US: Senate Misses Opportunity on Disability Convention

 The United States missed an opportunity to display global leadership on disability rights on December 4, 2012, as the Senate failed to approve ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Senate vote was 61 in favor and 38 opposed, with 66 “yes” votes – two-thirds of the Senate in attendance – needed to consent to ratification.

The International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in 2008 and the United States signed in 2009, aims to promote, protect, and ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights for people with disabilities. By ratifying the disability rights treaty, the United States would have had an opportunity to strengthen its leadership on the rights of people with disabilities at home and abroad, Human Rights Watch said.

“US leadership has been influential in putting disability rights issues on the international agenda, but the Senate vote is a big step backward,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Ratifying the disability rights treaty would have built on the US commitment to the values embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act and provided the framework to advance and promote the rights of people with disabilities globally.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law enacted by Congress in 1990, was the first major piece of national legislation in the world to address systematically the discrimination, barriers, and challenges faced by people with disabilities. In that legislation, the US set out a vision for empowering people with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, full participation, and inclusion and integration into society.

The convention was inspired in part by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the US provided important technical assistance during the convention’s negotiation and drafting process. Like the ADA, the treaty embodies the basic principles of individual dignity and autonomy, non- discrimination, full inclusion and participation in society, equality of opportunity, accessibility, and respect for difference. The core protections of the treaty are the same as the protections in the US law, and the legal standards articulated by the treaty align with US disability law.

The treaty requires member countries to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and support their dignity, autonomy, and full participation in society. When it was opened for signature in 2007, it was signed by 82 countries and ratified by one, the largest number of countries to sign a United Nations convention on its opening day. Currently, 126 countries have ratified the convention.

The Senate vote took place during the post-election (“lame duck”) session of Congress and included debate and votes by senators who will not return to the next Congress in January 2013. The Senate may choose to take up the treaty again when the new Congress convenes.

“The Senate vote was a round lost in the fight for the rights of people with disabilities,” Ginatta said. “This embarrassing outcome should energize the Senate to ratify this crucial convention in 2013.”

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