The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990 with the strong support of President George H.W. Bush and large bipartisan majorities in Congress, was one of the major pieces of civil rights legislation of the 20th Century, and established the United States as the world leader in its legal treatment of persons with disabilities. The ADA has helped millions of Americans with disabilities live more independent, productive, and fulfilling lives by removing physical and other barriers to their full integration in American life.
Inspired by the ADA, disability rights activists throughout the world, working under the auspices of the United Nations, developed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD is a framework for establishing national laws and policies throughout the globe which are similar to the ADA and which support the independence and rights of persons with disabilities. TheCRPD would not change any laws within the United States, but would benefit the U.S. by allowing it to maintain its leadership role in advancing the rights of persons with disabilities, of which there are more than one billion worldwide, and by making it easier for Americans with disabilities to travel abroad.
President George W. Bush’s administration negotiated the CRPD in conjunction with the UN in 2006, and President Obama signed theCRPD in 2009. On December 4, 2012, the CRPD was presented to the full Senate for ratification, but fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required for treaty ratification, despite obtaining the support of Presidents Bush and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
The principal reasons for the Senate’s failure to ratify CRPD failed were reflexive anti-UN sentiment among many Republicans in Congress, combined with an organized campaign of home-schooling parents who were told by the head of the Home Schooling Legal Defense Fund that the CRPD would give the UN “control” over American children with disabilities.
Those advancing the ratification of the CRPD made a critical mistake by relying on behind-the-scenes agreements between Senators to vote for the treaty, combined with lobbying from former political heavyweights such as Bob Dole. While they were using these traditional means of security a majority, the home schoolers, backed by Tea Party and Christian fundamentalist group, were orchestrating a successful mass mobilization of misinformed people to barrage key senators with phone calls and letters in opposition to the treaty. This mobilization was successful in convincing many Republican senators to vote against the CRPD.
The Senate’s failure to ratify the CRPD reflects a long history of reflexive paranoia in American politics concerning international treaties and the United Nations. In the 1920s, this paranoia was reflected in the Senate’s failure to ratify the League of Nations Treaty, continued with the John Birch Society’s “U.S. out of the U.N.” campaign of the 1950s-1980s, and now in today’s “black helicopters” and “Agenda 21” rhetoric.
Eleanor Roosevelt, understanding that this strain or paranoid isolationism and fear of international cooperation eroded the United States’ capacity for international leadership and the prospects for world peace and development, dedicated much of the last fifteen years of her life to working through the United Nations Association to educate the public concerning the work of the United Nations and the importance of U.S. international leadership in human rights. She understood that only an educated and mobilized populace could assure the U.S.’s continued involvement with the United Nations.
The CRPD will be brought to another ratification vote in the Senate later this year. The struggle to ratify the CRPD is a test of resolve not only for those who believe in the rights of persons with disabilities to achieve full participation in society, but for those who believe in the importance of international law and cooperation. A permanent defeat of the CRPD would be a virtual death knell for U.S. ratification of any international treaty, including the recently approved CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the ATT, the Arms Trade Treaty.
If Eleanor Roosevelt were alive today, there is little doubt that she would be at forefront of advocates for the CRPD. It now falls on our generation to defend both the rights of persons with disabilities and the principle of international cooperation as we advocate for ratification of the CRPD. We must do so the way that Eleanor Roosevelt would have–by educating and mobilizing the populace in favor of rational and humane policies in conjunction with the global community.
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Thurday, May 16, 2013 at 5 p.m. , at the UW Law School, the United Nations Association of Seattle and Disability Rights Washington are jointly holding a forum to discuss the CRPD, to plan for a popular mobilization in favor of the CRPD to secure its passage later this year. The event will feature Joelle Brouner, a strong local advocate for the treaty, and Andrea Parra, a leading treaty proponent from Colombia.