rights treaties effective.
Arguments to affirm what Americans already believe in and to strengthen rights they already enjoy as a nation ought to be more convincing than outright distortions. Americans need to persuade more moderate Republicans to join the Democratic majority in supporting human rights.
The vote this week offers a glimmer of hope for bipartisan support on these issues in the future. Eight Republican senators crossed the aisle to vote in favor. They need company.
Lisa Baldez is associate professor of government and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. She is writing a book about why the US has not ratified the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.