Home > Applying Political Science, International Relations > Senate Rejects a Treaty Recognizing the Human Rights of People with Disabilities

Senate Rejects a Treaty Recognizing the Human Rights of People with Disabilities

A map of parties to the Convention on the Righ...

A map of parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Parties in dark green, countries which have signed but not ratified in light green, non-members in grey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. bklunk
    December 5, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Reblogged this on Another Foreign Policy Blog and commented:

    I just posted this on the department’s blog.

  2. Jordyn
    December 5, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    If our country is all about freedom and equality, we sure are setting a bad example. Signing a UN treaty may reduce our sovereignty on disability rights policy; however, the rights of humans in general should supersede the problem of sovereignty.

  3. Andrew Merenda
    December 5, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    If the issue with ratifying the treaty really has to deal with maintaining the sovereignty of the United States in dealing with persons of disabilities, then why aren’t the senators who voted against it all saying the same thing or at least something similar? It seems suspicious that they are providing a wide array of explanations for not supporting the treaty. That is to say,, it seems like what they are really trying to do is deflect criticism.

    • bklunk
      December 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      That’s one of the problems with interpreting the meaning of any vote. Different people can vote for the same option for quite different reasons.

  4. john yonke
    December 5, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    It really seems like a bummer that this treaty was rejected by the Senate. I think that the prominent reason opponents voted no is the first reason you gave, that joining the treaty would make the US less sovereign in how it deals with disability rights policy. Saying that there is “an article of faith” that the UN is an “evil institution” and that conservatives voting against UN control in American policy is an “ideological extreme” is blowing things out of proportion. Yes, there is obviously this view held by a small amount of conservatives. The edges should not be blurred between Senators voting against the UN controlling policy that these Senators believe should be in the hands of the U.S. to change, and those who think the UN is an organization run by the devil. Big difference.

  5. Jesus Hernandez
    December 6, 2012 at 3:59 am

    Would failing to pass treaties such as this one have an affect on relations with other countries? Or is a treaty that has little significance because “it was made clear the treaty would fail?” I don’t see many complications or why they would reject it in the first place.

  6. Sam
    December 6, 2012 at 7:34 am

    I think if you are going to create an international treaty imposing anything, it should not be something “based largely on the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The ADA, while sounding good, is so full of loopholes and absurdities that I would cringe to see it going global…just look at Sacramento attorney Scott Johnson. The very fact that you can sue someone over a matter of a few inches
    is ridiculous. I am not a bigget, nor do I care to discriminate, I just think a treaty based largely on the ADA is a scary thing to take global.

  7. Melissa Blakemore
    December 6, 2012 at 10:24 am

    I think that this treaty failed because of certain members of Senate are stuck in their old ways. They just seem to not want to agree on anything that another side favors. Its a shame that a treaty which deals with Human Rights of People with Disabilities could not be approved by our Senate. Since majority of our people believe in equal rights for all.

  8. Chris Runnels
    December 6, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Why the Tea Party has any leverage with regular Republicans, I will never understand. To quote “The Newsroom,” the Tea Party loves America, but hates Americans. I think situations like this make that more and more obvious. The UN is clearly on our side and has been for a very long time. To reject a treaty that would help those with disabilities simply because we think the UN is taking our job of making everything better is ridiculous.

  9. Lexa Buerer
    December 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    It’s a real pity that, in this day in age, a treaty that deals with Human Rights failed. I realize that the Senate doesn’t want the United States’ sovereignty to be lessened by this treaty but I still think that the right thing to do would have be to sign the treaty. I agree with Jordyn in that the problem of sovereignty shouldn’t supercede the rights of people with disabilities. Frankly I don’t understand why the Senate would vote against it its ridiculous.

  10. December 7, 2012 at 6:13 am

    The reason that the treaty failed in my opinion is because I feel that people haven’t fully stepped into the 21st century putting old habits and ideas away. They don’t even give modern ideas a chance and tear it down without even considering it thoroughly. It is really sad how a treaty concerning people with disabilities cannot be passed in a country like ours. How will we ever influence other nations to move forward if we can’t even seem to better and further our own? What ever happened t equal rights?

  11. Matt Wetstein
    December 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    This was a shameful display of UN animus grounded in irrational thought. To do it in front of Bob Dole just puts icing on the cake of idiocy.

  12. Donna
    December 14, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    In the constitution it clearly states that we have freedom and equality, but sadly we haven’t been ensuring it through our actions. By signing a UN treaty, yes we may reduce our sovereignty on disability rights policy but still the rights of humans overall should surpass the problem of sovereignty by all means.

  13. Aspiegirlie
    December 17, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Obviously, they haven’t seen realities like this happening all across the USA! Videos show sadistic, cruel caregivers caught on tape secretly abusing defenseless non verbal severely autistic adult: If this isn’t a hate crime, what is hate? We see caregivers doing repeated acts of abuse against the young man, punching, kicking, shoving him. Pulling his hair. Poking him in the eye. And the reason? The caregivers appear lazy and put out in having to care for him, showing how they hate the person they are paid to care for. Just sick people. Keep your eye on this case.




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