UN Treaty on Disability Rights: Obama says yes; so should Congress

Perhaps you haven’t noticed. Our current president is an unwavering optimist.

Whether we see Obama’s optimism as a character trait or a belief system doesn’t really matter. What does matter is recognizing that optimism has helped carry the man and the politician through the most difficult, contentious, and downright ugly political climate we’ve seen in contemporary times. Despite all the conflict and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Obama has remained true to his optimistic nature.

Obama’s dilemma reminds me of kids I grew up with. You may remember kids just like them. They were the ones who found themselves on the receiving end of unprovoked insults. The taunting pursued them no matter how fervently they tried to fit in. Some were targets of violent impulses of bullies out in the schoolyard. Those vulnerable kids, caught in a world they couldn’t control, learned quickly to summon every drop of courage to resist the easy way out—the feigning of illness that would have kept them home for the day or the easy escape of hiding out in bathroom stalls until recess was over.

Like those kids, Obama keeps coming back out for more because he has no other choice.

Remember, too, that Obama’s not only an optimist but also a realist and a stealthy, patient fighter to boot. The guy is not a victim. You can tell by his public demeanor that the President truly believes that each day might just be that one breakthrough day when governing with the ideological bullies in Congress will get a bit easier or a bit more productive.

Once again it seems the President is getting ready to play the optimism card. According to multiple news sources, Obama’s planning to give Senate obstructionists and conservative mudslingers a second chance to unlock their better selves and do the right thing by voting “yes” to ratify the U.N. Treaty Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This is one international treaty that should be a no-brainer. After all, the treaty is modeled closely after our own Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that’s been improving the lives of the disabled for more than two decades.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the vote is going to be any easier the second time around. Ratification was defeated one year ago in the Senate when the treaty failed by six votes to garner the necessary sixty-seven votes for two-thirds’ majority passage. Incredibly, there were senators who could not be persuaded to vote “yes” even though there was overwhelming support from mainstream disability and religious organizations, civil- and human-rights advocates, veterans groups, and lobbyists for American business interests.

Unfortunately, failure to ratify the U.N. treaty here at home speaks volumes about our poisoned political climate. It’s a sign of how callousness and disregard for the protection and rights of the less fortunate have come to dominate our public discourse and the direction of our governance. That failure is also a sign of just how far we’ve moved away from the international mainstream.

Unlike the United States, 158 countries and the European Union have ratified the U.N. treaty. That’s a clear message of optimism and those countries’ commitment to improving the lives of the more than one billion disabled around the world—eighty percent of whom live in developing nations.

And where did opposition to guaranteeing the most basic rights to disabled individuals come from in this country? Needless to say, the most vociferous objections to the treaty came from perennial pessimists on the Republican side of the aisle.  Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum summed up conservatives’ objections by whipping up a false frenzy about how the treaty would lead to a ban on home schooling in the U.S. and an increase in the number of abortions worldwide—resulting, according to Santorum’s tortured logic, from guarantees that women with disabilities gain equal access to reproductive care.

In fact, in the upside-down, nonsensical world we live in, legal scholars with no ideological agenda to push explain that the U.N. treaty would actually make it easier for the U.S. to encourage other countries to allow disabled children to be home schooled and that the language of the treaty disallows jurisdiction over any American legislation.

(Don’t forget a bit of history here. On whose watch did the concept of protecting the rights of the disabled gain steam? It was those two feisty, firebrand progressives, Pappy Bush and George W., who got the ball rolling. Remember that it was Pappy who signed the ADA into law, and it was George W.’s administration that helped draft the treaty’s language.)

Santorum and those who voted “no” to ratification failed to mention the true plight of individuals living in countries that systematically deny the disabled the most basic of human rights—privileges like birth certificates and acceptance of officially recognized names. Nor did opponents bother to talk about medical procedures commonly performed on the disabled without their consent, such as forcible sterilization and abortion, or the moral and ethical responsibility we share to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Former Republican Attorney General Richard Thornburgh—who served under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is himself the father of a son with disabilities—refuted the doomsday fears about American sovereignty when he testified in favor of ratifying the U.N. treaty before the Senate in 2012. Thornburgh explained that

the reservation regarding private conduct will ensure that the U.S. will not accept any obligation except as mandated by the Constitution and the laws of the United States. . . Thus, as with our current law, religious entities, small employers, and private homes would be exempt from any new requirements.

The sad truth is that the fight over ratification of the U.N. Treaty Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is hardly an anomaly.  The U.S.A. is M.I.A. when it comes to ratifying international treaties on a whole host of issues that would protect human rights, defuse international tensions, and make the world a less dangerous place.

The list of treaties signed by one president after another—both Republican and Democratic—and left to languish in no-man’s land without ratification is long and shameful. Just take a look at treaties that were signed but never ratified by us. Take a look as well at the company we keep.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Signed 1995. Not ratified. (Supporters of the death penalty for children and American conservatives fearing that the convention would prohibit parents from hitting their children as punishment or allowing their kids to opt out of sex education are holding up ratification of a treaty that protects children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.)

The company we keep: Somalia.


International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Signed 1977. Not ratified.


Kyoto Protocol

Signed 1998. Not ratified.


Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Signed 1996. Not ratified.


Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

Signed and ratified 1972.  U.S. unilateral withdrawal in 2001 by President George W. Bush, citing terror threats.


Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention

Signed 1972. Ratified 1975 then rejected draft proposal in 2001.


Chemical Weapons Convention

Signed 1993. Ratified 1997 with a reservation that gives the U.S. president the right to refuse inspections on grounds of “national security.”


Mine Ban Treaty

Never signed.

The company we keep: The only member of NATO besides Turkey and the only state in the Western Hemisphere that is not a signatory.


Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

Signed 2000 but later unsigned in order to exempt U.S. military and government personnel from the court’s jurisdiction.


Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Signed 1979. Not ratified.

The company we keep: The convention has been ratified by 185 countries. Iran, Sudan, Palau, and the U.S. have not signed. The U.S. is the only industrialized democracy and the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has not ratified the CEDAW.


Convention Against Enforced Disappearance

Not signed.

The convention prohibits secret detention and abduction of individuals by the state.  This would have put the U.S. in violation of an international agreement when the C.I.A. abducted individuals and incarcerated them in secret prisons.


Antarctic Treaty

Signed in 1959 by twelve countries, including the U.S.

Prohibits nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive waste in Antarctica.