Protect those with disabilities: It’s the least we can do

The Senate should ratify the treaty based on the Americans with Disabilities Act

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Can we talk about the United Nations? I know, I know. But give me a minute. We don’t do this very often.

It looks as if the Senate is going to fail to ratify the U.N. treaty on the rights of people with disabilities this year. There are, of course, tons of things the Senate is going to fail to tackle between now and the fall elections. You name it, they’re prepared to not do it.

But this treaty is special. It’s based on our very own Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s an international agreement in which the rest of the world basically promises to behave more like the United States. How could anything go wrong with that?


Well, you need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to ratify a treaty, and when you are talking about numbers that high, you are coming close to everybody who isn’t either crazy or facing a primary challenge from a member of the Tea Party.

When the treaty first came up for a vote just over a year ago, it was torpedoed by the far right. Rick Santorum, the former Republican presidential candidate and sweater-vest wearer, claimed it would endanger American parents’ right to home-school their children. This is because a section says: “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

We will never agree to a treaty that says children’s interests come first! Children should be seen and not considered. Thanks to our strong commitment to this point, the United States is the only country outside of South Sudan and Somalia that has failed to ratify the U.N. convention on children’s rights.

Still, advocates felt they had a good chance to win on the disability treaty this year. They just needed to switch a handful of Republican votes. People from the State Department were working with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a “no” who had supported an arms-reduction treaty with the Russians in 2010. So not crazy. Also not up for re-election.

Then, at the start of Christmas break, Mr. Corker abruptly announced that the treaty could “undermine our Constitution,” and that he wouldn’t vote for it.

“Everybody spent a lot of time with Corker, and added some regulations to satisfy him, but apparently it wasn’t enough,” said Bob Dole in an interview. Mr. Dole, the former Republican Senate leader, advocates for the disabled. He sat in his wheelchair watching as members of his party rejected the treaty the first time around.

Now, at 90, he’s back on the case, making phone calls. But if Mr. Corker continues to balk, it’s hard to see where the new votes for ratification will come from. Certainly not from people like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who once famously claimed that the United Nations was conspiring to close down America’s golf courses. Or Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who is facing a primary challenge from a radiologist whose website promises that he will be “the next Ted Cruz.”

“I wanted to support this, OK?” said Mr. Corker. His argument is basically that ratification of any treaty on human rights would expand the powers of the federal government. Although, in this case, of course, the agreement under consideration is already American law.

“We’ve seen the (U.N.) committees be aggressive on interpreting these treaties and making recommendations to countries,” Mr. Corker said.

This is true. The United Nations is full of committees issuing reports, which occasionally sound like the work of international lawyers with too much time on their hands. For instance, there was a report on Belarus’ compliance with a treaty on women’s rights that suggested that the national Mother’s Day celebrations were “encouraging women’s traditional roles.”

On the other hand, nobody has to do anything the committees recommend. “It’s advice,” said Mark Lagon, a former U.S. ambassador who now teaches at Georgetown University. Belarus still has its Mother’s Day.

When it comes to human rights, the problem with the United Nations is hardly that it forces countries to do politically correct things they don’t want to do. It’s that the United Nations has so little power to do anything at all.

This week, a U.N. report found that North Korea has been trying to “terrorize the population into submission” through enslavement, murder, rape and torture. It recommended that the U.N. Security Council take the matter to the International Criminal Court. This doesn’t seem likely, because China, North Korea’s usual protector, has a veto.

We will now pause for a sigh. Then we will acknowledge that our choice is to give up on the United Nations or try to make it stronger. Since our recent history is crammed with disasters caused by going it alone on the international stage, that brings us down to one good option. We need an effective international organization that supports the rights of the world’s most vulnerable people. Ratifying the disability treaty would be one small yet useful step in that direction.

Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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