Concerns About Sovereignty Lead Senate Conservatives to Nix U.N. Treaty on Disabled

Patrick Goodenough | December 5, 2012 | 4:34am EST
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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice signs the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on July 30, 2009. (Photo: U.S. Mission to the U.N./Jordyn Phelps)

( – Conservative groups welcomed the U.S. Senate’s failure on Tuesday to ratify a United Nations disabilities treaty, which they view as an infringement of U.S. sovereignty. But Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a leading proponent, called it “one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate.”

The Senate voted 61-38 in favor of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), falling five votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

Eight Republicans voted with Democrats for the measure. No Democrats voted against it. (See below for voting details).

Signed by Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice as directed by President Obama in 2009, the treaty is designed to promote and protect the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities.

As a party to the treaty, the U.S. would be obliged to report, every four years, to a CRPD committee. The requirement raises sovereignty concerns for opponents, who say the U.S. already sets the standard for treatment of people with disabilities, through the 22-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

“While the intent of the treaty is noble, what would have happened would have been a huge undermining of U.S. sovereignty,” Concerned Women for America director of legislation Shari Rendall said after the vote.

She said the U.S. is the world’s leader in disabilities rights but should not have to subject itself “to an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy in the United Nations.”

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which argued that the treaty would threaten parental rights, also welcomed the outcome.

“The U.S. Senate rejected a treaty which would have allowed U.N. bureaucrats to decide what is in the “best interests” of children with disabilities, instead leaving those decisions with parents and caregivers, which is what existing U.S. law already requires,” said HSLDA president Michael Smith.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry speaks in favor of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, December 4, 2012. A vote on ratification fell short of the two-thirds majority required. (Image: C-Span)

Proponents counter that the CRPD committee can only issue non-binding recommendations and that the convention, in Kerry’s words, “doesn’t have the power to change laws or take any action in the United States.”

In a strongly worded statement after the vote, Kerry said the defeat should be “a wakeup call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.”

“We won’t give up on this, and the Disabilities Treaty will pass because it’s the right thing to do, but today I understand better than ever before why Americans have such disdain for Congress and just how much must happen to fix the Senate so we can act on the real interests of our country,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney voiced disappointment at the outcome, saying the treaty “would position the United States to support extending across the globe the rights that Americans already enjoy at home.”

The U.S. International Council on Disabilities also expressed dismay, saying in a statement on behalf of a coalition of organizations that “extremists in the Republican Party blocked a treaty that would protect people with disabilities, help our brave veterans, and would have maintained America’s leadership on global disability rights.”

A disability rights group that opposed ratification, Joni and Friends – founded by Christian author Joni Eareckson Tada – said last month that Americans “can advance human dignity for persons with disabilities worldwide by, first, supporting the enforcement of the ADA here at home; and second, investing in those global initiatives which provide spiritual and practical help to improve the wellbeing of people with disabilities everywhere.”

A spokeswoman said Tuesday Joni and Friends did not have a comment to make at this time.

The GOP’s 2012 platform called on the Senate to “reject agreements whose long-range impact on the American family is ominous or unclear,” including the CRPD.

Last September, 36 senators signed a letter drafted by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) voicing opposition to consideration of any treaty during the lame duck session.

“The writers of the Constitution clearly believed that all treaties presented to the Senate should undergo the most thorough scrutiny before being agreed upon,” it said. “The American people will be electing representatives and senators in November, and the new representatives carrying the election mandate should be afforded the opportunity to review and consider any international agreements that are outstanding at the time of their election.”

Abortion tussle

For many opponents, concerns about the treaty center on abortion. Article 25 of the treaty reads in part that states shall “provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programs as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health …”

As is the case with other U.N. treaties and documents, terms such as “sexual and reproductive” care and programs have been interpreted by some to refer to abortion.

(Citing abortion concerns, the George W. Bush administration sought on various occasions to clarify vague or undefined wording in international documents. In some cases, despite supporting the broader measure, it opposed U.N. resolutions after failing to have such wording amended or removed.)

When the CRPD was being negotiated, governments insisted that it does not create any new rights – although some senior U.N. officials have been quoted since then as saying that the “right” of reproductive health was enshrined in the treaty.

Upon ratifying the CRPD, many countries lodged reservations. At least three, Poland, Malta and Monaco, explicitly stated that “sexual and reproductive health” does not include abortion.

When the measure was being considered over the summer by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed inserting wording specifying that the CRPD “does not create any abortion rights, cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion, and in no way suggests that abortion should be promoted as a method of family planning.”

Kerry opposed it, pointing out that there was no agreement within the United States over abortion. Instead, Kerry offered – and the committee approved – what he said was a “neutral” amendment, stating that nothing in the treaty “addresses the provision of any particular health program or procedure.”

The committee also considered a proposal by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) stating that the U.S. “does not accept any obligation under the convention to enact legislation or take other measure in any fashion.”

Kerry strongly opposed that suggestion too, saying DeMint’s proposed language was a “sweeping statement that this [treaty] doesn’t mean anything. It does mean something.”

In its place the committee approved an amendment by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) declaring that “current United States law fulfills or exceeds the obligations of the convention for the United States.”

The committee then approved the resolution on ratification by a 13-6 vote, paving the way for a full Senate vote.

In Tuesday’s 61-38 vote, no Democrats voted against the measure. Republicans who voted with the Democrats in favor were Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dick Lugar (Ind.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) did not vote.

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