It’s Back – Disability Treaty on the Move Again

By Lisa Correnti

(WASHINGTON DC – C-FAM) The Obama administration will soon try again to win ratification of the UN’s disabilities treaty, dismissing concerns about national sovereignty, parental rights and the unborn.

Immediately after the treaty’s high-profile defeat in December, then-Sen. John Kerry vowed to bring it back. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities fell five votes short of the two-thirds needed to confirm a treaty.

Republican senate staffers expect action on the treaty in June. But Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who controls the agenda has not yet scheduled any hearings.

Now Secretary of State, Kerry and ranking Democratic senators recently voiced solidarity in seeking ratification of the disabilities treaty by summer.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Menendez listed the disabilities treaty as a foreign policy priority necessary to win U.S. citizens the same rights globally as provided at home through the Americans Disabilities Act.

Kerry told the committee that the treaty only places demands on other countries with no impact on the United States. Constitutional experts disagree with Kerry’s dismissal of concerns about sovereignty, citing U.S. court decisions that order changes to state laws because of UN treaties.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, told Kerry in a budget hearing that backers have the votes to pass the disabilities treaty. He asked Kerry to get a staff in place at the State Department to offer technical guidance to countries that are party to the convention when it wins ratification. Kerry assured him this was already done.

Kerry pledged to help win the support of added Republican senators. He made a similar gesture last summer when senators raised abortion concerns over the inclusion of the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” in the disabilities treaty. UN monitors have often interpreted that term to pressure some 90 countries to change their abortion laws.

Kerry has said the treaty was too important to have it derailed over abortion. But he and the other Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee voted against an amendment that stipulated “sexual and reproductive health” could not be defined to include a right to abortion, offered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

So problematic was this phrase during the treaty drafting at the UN in 2006 that 23 member states voiced objections. To gain consensus, leaders offered a footnote clarifying the phrase could not be interpreted to include abortion. This footnote, however, no longer accompanies the treaty. In the end the wording remained – the first and only time in an international treaty. For this reason the Holy See, a champion for the rights of the marginalized including the disabled, expressed disappointment it could not be a signatory.

Many disability and veterans groups support ratification despite the treaty not providing new benefits. At a recent Capitol Hill briefing, a member of a prominent veterans group asked why these groups supported such a flawed instrument. He was told many groups lent their endorsement with good intent but without understanding international law.

With Kerry at the helm of the State Department and the infrastructure in place, observers question why U.S. leaders don’t advance disability rights abroad through diplomatic channels without compromising national sovereignty. That’s been the course of Kerry’s predecessor and the Obama administration in advancing LGBT rights.

Though treaty confirmation is restricted to the upper chamber, an effort to defeat the treaty is underway with leaders of the House Sovereignty Caucus, Congressmen Duncan and Lamborn penning a letter to the Senate that both Members and organizations are joining in opposition.

Lisa Correnti is Director of Operations at C-FAM. Her article first appeared in the Friday Fax, an internet report published weekly by C-FAM (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute (

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