Bringing Disability Rights Home: How U.S. Senate Hearings on the Disabilities Convention Point the Way to Ratification

7556591142_98ed835e05Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the second hearing this month on U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). A year ago, when the Committee first scheduled hearings on the CRPD, a Senate vote that followed fell just a few yeas shy of the 2/3 majority needed to ratify the treaty.  At the time, opponents asserted that ratifying the treaty would give UN experts unfettered authority to change U.S. law, particularly in relation to homeschooling and reproductive health. Similar arguments re-emerged in hearings on November 5th of this year, along with federalism concerns.

Yet, a number of rationales for ratification remain. As Senator Bob Dole, Representative Tammy Duckworth and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh indicated two weeks ago, and as Secretary of State Kerry reinforced last week, ratification would allow the United States to act as a global leader on this issue by exporting U.S. constitutional values and by guaranteeing the credibility of the United States in promoting disability rights abroad. Although opponents have argued that ratification is unnecessary since the Americans with Disabilities Act served as a model for the Convention’s provisions, in fact participation in the treaty would allow the United States to more tangibly act as a leading voice on equality. Indeed, international law professor Timothy Meyer testified that ratification would provide the United States an opportunity to nominate a U.S. citizen to serve as one of the Committee members tasked with monitoring treaty compliance. In addition, ratification would allow the United States to share the U.S. perspective on the treaty’s provisions in colloquy with the CRPD Committee. (To be clear, as a matter of law, treaty body members serve in their personal capacities and do not advocate the policies of their home states. Nevertheless, states whose citizens are appointed to treaty-monitoring committees are sometimes looked to as leaders on that particular human rights issue.)

Second, by strengthening the treaty, ratification would increase Americans with disabilities’ opportunities to live, work and travel abroad. While ratification proponents have focused on the travel concerns of veterans with disabilities (a timely concern after over a decade at war), in fact increased global accessibility would benefit all citizens venturing abroad. Opponents have argued that the United States’ own treaty ratification would not affect the practice of other states, the majority of which are already bound to the treaty. However, as the Rome Statue demonstrates, U.S. nonparticipation can weaken a treaty’s impact even among its own states parties by implying that the treaty’s provisions are not universally accepted or that they do not apply to powerful states.  Continue reading