Important treaty on disabilities languishes in the Senate

This October, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to reconsider a United Nations treaty defending the rights of people with disabilities. Hopefully, this time around the panel will put the treaty back on track to ratification. 
 
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed by President Obama in 2009.  Since then, it has been signed and ratified by 132 countries including Canada, Ireland and the European Union. Even the Castro regime, China and Sudan – hardly iconic world leaders in human rights and human dignity – have ratified the treaty.  But the U.S. Senate, whose constitutional job it is to provide advice and consent on treaties, has sat on the sidelines.
 
The treaty declares that all people, regardless of ability, deserve to live in dignity, safety and equality under the law.  It affirms the values of economic self-sufficiency, non-discrimination and self-determination.
 

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Sounds like the principles of the United States – and that’s not by accident.  The treaty was designed to mirror our own Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring signatory nations to meet certain standards for the disabled that have been set by the United States.  You’d think this would be a no-brainer for the Senate to ratify.  But in a shocking 61-to-38 vote (five votes short of the needed two-thirds majority) last December, the Senate failed to ratify it.
 
As the commander of the U.S. combat brigade in Diyala Province, Iraq from 2006 – 2007, I fought for a rule of law that would be based, in part, on the high standards of the United States.  While in Iraq, I passed through villages caring for children injured by the conflict and children who were born with disabilities.  These children were loved, but the villages could be doing so much more.  There were no schools for Downs Syndrome kids or ramps and access for amputees.  This treaty, which Iraq has ratified, would open the dialogue so that such support might become a reality.
 
I also fought so that my fellow service members who became disabled as a result of fighting for justice could enjoy the same rights outside the United States as they do here at home.  That’s one reason why Sen.  John McCain, (R-Ariz.), and former Sen. Bob Dole, (R-Kan.), both of whom suffered disabilities as a result of their military service, support the treaty.  So do nearly 20 military organizations including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
 
Another veteran, then-Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.), supports the treaty. The treaty, Kerry argued, “says that you can’t discriminate against the disabled.  It says that other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.”  Now, as the nation’s top diplomat, Kerry is in the awkward and embarrassing position of explaining this failure by the world’s leader on disabled rights issues.
 
So what exactly is the problem that critics have with the treaty?
 
Opponents argue that this treaty will change laws in the United States and give the United Nations oversight of health and education choices that parents with special needs children make.  Onetime GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum wrote on his website that the treaty “would trump state laws and could be used as precedent by state and federal judges.” Santorum, an attorney, should know better: U.S. courts only allow U.S. law to serve as a basis for litigation.
 
Ratification of the Convention won’t change any laws, and this treaty doesn’t dictate.  Rather, it allows the U.S. to participate in discussions where best practices are shared.  And it encourages other countries to raise their own standards.  There is nothing dictatorial or proscriptive about that.
 
Ratification “would position the United States to occupy the global leadership role to which our domestic record already attests,” President Obama said. “We would thus seek to use the Convention as a tool through which to enhance the rights of Americans with disabilities, including our veterans.”
 
Senate ratification and “mobilizing greater international compliance could also level the playing field for American businesses, who already must comply with U.S. disability laws, as well as those whose products and services might find new markets in countries whose disability standards move closer to those of the United,” Obama said.
 
When the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is reintroduced in the Senate this October, lawmakers will have a second chance to do the right thing. In life, it is very rare indeed that we have the opportunity to correct major mistakes. The Senate will get that opportunity. Lawmakers need to make the right choice.
 
Sutherland is co-founder and chairman of the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Community Services, an enterprise of Easter Seals. He commanded the U.S. combat brigade in Diyala Province, Iraq (2006-2007) and served as Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2009-2012) with a focus on warrior and family support.