Politics & Policy

U.N. Treaty on the Rights of the Disabled

Voting no doesn’t mean we lack compassion.

Brace yourselves, everyone, because here’s something that might be surprising: Elected officials who vote against the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities don’t necessarily hate disabled people. Strange but true! In fact, a number of leaders in Washington vehemently oppose the treaty, and for good reason: Senate ratification wouldn’t accomplish anything substantial for Americans. It wouldn’t significantly improve the living conditions of disabled people overseas, and it could potentially undermine American sovereignty.

John Kerry, one of the treaty’s main proponents in the Senate, has argued the opposite — that it won’t change U.S. law and could make life easier for disabled Americans traveling overseas. And the treaty’s supporters also emphasize that it has bipartisan support, from Senators John Barrasso and John McCain, among others. But it’s drawn criticism from prominent congressional conservatives, including Senators Mike Lee, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey. Rick Santorum has also spoken out against the treaty, which prompted Dana Milbank to write for the Washington Post that his newest cause must be “opposing disabled people” — a statement so patently ridiculous that it’s not worth dignifying with a response.

The treaty is intended to protect the rights of the disabled, but the United States already has the strongest legal defenses for them of any country in the world. The White House argues that if we ratify the treaty, other countries might be more likely to do so as well, which might improve the international protection of persons with disabilities. And that might make it more convenient for disabled Americans to travel in those countries.

“This is their argument, and it’s such a ridiculous argument,” says Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation. “The premises are completely unsupportable, The notion that it might improve travel conditions for Americans traveling abroad is a complete non sequitur, and it has nothing to do with the treaty at all.” In other words, the treaty does little to nothing for Americans.

Its defenders suggest that other nations will respect our excellent treatment of the disabled more if we sign the treaty, but that claim is largely unsubstantiated. “I’m unwilling to indulge the unsupported assumption that that is true,” Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, tells National Review Online. “Simply because people have stated it over and over and over again doesn’t make it true, especially when no one has been able to articulate, at least not to me, any sound basis for reaching that conclusion. I just don’t believe it.”

Groves is on the same page. “There is no American living here in the U.S. whose life will change one iota because the United States joins this treaty,” he tells NRO. “So why the heck are we going to join it?”

That’s a fair question, especially given the treaty’s serious downsides.

Many conservatives oppose its ratification because of language in Article 4 that refers to economic, social, and cultural rights. The treaty says that each signatory should “take measures to the maximum of its available resources . . . with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of these rights.” Our government, based on the Constitution, defines rights in terms of what the government cannot do to its citizens, not in terms of what it owes them. But the U.N. language emphasizes what the signatories owe to their citizens, what they must do in order to protect these newly enumerated “rights.” In the past, we rejected a treaty that referred to “economic, social, and cultural rights,” while Soviet-bloc countries were quick to embrace such language.

And we haven’t even started on how self-abasing it would be for the U.S. to comply with the treaty. Every four years, we would be required to put together an interagency report on our disability-rights record (a project that would cost millions), and also to send a delegation (usually of at least 20 people) to Geneva to appear before a panel of international disability-rights experts. Panels of this sort often vilify our country’s human-rights record, according to Groves. “I’ve attended these sessions,” he says. “They’re absolutely insulting.” He continues: “We have to go to Geneva for what I call our quadrennial spanking, spending millions in assets and sweat and labor to throw ourselves in front of this committee just to get smacked around and told we’re doing a terrible, terrible job.”

Senator Lee feels the same way. “We don’t think that it’s appropriate for the United States to be answering to a U.N. convention based in Geneva, Switzerland, when we are the leader of the world on this issue, as we are on so many other issues,” he tells NRO.

So how much compassion members of Congress feel for disabled people should have zero bearing on whether or not they support the treaty. “There are a lot of people, myself included, who are instinctively very squeamish about such an agreement,” Lee says. And those people are right to be. It’s perfectly sensible to oppose the treaty for its ineffectiveness and for its insidious prioritization of positive rights — rights that place ever-growing responsibilities on the government and the taxpayers who fund the government.

The Senate must have better things to do with its time than debate the merits of this proposal. Groves puts it bluntly: “My question is, Why are we bothering?”

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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