US Influences Disability Rights Treaty, but Won’t Sign It

by Catherine Komp
Aug. 25 2006

Despite having a heavy hand in negotiations, the United States says it will not sign a global treaty codifying the rights of people with disabilities. The United Nations has been working on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities since December 2001, when it formed ad-hoc committees to study the issue. Five years later, UN delegates are in a final week of negotiations over provisions of the draft convention, which aims to promote respect, autonomy, non-discrimination, inclusion, accessibility and equal opportunity for people with disabilities.

“Our view is that the US actually already has in existence on the federal level, the state level and the local level a very good framework of laws and practices to assist citizens with disabilities,” Paul Denig, with the US State Department, told The NewStandard, referring to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “In our view, this treaty would not add to that.” In response to a question about whether the ADA is stronger than the draft UN convention, Denig said they are “two different instruments and we do not want to rank them, particularly since the disabilities convention is still under negotiation.”

Silvia Yee, staff attorney at the California-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said it is important for the US to sign the treaty to show support for the world’s 650 million people who have disabilities, many of whom currently have few rights. But she agreed it is “very difficult” to directly compare the UN convention to the ADA. “They are [like] apples and oranges,” Yee told TNS. “The ADA is so linked to American civil rights and the American legal system, and also the history of the movement in the disabled community … so that’s very different than the human rights approach of the UN convention which is broader and more encompassing [of social rights issues].”

Though the US refuses to sign the convention, it has been heavily involved in negotiations on many of the draft’s provisions, including end of life issues; parental decision-making regarding children; the prohibition against involuntary sterilization; and informed consent for genetic testing, medical research and scientific experimentation. The US remains “concerned” about some areas of the draft convention, though Denig told TNS that negotiators will not comment on any particular provision still under negotiations “regardless of whether they are controversial.” He added that the US “led the way to include language expanding political participation of persons with disabilities” and worked with others to address “end of life issues to prevent euthanasia.”

Yee said she does not believe US opposition to signing the convention has anything to do with the issue of disability rights. “I think it’s because the US just doesn’t necessarily believe in the international treaty and rights monitoring model,” she speculated. “I think it has always been very staunch about the sovereignty of the United States and not necessarily in favor of any giving up of that sovereignty in terms of recognizing international bodies.” According to the UN Secretariat Thomas Schindlmayr, only 45 countries have anti-discrimination legislation protecting disabled people. The General Assembly’s ad-hoc committee is scheduled to wrap up negotiations today.

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