Senate revives UN disabilities treaty

Senators are seeking to revive a UN treaty on the rights of people with disabilities that is strongly opposed by many conservatives.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and convention advocates hope the chamber will be able to pass the treaty after it fell five votes short last year. Menendez on Tuesday invited Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who was sidelined with a stroke last year, for the first of two hearings on the treaty.

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“This convention allows people to … become victors instead of victims,” said Kirk.

The convention has the support of more than 700 groups advocating for people with disabilities and 20 veterans' groups. They say ratification would not impose any legal requirements on the United States but would press the rest of the world to get up to par with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which they call the world's “gold standard.”

Opponents, including former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), say the treaty would empower UN bureaucrats to influence a broad swath of U.S. laws, notably regarding abortion and home-schooling.

They got a boost on Tuesday when the Supreme Court heard a case in which the federal government charged a Pennsylvania woman under a U.S. law implementing the UN Chemical Weapons Convention after she allegedly smeared her husband's lover's mailbox with a toxic substance.

“When assurances are being made” that the disabilities treaty has no impact on U.S. law, “that rings pretty hollow today when this case is being heard by the Supreme Court,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told treaty advocates. “What assurances can you give us that this treaty won't be used for a similar purpose?”

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel, also raised concerns with the chemical weapons case.

Michael Farris, the chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, said treaty advocates were being disingenuous when they say it would have no impact on U.S. law. Senators said they could craft reservations to the treaty to meet those concerns, but Farris denounced that approach as a “shell game and empty promises” that would be contrary to the goals of the treaty.

And Susan Yoshihara, a senior vice president at the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, said a UN advisory committee created by the treaty has been pressuring countries that have signed the treaty to make abortion more accessible.

“There is no better example of the dangers of ratification or the way UN bureaucracies disregard the will of nations by routinely misinterpreting international obligations to instead promote their own agenda,” she testified.

Other legal experts disagreed that treaty ratification would tie the U.S. government's hands.

Richard Thornburgh, attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and the father of a son with intellectual and physical disabilities, said the committee's earlier adoption of a series of reservations, understandings, and declarations – known as RUDs – addresses critics' complaints.

“The reservation regarding private conduct will ensure that the U.S. will not accept any obligation except as mandated by the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” he testified. “Thus, as with our current law, religious entities, small employers, and private homes would be exempt from any new requirements.”

Treaty advocates have also relied on wounded veterans to make the case.

First-term Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both legs in Iraq, said U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) will put pressure on other nations to create better accomodations for people with disabilities, which will benefit wounded American veterans traveling abroad.

“The CRPD will allow veterans with disabilities to have greater opportunities to work, study abroad and travel as countries implement this treaty,” she said. “Veterans, active service members and their families who are affected by disability will be able to lead active lives around the world.”

 

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