U.n. Disabilities Treaty Deserves Support

August 02, 2009|By Nancy Langer

President Barack Obama recently did something very few American presidents have done: announced his intention to sign and submit to the Senate for ratification an international human rights treaty. The U.S. has ratified only three of 26 international human rights treaties; some in Congress cling to the idea that the U.S. should never sign any international piece of paper.

Even Yemen and Sudan have ratified The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It's time for the U.S. to come on board.

The dissonance between U.S. leadership on human rights and institutional U.S. resistance to international instruments has become ridiculous. The Disability Convention is a recent case in point.

Americans created the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, giving the world an education on how to broaden access for people with disabilities. When the AIDS epidemic hit, U.S. law ultimately viewed the disease through the prism of the ADA, leading many other countries away from reprisal policies such as quarantine and job discrimination. Yet the U.S. is loath to join the global community in a commitment to these same rights. It never did make sense.

As the U.N. General Assembly formally considered a specialized disability human rights treaty in 2001, Bush-era diplomats said disability was a domestic issue. The U.S. insisted it would never sign or ratify an international agreement relating to disability rights. Why?

650 million people worldwide live with a disability. Eighty-percent live in developing nations. From land mine survivors to people with traumatic brain injuries, people with disabilities in poor countries face steep hurdles, and often atrocities. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable. A 2004 survey in India found that virtually all of the women and the girls with disabilities were beaten at home; 25 percent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped.

The UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities is in line with what U.S. diplomats are trying to achieve in post-conflict countries. Rule of law and participatory democracy all require access for the disabled; societies that respect the rights of people with disabilities are more likely to respect the rights of other minorities and women.

U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief must incorporate special programs for people with disabilities. Disability rights are not merely "domestic" (as the Bush administration insisted even as it let people in wheelchairs drown during Hurricane Katrina). They are global.

By making good on his promise to support this convention, the president has set sail toward more sensible U.S. policy. The Senate should support the president and people with disabilities around the world and ratify the convention.

Nancy Langer is the director of external relations for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a global think tank in Washington. Her e-mail is nlanger@stimson.org.

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