Senate approval of disability treaty in doubt

Despite widespread support for disabilities treaty, some Republicans say it could threaten American sovereignty.

Even for the US Congress unable to agree on most things, ratifying a treaty to empower the world’s physically and mentally challenged should be relatively simple, right?  It seems not.

Unlike the lower legislative House of Representatives, the US Senate has the power to ratify treaties. So, on Tuesday in Washington, it will vote on whether to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The treaty, adopted in 2006 at the UN, identifies the rights of persons with disabilities, and the obligations of parties to the Convention, to promote, protect and ensure those rights.  One hundred and twenty-six nations have ratified the CRPD. US Senator John Kerry, head of the Foreign Relations Committee, says more than a billion people have already benefited.

But some very powerful US senators have thrown the CRPD’S ratification into doubt. At least one senator, Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, says he believes the CRPD would threaten American sovereignty. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum has also weighed in on the debate, calling the convention – which would improve the lives of everyone from AIDS patients to babies with Down’s Syndrome – a “direct assault” on the US. Anti-abortion activists are even pressuring senators not to vote in favour of the CRPD’s ratification, claiming it will promote abortion on an “international scale”. Some opponents have even suggested approval of the treaty is “dangerous” for Americans who wish to homeschool their children.  

Twenty-two years ago, the US passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was signed into law by Republican President George HW Bush, who proclaimed the Act would allow the US to become an international leader in the fight to improve the rights of the country’s disabled. It provided protections for disabled people living in the US in the areas of employment, public services and public accommodations. This swept in a new era of inclusion, integration and empowerment for Americans with disabilities.  Now, Senator Kerry hopes that leadership can be used to encourage other nations to change their ways and their laws.       

But although the CRPD received the backing of the US Chamber of Commerce and every major disability and veterans’ organisation in the US on the eve of the Senate vote, doubt remains as to whether it will be ratified. A few senators even say it is unreasonable to consider an international treaty in a lame duck session of Congress.

It is perhaps a sad commentary on just how paralysed legislating in the US has become.  Senator Kerry, speaking to reporters on Monday, claimed “if ever there was a vote that should be able to get outside of what has ground Washington to halt, this is that vote”.

But if the positions of many key Republicans are an indication, Senator Kerry may be wrong – and millions of the world’s disabled could suffer as a result.

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