Senate rejects UN disabilities treaty

Critics call Republican blockage of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities a missed opportunity caused by the politics of fear.

By Bob Allen

Religious Right leaders claimed victory Dec. 4 after Senate Democrats failed to muster a two-thirds vote necessary to join a United Nations treaty modeled after the Americans With Disabilities Act establishing international standards for the rights of disabled people around the world.

Sixty-one senators voted for the treaty known as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, five short of the supermajority for “advice and consent” of the Senate to allow the president to make treaties required by the U.S. Constitution.

The treaty, negotiated in 2006 by President George W. Bush, signed in 2009 by President Barack Obama and endorsed by more than 150 nations, is intended “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity,” according to the document.

Conservative groups led by the Home School Legal Defense Association opposed it, however, claiming some of its language could be used to undermine U.S. sovereignty and expand abortion rights.

"I'm delighted that this ignominious treaty has been sent to the ash heap of history where it belongs and that even a lame-duck Senate understood the intrusions upon American sovereignty that were unacceptable," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, commented in Baptist Press.

Earlier Land sent out an action alert describing the treaty as “a Trojan horse that would usurp U.S. sovereignty and parental rights.”

Supporters said the treaty doesn’t require the U.S. to change any laws but only challenges other nations to adopt protections similar to the Americans With Disabilities Act signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Opponents focused on finer points of the document such as “reproductive and family planning” language that many believe includes abortion and the “best interests of the child,” which some say could open the door to the government overruling parental rights in matters like homeschooling vs. public education. Some said it would subject the U.S. to international law.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in a podcast Dec. 5 that much of the treaty is nothing more than “political posturing” but “some of the provisions are downright scary.”

Many faith groups endorsed the treaty, including the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition, a nonpartisan group of religious and religiously affiliated organizations including American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

This summer the coalition wrote members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The group called the treaty “a valuable opportunity” for American leadership and influence in the effort to “ensure full participation and access for people with disabilities the world over.”

“The failure of the Senate to ratify the Convention is a discouraging, but I hope not the final word on this effort,” Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, managing director of resource development at American Baptist Home Mission Societies, said Dec. 5.

“Implementation of the Convention, modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act, realizes an international effort encouraging greater economic self-sufficiency, equality of opportunity, participation in society and independent living for people with disabilities,” said Ramsey-Lucas, who represents American Baptists on the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition. “It will enable Americans with disabilities working or traveling abroad to access the same protections abroad as they currently enjoy at home.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, 89, one of the leading voices urging passage of the treaty, came to the Senate floor, perhaps for the last time, in an effort to persuade lawmakers to vote for it. Weakened by age, illness and war injuries, Dole watched debate from a wheelchair before being wheeled away prior to the vote.

Eight Republicans joined Democrats in a voting for the treaty. All 38 senators casting “no” votes were Republicans.

White House press secretary Jay Carney called the vote disappointing and said the White House hopes the treaty can be reconsidered in the next Congress.

“Today's defeat of the CRPD squanders the opportunity to export the very best the United States has to offer," said Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“By delaying passage of the treaty, the Republicans in the Senate sent a message to the world that equality for people with disabilities is not a priority,” the AAPC said in a press release. “Passage of this treaty would have allowed the United States to show leadership on disability policy, by helping other nations work toward equal opportunity, freedom and dignity for people with disabilities.”