On December 4, 2012, by a vote of 61-38 the United States Senate failed to consent to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It takes 66 votes to consent to a treaty, so at least for the time being the United States will not be a party to the latest global treaty extending international recognition of human rights.
The treaty, already signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, states that nations should strive to assure that the disabled enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens.
The vote was essentially partisan. Every Democratic Senator plus eight Republican Senators, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) who has arguably been the most important Senate Republican on foreign policy issues for decades, voted to consent to the treaty. For the record here are the 38 Senators who voted against the treaty:
Senator Cochran initially voted for the treaty, but changed his vote when it became clear that the treaty would fail.
Treaty supporters argued that the convention is based largely on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Negotiations for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities were begun during President George W. Bush’s administration. It had the support of many prominent Republicans, including the first President Bush, former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and one-time Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole, who watched the vote from his wheelchair parked on the Senate floor.
Those who voted against the treaty offered an interesting array of explanations for their votes. Several opponents argued that joining the treaty would make the US less sovereign in how it deal with disability rights policy. In some sense, this is true. Every time a country makes a treaty obligation it agrees to limit its sovereignty. The fact that the treaty is a UN-sponsored treaty was another objectionable point for some Senators. It is an article of faith for many conservatives that the UN is an evil institution that seeks to control the world and subvert the American way of life. This may not be a mainstream point of view, but it could be a factor in Republican primary elections when turnout is much smaller than in general elections and insurgent candidates representing the ideological extreme of the party have had considerable recent success defeating more moderate incumbents. After all, that is why Senator Lugar is leaving the Senate (and why the newly elected Senator from Indiana is a Democrat).
Opponents of the treaty also offered arguments based on what seem like narrowly tendentious interpretations of the treaty. Former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum used his PAC to spread the fear that the treaty would give Geneva-based (that’s in Europe, so you know it’s really bad) UN bureaucrats the ability to dictate to the parents of children with disabilities how they should provide for those children. This was apparently very alarming to families that home school their children.
“I am frankly upset,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., “that they have succeeded in scaring the parents who home-school their children all over this country.” He said he said his office had received dozens of calls from home-schooling parents urging him to vote against the convention.
Abortion opponents also seized on language in the treaty guaranteeing the disabled equal rights to reproductive rights could lead to terminated pregnancies.
So what can we learn from this episode?
- The Republican party has generally repudiated the generations of internationalist foreign policy leaders who held sway from the Eisenhower administration. This Republican party internationalist tradition, which can even be traced to the 1920s and Herbert Hoover, has long been in tension with both an isolationist wing and an imperialist wing of the party. The potential power of Tea Party voters brimming with UN conspiracy theories has either driven out or silenced Republican internationalists, many of whom now find Democrats more reliable stewards of US foreign policy. They are reinforced by scholars and policy makers, often referred to as “New Sovereigntists” who fundamentally reject global governance. While foreign policy issues rarely determine national elections, the repudiation of a tradition embodied by Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George Bush (both of them), Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar, and I could go on and on, will make it harder for Republicans to present themselves as reasonable potential presidents.
- President Obama and presidents who follow him will be more and more inclined to conduct diplomacy and reach agreement with other countries in ways that avoid the Senate.
- On the other hand, the inability of US presidents to deliver the Senate on practically any international treaty of consequence weakens the standing of the US in global affairs. Why, after all, should US preferences be treated seriously in the negotiation of international agreements if nobody believes the US will ultimately become a party to the agreement? The foundation of US foreign policy strategy since World War II has been the creation, articulation, and defense of a liberal international order based on institutions and rules that largely reflect US values and preferences. One of the most important values promoted by the US has been human rights. Even if US relative power in the world should decline, which really seems inevitable, a robust liberal international order would mean that the world would still be congenial for US interests and values. The failure to approve the Disability Convention and other agreements makes the US look like it has lost faith in the values it once asked the rest of the world to embrace. Not necessarily a death knell for the liberal international order, but not a sign of robustness either.
- Editorial: Treaty Rights for the Disabled (nytimes.com)
- UN disability law fails in Senate (bbc.co.uk)
- Despite Bob Dole’s Wish, Republicans Reject Disabilities Treaty (nytimes.com)
- Dysfunction and Lies: Senate Vote Beyond Shameful (themoderatevoice.com)
- U.S. Senate Rejects Treaty on the Rights of the Disabled – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
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