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U.S. Failure to Ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

FRIDAY FILE - In December 2012 the United States Senate failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Esmé Grant[i] from the United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD) talked to AWID about why it failed and how they are committed to ensuring the CRPD will be ratified in 2013.

By Rochelle Jones

The disappointing failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in the United States (U.S.) came after disability advocates demonstrated some of their finest work providing the best possible platform for the US to join the over 129 countries that have already ratified the treaty. In the end it was a combination of factors, including Republican right-wing elements in the Senate that managed to block the vote – with 61 senators, including a number of senior Republicans, voting for the treaty, and 38 senators - all Republicans - opposing it. This resulted in the treaty falling just five votes short of the required two-thirds needed for ratification under the U.S. constitution.

An international agreement that reinforces existing rights

The CRPD “is the first international treaty to address disability rights globally” according to Esmé Grant from the United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD). While the CRPD does not establish new rights, Grant explains that it provides “greater clarity of the obligations on nations to promote, protect and ensure the rights of persons with disabilities. Since many people with disabilities face discrimination based on their disability, the CRPD is relevant as an international agreement that reinforces existing rights and aims to assure that people with disabilities will have the same opportunities as others with respect to their nation’s laws.”

Women with disabilities suffer double discrimination on account of their gender as well as their disability. The consequences of disabilities are particularly serious for women and they also suffer unique challenges in terms of their sexual and reproductive rights. Generally women are subjected to social, cultural and economic disadvantages diminishing their chances of independence and empowerment and making it difficult for them to take part in community life. Grant says “the CRPD recognizes the specific obstacles women face in achieving equal treatment. For example, Article 6 requires States Parties to recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discriminations, and to take all appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women. One example of how the CRPD is being used is well portrayed by disability rights advocate Ola Abu Al Ghaib with her organization in Palestine the Stars of Hope Society. Ola works on aligning the principles of the CRPD, to integrate women with disabilities in the Middle East by empowering and teaching them about their right to be independent and equal in all aspects of life.”

According to the USICD, there are around 1 billion people living with disabilities worldwide – 80% in developing countries. U.S. President Barack Obama signed the CRPD in 2009, but without ratification they limit both their role in the treaty’s implementation and the benefits of the treaty itself. If the U.S. ratified the CRPD, it would be saying yes to participating in a global conversation that aims to eliminate disability discrimination throughout the world; and would give the U.S. legitimacy to export the model of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – on which the CRPD is based - to other countries. Grant says the U.S. “cannot be part of the Committee of experts that reviews the periodic reports of countries, to assist them with complying with the treaty. They can also only play a limited role at the Conference of States Parties (COSP) every year in New York where ratified countries convene to discuss best practices and share advancements in implementation of the treaty.”

Reasons for not ratifying - misinformation campaigns and a ‘lame duck’ session

According to Grant there was “tremendous bipartisan support for ratification and community support from over 350 disability organizations, 21 veterans organizations, and 26 faith organizations. She explains however that “some senators said they did not vote for the treaty because it came up during a “lame duck” session, the period in between an election and the successor’s term start”. There was also a conservative opposition group led by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and its affiliate Parental Rights under the leadership of Michael Farris. Grant asserts this group “misinformed its members that treaty ratification would harm parental rights and make drastic changes in existing law… Some of the key myths being spread are that ratification of the CRPD will harm parental rights and the right to homeschool, put children with disabilities under the control of the United Nations and impede upon U.S. sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the campaign of misinformation and fear created backlash against the treaty’s wide community and bipartisan support.” Grant says that these myths are unfounded, and that a large coalition of treaty supporters is working to dispel the myths and provide accurate information: “ratification of the treaty will not cause any changes in law or create any costs, nor yield any authority to the United Nations whatsoever. Instead - and the reason why it is so broadly supported by disability and veteran organizations - ratification of the CRPD by the United States will allow us to be a part of an important conversation on how to implement the treaty.”

Grant disagrees with the argument that ratification of an international treaty impedes on a state’s sovereignty and explains: “Firstly, what many do not realize is that the experts on the CRPD Committee are civilians and the majority of them are people with disabilities. The Committee of experts review country reports [that are submitted, in order] to assist them [States] with complying with the treaty, however, the Committee may only provide suggestions and guidance and cannot compel a country to do anything. Secondly, The U.S., without ratifying, can only play a limited role at the Conference of States Parties (COSP) where ratified countries convene to discuss best practices and share advancements in implementation.”

But not all disability rights groups are behind the CRPD as it stands. The treaty package transmitted to the Senate last May contained a set of reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs). This prompted The Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (CHRUSP) and other psychiatric survivor groups to argue that anything less than full adherence would only be a symbolic gesture, and that in fact U.S. Law needs to be changed. This “third force” object to the RUDs and calls for “full adherence and implementation of the treaty as written”. To this, Grant says that “after full analysis, USICD determined it would support the proposed package [with RUDs] and worked with the broader coalition and the bipartisan group of Senate leaders on supporting a hearing on this package. The Senate has the ability to remove, amend, and add additional RUDs, but this process will not begin until hearings are held this year. Personally, I view the ratification of the U.S. with the current package as more than a symbolic gesture and see real value in the role of the U.S. in the CRPD both for American and international interests.”

2013 Ratification?

USICD say they are excited to be working with an even larger coalition this year to achieve ratification at the 113th Congress in 2013 and because the CRPD is based on the ADA “it is important we continue our leadership in this area and work with countries around the world that have already ratified the treaty. USICD is the American affiliate for Disabled Peoples International, and represents the U.S. as member of Rehabilitation International. Both international organizations use the CRPD as a beacon for the rights that all people with disabilities should enjoy throughout the world. USICD also leads the Global Disability Rights Project, which provides information on the treaty’s framework and disability rights to disability organizations around the world, mainly in South Asia and East Africa”.

Grant says the failure of the CRPD in December created an “avalanche of press coverage”, and that this momentum is now being used by a large coalition of over 400 American organizations led by the USICD to “educate their members and networks to assist with successful passage in 2013”. Grant is confident that ratification will happen this year due to this positive momentum and that the opposition in December based on a vote occurring during the lame duck session now no longer exists. She says “some senators who voted no in December have committed to reconsider their vote for ratification in 2013.”

[i] Esmé Grant, Esq. manages the Disability Rights Program at the U.S. International Council on Disabilities. She leads the CRPD ratification campaign and works on issues including disability inclusiveness in foreign development and promotion of disability rights within the U.S. Human Rights Reports and treaty reports.

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