U.N. Disability Treaty Faces Uphill Battle in Senate

Already ratified by 146 nations, a United Nations treaty codifying the rights of people with disabilities is undergoing a second attempt at ratification in the U.S. Senate. Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a respected Republican elder statesman support it, conservative groups are rallying opposition.

As Senate majority leader, Bob Dole used to hold one of the most powerful positions in Washington.

There are plenty of reasons to support the Disability Treaty—the most obvious and important one being that it’s the right thing to do for people across the globe who are living and working with disabilities.

The 91-year-old Kansas Republican hasn’t shown up at the U.S. Capitol much since he retired following his failed 1996 presidential bid. But there’s one issue that’s kept him coming back to his old Senate stomping grounds in recent years: a push to ratify a United Nations treaty delineating rights for people with disabilities. It’s an issue near and dear to Dole, who spent years recovering from severe injuries he suffered in machine gun fire during World War II.

But despite backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some in the GOP, the U.N. treaty faces stiff opposition from some Senate Republicans and conservative advocacy groups. More details:

About the treaty: The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty that went into effect in 2008, codifies many of the elements of the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the global stage, though with some differences. The treaty, with a stated goal “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity,” has been ratified in 146 nations and the European Union thus far. The provisions, according to supporters, would not be binding, The Hill notes.

Where it stands in the Senate: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the treaty this week on a 12-6 vote, but it’s unclear whether it has enough support in the full Senate for ratification. A 2012 effort, also backed by Dole and various veterans and disability rights groups, failed to get the required two-thirds majority. Since then, the balance of the Senate has changed. Only five of the eight GOP senators who voted to ratify the treaty in 2012 are still in office. They include Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY), who voted in favor of the treaty in their committee roles this week.

Vets, business groups back treaty: Along with Dole and other disability advocates, veterans groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce back the treaty. “There are plenty of reasons to support the Disability Treaty—the most obvious and important one being that it’s the right thing to do for people across the globe who are living and working with disabilities,” Randy Johnson, the chamber’s senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits, said in a statement. “But there are economic and competitiveness benefits for the United States as well.” Johnson added that businesses already in compliance with the ADA would not face new requirements under the treaty.

Opposition from conservatives: Critics of the treaty include social conservatives such as former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and groups such as the Family Research Council, Heritage Action, and Concerned Women for America. Opponents have raised concerns about the treaty’s potential effect on U.S. sovereignty, according to World magazine, along with a “sexual and reproductive rights” provision that some say would increase access to abortion. The Home School Legal Defense Association, meanwhile, argues that the treaty is unnecessary, hurts parental rights, and could usurp existing state laws. “The U.S. is the world leader in protecting the rights of those with disabilities,” HSLDA states on its website. “Through our 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, we already provide as much or more protection for the disabled than the [treaty].”

Senate Democrats who back the treaty say that such arguments cloud the issue and aim only to gain political points.

“It is so wrong to the disabled people to catch them up in this debate,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said in comments before the Foreign Relations Committee vote, Reuters reported.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, a major supporter of the treaty. (photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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