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March 28, 2015

GOP Gets Another Chance to Back Disabilities Treaty

The last time Senate Democrats brought up an international disabilities treaty Republicans were deeply divided.

In the final weeks of the 112th Congress, former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, then 89, frail and in a wheelchair pushed onto the Senate floor by his wife, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., could not rally enough GOP support to approve the United Nations disability treaty. Republicans put their heads down and voted against the pleadings of the World War II veteran who, the week before, had been receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center. The treaty fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to pass it.

Now, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to reconsider the disabilities treaty, in what is sure to be another test for Republicans. Will they approve a treaty that would set global standards for the treatment of the almost 1 billion people living with some kind of disability? Or will they again follow the conservative faction that complained the treaty would allow the U.N. to overreach?

The Foreign Relations panel is scheduled to hold a two-part hearing on the treaty Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., with the first panel anchored by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. — one of eight Republicans who voted with Democrats the first time around — and Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., a Naval reserve veteran who suffered a stroke in January 2012 and faces physical impediments as a result. In the second panel, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran who lost her legs in Iraq, and former Homeland Security Secretary Thomas Ridge, who now chairs the National Organization on Disability, are among the notable speakers.

Another former Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist, penned an op-ed Tuesday defending the treaty and challenging its detractors.

“As is often the case, a bit of politics and a bit of misinformation ruled the day,” Frist wrote in Reuters of the failed December 2012 vote. “Two larger political issues emerged. Republicans exhibited some squeamishness around the term ‘sexual and reproductive health’ in the treaty. While the term is undefined, there were rumblings that it could create a global right to abortion.

“The second issue was an impressive fear campaign launched by Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association to convince parents that the U.N. treaty would limit their ability to educate their disabled children at home,” Frist continued.

He goes on to say that the reproductive health language does not define services but rather ensures that disabled people are granted the same protections as others and that nothing in the treaty would override the Americans With Disabilities Act, on which the U.N. treaty is modeled.

With 55 Democrats and five Republicans who voted in favor for the treaty last time, supporters need to find a handful of GOP senators to break ranks and approve the treaty. Kirk would bring the whip count to 61 and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — who switched his vote from “yes” to “no” during the 2012 vote when it appeared backers would not clear their threshold — also could be a “yes” this time.

Look for Republicans Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to be top targets for vote-switching, as Corker now is the ranking member on Foreign Relations. Other Republicans to watch might be Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (Ayotte and John McCain of Arizona both voted for the treaty in 2012), Dean Heller of Nevada, Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran of Kansas (whose late decision to cast a “no” vote in 2012 was viewed largely as the final move that collapsed its chances of passage).

  • Wendy

    Since the last time the Senate considered the Disability treaty, it has come to light that UN committee which monitors the treaty has pressured two countries (Spain and Hungary) on abortion in a way that, to comply, would mean legalizing late-term abortions.
    Some argue that the treaty would help Americans when they travel overseas.
    Ratifying a treaty won’t make other countries live up to America’s standards on disability rights. Other countries don’t obey treaties just because the U.S. ratifies them. Saudi Arabia, Kenya or even France are not going to build ramps or install visual fire alarms simply because the U.S. ratifies a UN treaty.

    U.S. officials would be better off spending their energy working directly with other countries to upgrade legislation and resources for people with disabilities, rather than answering to a UN committee.

    Other countries already follow the US as a role model for disability rights – they’ve said so at the UN. And that’s even without the U.S. ratifying the treaty. Ratifying the Disabilities treaty would simply make the U.S. on par with other countries, subject to the UN committee that oversees implementation.

    • tonyfleming

      These are weak arguments at best, and sadly misleading. U.S. engagement on the treaty would raise its enforcement in other countries simply due to U.S. participation in overseeing the treaty’s oversight committee. Without ratification, the U.S. carries no weight when criticizing or pressuring other states to live up to our national standards. Ratification of the Convention however will export those standards and our leadership on disability rights to other states.

      Contrary to your unsourced accusation that the overseeing committee has pressured states to permit abortions, the Convention actually protects the right to life of disabled persons equal to that of non-disabled. If anything, the Convention would protect unborn children who are aborted due to pre-natal diagnoses of disability.

