WASHINGTON—Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday championed a controversial disabilities treaty that has survived several attempts by conservative groups to shutter it.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its second hearing in as many weeks on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), as advocates ramp up efforts to approve the pact after it was voted down last December. The committee may vote to send the treaty to the full Senate again in December.
The United Nations adopted the CRPD in 2006, and President Barack Obama signed it in 2009. Proponents argue the CRPD would extend the rights of the Americans with Disabilities Act to U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Many conservatives disagree. The treaty has drawn the criticism of homeschoolers, pro-lifers, and some who are concerned the agreement could infringe on U.S. sovereignty.
Kerry told the committee more than 138 countries have signed on to the agreement, so the U.S. shouldn't hesitate to do the same. Kerry, who spoke while surrounded by people in wheelchairs, told stories of disabled U.S. military veterans who have trouble traveling overseas and disabled students who can't participate in study abroad programs.
“We give up nothing, but we get everything in return,” Kerry said. “Our ratification does not require a single change to American law.”
Susan Yoshihara, a Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) expert,has testified before the committee previously. She says Kerry's reasons for ratification are faulty because the U.S. already helped craft the pact, and an American sits on the committee overseeing implementation.
Yoshihara said the Americans with Disabilities Act already sets the gold standard for disability rights, so the United States never planned to ratify the CRPD. "You don't sign a treaty if you're already exceeding the standard," she told me Friday.
Michael Farris, founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), said the Obama administration's many promises on the CRPD sound a lot like the pledges that helped pass the president's healthcare law. “The same people trying to sell this treaty to us are the same people who told us, ‘If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it,’” said Farris, who holds an advanced degree in international law from the University of London.
Farris, who testified at the CRPD hearing earlier this month, argues the treaty would infringe on U.S. sovereignty and could be misused to limit parental rights to homeschooling. Farris explained his concerns about the treaty in a 2012 article on HSLDA’s website. “This means that the government—acting under UN directives—gets to determine for all children with disabilities what the government thinks is best,” Farris wrote. Additionally, “under this section the government—and not the parent—would have the ultimate authority to determine if a child with special needs will be homeschooled, attend a private school, or be required to accept the program offered by the public school.”
Kerry on Thursday denied that claim, but Article 6 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees any treaty ratified by the Senate will become the “supreme law of the land.”
Although Senators did not dispute Kerry's point that other countries need to provide more protections for the disabled, they did question how the CRPD would do anything about it. Farris in a statement this week said the treaty went into effect in 2008, but advocates have produced little evidence to show progress in other countries. Kerry maintained ratification would provide “the hook we need to push other countries to change their laws up to the standard we've already adopted in the United States.”
The Family Research Council, Heritage Action, Let Freedom Ring, Concerned Women for America, the Eagle Forum, and Rick Santorum’s Patriot Voices are among the other conservative groups opposed to the CRPD.
AMVETS, an organization representing more than 250,000 U.S. veterans, withdrew support earlier this year. In a letter to Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the group said, “Based on the poor compliance and enforcement of the provisions of various existing treaties, AMVETS does not believe that passage of the CRPD would have any measurable, positive effects on veterans with disabilities traveling or studying abroad.”
The faith-based group Joni and Friends, founded by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, also opposes the treaty, because it is concerned about “language on parental rights and the rights of the unborn with disabilities.”
The CRPD guarantees the rights of “sexual and reproductive health,” which many say may be construed to include abortion. The Vatican has refused to sign the agreement on the grounds that it could be used to promote abortion.
“This is the first time the term ‘sexual and reproductive health’ appeared in any UN treaty and yet it was left undefined,” Yoshihara told the committee on Nov. 5. “Twenty-three nations opposed the term, and opposition remained throughout the negotiations.”
At Thursday's hearing lawmakers spent a lot of time talking about “RUDs”—Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations—that could protect the U.S. from points of the treaty on which it wished to abstain. Yoshihara said it was telling that not even Kerry could explain how RUDs can be reversed, and she said there is U.S. Supreme Court precedent indicating RUDs are ineffective.
Senate ratification of a treaty requires a two-thirds majority vote. Even if all Democrats vote in favor of the treaty as they did last year, advocates will still need about a dozen Republican votes. Some moderates such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have already voiced support for the agreement.