Politics & Policy

Exploiting Disability Rights

The U.S. Senate is taking up the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this week, reconsidering the treaty it rejected last winter. Those making the case for the treaty are simply using the cause of disabled Americans to justify joining another unnecessary international body. Secretary of State Kerry did take time in his Veterans Day message to our retired troops to tout the treaty, saying its ratification would help ensure that “our wounded warriors are able to work, travel, and live abroad with the same dignity and respect they enjoy at home.”

This argument makes neither empirical nor theoretical sense. There is no evidence that countries’ agreeing to human-rights treaties improves their record on such issues. This has been confirmed in a range of academic work, but anecdotes help too: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are parties to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and Syria and Belarus have ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

It isn’t clear even how the convention now being considered might improve the lot of disabled Americans, here or abroad. The treaty comes with no enforcement mechanisms except for conferences and reporting requirements. In other words, rather than spending time ensuring that the U.S. is living up to its own high standards for the disabled, U.S. officials will take the time to explain to the rest of the world why it measures up to theirs.

Cognizant of the lack of enforcement, treaty advocates argue that if the U.S. ratifies the treaty, then other countries will be more likely to do so (130-odd of them already have), and the U.S. commitment will lead them — poor nations, authoritarian ones, and all — to make real commitments to treating disabled citizens and visitors better. If that sounds like a sensible, effective way to protect the dignity of disabled Americans, then we have an ADA-complaint office complex on the East River to sell you.

Even if such an agreement could be effective, the U.S. should of course not subjugate its domestic laws (which boast some of the world’s best protections for the disabled) to the priorities of an international body. Some proponents of the disabilities treaty, as of other such pacts, argue that having a seat at the table in the U.N.’s future conferences on the law will be an opportunity for the U.S. to defend its efforts and correct the failings of other nations. Neither seems likely to work: The U.S. will be pilloried in these forums, whether in person or in absentia, just as it is in other U.N. bodies, and other countries have no more reason to pay attention to our harangues in Geneva than they would if we felt like pursuing the cause otherwise.

The treaty also includes an unprecedented provision of great importance to those concerned about the U.N.’s penchant for population control: It guarantees “free or affordable” access for disabled people to “sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes.” The State Department has regularly said that these euphemisms encompass abortion, and the disabilities treaty would be the first compact the U.S. has signed that enshrines access to abortion in international law. The dignity of disabled persons is of great importance to those who value human life, but the U.N.’s aggressively anti-life priorities make this treaty, even if it did accomplish what it claims to, an unacceptable vehicle for their work — to say nothing of what expanded access to abortion would mean for unborn children with disabilities.

When the disabilities treaty was brought before the Senate in December 2012, a number of Republicans resisted pressure to back it, pointing to a pledge they’d made not to pass treaties during the lame-duck session. There is no better case for the law now: The U.N.’s abstract and unenforceable treaties are just opportunities for unfree, unfriendly nations to try to make wealthy, Western nations — especially the United States — look bad. The U.S. has plenty to be proud of when it comes to treatment of disabled people; this treaty is no way to advance that work.


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