60-Second Expert: The U.S. and the UN Disability Treaty

In December 2006, 139 states signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It was the first human rights treaty of the 21st century and also the first of its kind geared towards protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The United States was and remains conspicuously absent from among the signatories, despite being a leader in domestic disability law and policy.

The CRPD marks an important step in the field of international human rights by merging economic, social, and cultural rights on the one hand with civil and political rights on the other. It builds upon existing human rights conventions while borrowing heavily from American disability law. By filling in the gaps left by U.S. legislation, the CRPD is a logical next step in protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

Under the Bush administration, the United States refused to sign the convention, arguing that its own domestic legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was superior. Nor did it participate actively in drafting the convention. This reluctance to cooperate is troubling given America’s role in enacting a handful of groundbreaking domestic disability laws.

The United States has been averse to accepting international laws and treaties in general since the 1950s, when President Eisenhower promised not to comply with any international human rights treaties in response to a controversial amendment proposed by Senator John Bricker. As a result, America has fallen behind as a leader in the international human rights movement. It pursues disconnected agendas of promoting human rights abroad while ignoring them at home.

Thus, the CRPD presents an opportunity for United States, led by the Obama administration, to resume its place as a leader in the global community. It is a means by which America can address the weaknesses of its domestic laws and live up to its legacy as a pioneer in the field of disability legislation.

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Michael Ashley Stein is a professor at William & Mary School of Law, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and the executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Janet E. Lord, is a partner with BlueLaw International, LLP, a research associate at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. They are both contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.