UN Disabilities Treaty Would Limit U.S. Sovereignty
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
On July 30th, in a move that could limit the ability of the U.S. to decide domestic social policy in a free and democratic manner, Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the “Convention”) at the request of President Obama. Though the Senate must still ratify the treaty for it to come into force, many human rights activists are applauding the President’s action as reasserting the United States’ leadership role in the area of human rights. However, proponents of the treaty fail to acknowledge the Convention’s potential to usurp national sovereignty by requiring the U.S. to conform domestic laws to UN-mandated human rights standards.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities entered into force in April 2008 (for more information, please see the April 10, 2008 Global Governance Watch post). The treaty outlines specific rights that all States party to the Convention must guarantee to persons living with “long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments,” including a right to inclusion in the community; a right to personal mobility; a right to inclusion in education systems; a right to health insurance and disability-specific health care; a right to “social protection;” and a right to participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. In addition to the main text, States can also sign on to the Optional Protocol to the Convention, which allows individuals living within the State in question to bring complaints of rights violations directly before the Committee after they have exhausted all available domestic remedies.
The Convention is interpreted and implemented by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the “Committee”). The Committee consists of 12 experts to whom States party to the Convention must report every four years regarding domestic implementation of the Convention. The Committee evaluates each State’s report and makes suggestions and general recommendations for improved implementation of the Convention.
The signing of this treaty represents President Obama’s first concrete step towards ceding U.S. democratic decision-making power to the international community. As is evidenced by the actions of other UN treaty implementation committees (for example, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), unelected UN experts often strongly criticize advanced democracies for shortcomings in the implementation of vaguely defined human rights. This is one reason why the George W. Bush Administration refused to sign the treaty, as it felt that U.S. domestic policies were “among the most comprehensive civil rights laws protecting the rights [of persons] with disabilities in this world,” and that these democratically agreed upon policies did not need to be regulated by the international community.
By having the Convention signed and encouraging the Senate to ratify the document, President Obama is giving the UN the authority to critique U.S. social policy and demand legislative changes in a process that bypasses deliberative democratic policy-making. Further, in subjecting the United States to regular UN scrutiny of domestic policies, the President is agreeing to abide by the UN’s arbitrary interpretation of “emerging” rights. In essence, President Obama is recommending that unelected UN officials, not United States citizens, be vested with the right to define the U.S. policy agenda and hold lawmakers accountable for their decisions.
Jim Kelly is the President of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, P.C., a public interest civil and human rights law firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The opinions expressed herein are his own.