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The US Fails to Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) came into force 3 May 2008; it opened for signature on 30 March 2007. Since then, 155 member states have signed the Convention, out of which 128 parties have ratified their signatures; the United States became a signatory on 30 July 2009. Signatures may be “definitive” and inclusive of consent to be bound by a treaty or “simple” indicating only an obligation to refrain from actions in direct conflict with the spirit of the treaty.


As “simple,” the US signature requires further approval for the US to be bound by the CRPD. Commonplace for the UN, the requirement provides a level of protection to member states by preventing their representatives from exceeding the power or instructions their states have entrusted to them. As a democracy, the US representative has simply exercised diligence in bringing the CRPD to Congress and thereby to the public for discernment. On 4 December 2012, with only 61 yea votes, the US Senate did not achieve the supermajority (66 votes) required for ratification. Failure to ratify, however, does not take the CRPD off the agenda; Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV) and others promise to bring the treaty to the floor again this year.


The US is a leader in recognizing civil rights across a number of populations; in fact, the UN was inspired to develop the CRPD by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some wonder if the US needs another level of class rights and protections; they ask, what makes this convention so important? First, the CRPD marks a critical paradigm shift—from objectifying pity or reductionist thinking to support moral agency—in the way protections and rights are attributed to people with disabilities:  the CRPD recognizes the dignity of persons with disabilities, notes the social constructions that have effectively excluded them from ordinary and extraordinary participation across the spectrum of human activities, and advocates such participation as a general principle, a general obligation, and a universal human right. Second, international in scope, the CRPD identifies the kinds of access that will enable people with disabilities worldwide to achieve their potentials (consider the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, et al) and inserts disability into the UN Millennium Development Goals across initiatives to accelerate achievement of equal opportunity by ensuring development of the basic human functioning capabilities. And third, the CRPD rejects excuses about limits or diversion of resources from this or that critical program to programs for people with disabilities as status quo discriminatory and wrong.


In no small measure, over the last 50 years the efforts of the Kennedy family moved the US toward the advocacy for people with disabilities instantiated by the CRPD. The trends set by Eunice Kennedy Shriver with the Special Olympics and the social justice projects of the John F. Kennedy administration with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to disability legislation and, among others, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, and the ADA. Unfortunately, partisan opposition stalled US ratification of the Convention, arguing its potential to intrude on family life and undermine US sovereignty by international policy. The opposition warns that the Convention presumes US assent to other treaties, presents an inadequate definition of disability (social construction v. medical model), reinforces an untrustworthy treaty system, and embraces suspect access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. Further, they assert, the ADA is sufficient for folks in the US, so, why bind us to others.


I worry that the failure to ratify demonstrates American exceptionalism in matters of justice for people whose experience historically and now, here and abroad includes abortion/exposure/murder, abandonment, abuse, institutionalization, and stigma—injustice broadly construed. The ADA is not the fulfillment of justice for people with disabilities any more than the Civil Rights Act ended racism. We can all do better and we ought. The CRPD is not perfect but it is another step in that direction. In Senator Reid’s words “Just like passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, ratifying this Convention is, quite simply, the right thing to do.”