      Rather than spend untold billions working one-by-one individually with each and every country we wish would upgrade their disability standards, the U.S. should leverage the existing framework which 153 other states are engaged to raise standards globally. Our high standards would guide the work of the committee and ensure its recommendations are based on solid experience. The suggestion that we’d be “subject to” or have to “answer” to a convention that is itself based on U.S. law would be laughable if it were intentionally misleading and deceitful.

      • Wendy

        Tony, thanks for your comment.
        According to other countries, the U.S. already carries weight on disability rights. At the UN high-level meeting on the Disabilities treaty last September, representatives from Russia and other countries said the U.S. is their role model. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke and participated in the meeting – without the U.S. having ratified the treaty The U.S. has an ambassador on disability rights who is active at the UN and advises other countries .While the Obama administration would like senators to ratify the treaty, the U.S. is only limited by imagination.
        U.S. law was influential in the drafting of the UN Disabilities treaty, but there are serious differences, even in its definition of disability. The treaty says disability is as “an evolving concept.” This elastic concept can wrap around nearly anything and cause mischief that will distract from true needs.
        The Disabilities treaty, not U.S. law, is the standard countries sign on to follow.
        The Disabilities treaty committee has 18 members. If a U.S. citizen is elected to the committee, they would be one voice among 18. Getting elected is a huge endeavor requiring countries to negotiate (with all that goes along with negotiating) to get their candidate on.
        The committee’s recommendations (called Concluding Observations) are publicly available on the UN Human Rights Office website. In the case of Spain, the Disabilities Committee noted that healthy children could be aborted legally through 12 weeks and children identified to have abnormalities through 22 weeks. Instead of recommending more protection for these children, the committee suggested removing any “distinction” in the periods. Because fetal abnormalities oftentimes cannot be detected until 20 weeks (for example, with Down syndrome) to comply with the committee’s recommendation, abortion should be allowed at 22 weeks for all children.
        “[W]orking one-by-one individually” with other countries is far more effective than a one-size-fits-none approach through a UN bureaucracy. A blind child in Sudan has different needs than a paralyzed woman in Belize. Tailoring guidelines and directing resources closer, or straight, to those in need is more effective than a committee writing another report.
        An individual approach does not obligate the U.S. to spend billions. Some legal experts, however, worry the UN Disabilities could be used to obligate the U.S. to pay for other countries’ progress. Not ratifying the treaty keeps America free to decide how, and how much of, our tax dollars would be spent.
        The U.S. takes treaties seriously. We subject ourselves by ratifying them. The UN Disabilities treaty requires participating countries to report to its committee. UN committees have become notoriously rogue, going beyond their mandates and the limits of the treaties. It is a well-known problem wiithin the UN, where countries are duking out a reform process.
        While the committee’s observations are not binding, some courts in other countries have treated them as authoritative. Some U.S. Supreme Court justices have referenced UN treaties in legal decisions.
        In the U.S., a trend among some legal idealists (like Harold Koh, Obama’s former top lawyer at the State Dept) is for international law to increase and national sovereignty to decrease. The UN Disabilities treaty would challenge our federalist system (addressing issues the Constitution leaves to states) as well as sovereignty.
        Senators are considering what reservations should be attached to the UN Disabilities treaty to protect Constitutional rights. Sen. Corker and Alexander, after extensive discussions with legal and international relations experts, came to the conclusion the treaty’s deficiencies cannot be overcome. The treaty risks Americans’ rights and national sovereignty – the foundation for the U.S. which led to us being the leader on disability rights.
        People with disabilities face excruciating abuse, stigma and isolation. In Rwanda and Burundi, children with disabilities are 3 to 4 times more likely to suffer sexual violence than children without disabilities. The Disabilities treaty can be a lifeline for people in countries with unresponsive or ill-prepared governments.
        But the Disabilities treaty is not as simplistic as some present it. It is not a feel-good measure, a sign-on petition. It’s an obligation, not a soapbox to tell others what to do.

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