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US fails to ratify treaty

Melissa Graham

January 17, 2013

Last month, the US Senate refused to ratify the United Nations treaty on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The CRPD took the rights and freedoms laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and put them in the context of the lives of people with disabilities. Persons with disabilities consider it the most accurate and inclusive global statement regarding their own dignity, independence, personal empowerment and accessibility.


What makes this legislation even more remarkable is that it was drafted over a long period of time by people with disabilities from all over the world who saw how important it was to give their time to develop this treaty, rather than having to depend on others with only a limited understanding of their experiences and needs speak on their behalf. Great care was taken to make sure this treaty covered the details, from the obvious physical barriers to the more elusive reproductive justice. It is a treaty written by those who understand what it means to experience these barriers: people who understand that to a person who uses a wheelchair, equality isn’t just about having equal access to the stairs of the court, but having access to the justice inside it; that to a person who is blind, equality isn’t just about equal access to the heavy textbooks carried by her classmates, but to the education within them.


By not ratifying the treaty, the US fails to advance the human rights principles it once championed in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the landmark disability civil rights law upon which the CRPD is largely based. With that in mind, how did it all go wrong?


Most Senators voted for ratification of the treaty; they were only 8 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it into law. The Senators who voted down the treaty—all of them Republican—gave unfounded excuses, citing American sovereignty and protecting parental rights. The real reasons are far more chilling.


One “right to life” website published this disturbing quote: “We congratulate the Senators who stood for American sovereignty by refusing to ratify this treaty… pro-life groups oppose this legislation because it leaves open the potential for the international community to permit sterilization or abortion for the disabled.” Meanwhile, the CRPD clause that relates to reproductive justice, found in Article 25, calls for “free or affordable health care including the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based health programs.”


Whether it was the recession, reproductive rights or political grandstanding, not ratifying this treaty will leave another stain on American human rights history. If nothing else, it should serve as a reminder that our fight is not yet won.

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