Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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Santorum Champions U.S. Sovereignty (the Disabled, Not So Much)

by Stewart M. Patrick
December 6, 2012

While campaigning for president, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at the Wisconsin Faith and Freedom Coalitions presidential kick-off in Waukesha, Wisconsin on March 31, 2012 (Darren Hauck/Courtesy Reuters). While campaigning for president, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at the Wisconsin Faith and Freedom Coalitions presidential kick-off in Waukesha, Wisconsin on March 31, 2012 (Darren Hauck/Courtesy Reuters).

The Senate’s appalling rejection this week of the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities was a cruel and petulant gesture, particularly during the holiday season. Relishing the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge was Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania. Unbowed by his drubbing in the GOP presidential primary, the firebrand led the charge against an innocuous treaty—negotiated by George W. Bush no less—whose sole purpose is to extend to other countries the protections afforded to the disabled in the United States. Santorum’s specious claim that the convention posed a mortal threat to U.S. national sovereignty, which convinced enough of his former colleagues to block ratification, speaks volumes about the Republican Party’s antipathy towards international treaties—and the absurd lengths it will go to resist them.

The UN Convention on Disabilities was negotiated and signed during the administration of George W. Bush, whose own enthusiasm for the United Nations, one might recall, was limited. But Bush understood that the convention was entirely harmless in terms of its domestic implications for the United States, which, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), already possesses the global gold standard when it comes to conferring legal rights on people with a variety of handicaps. The significance of the treaty lies in promising to help bring other countries’ standards and laws up to the level outlined in the ADA. To quote Ronald Reagan (channeling colonial Massachusets governor Winthrop), the treaty would underscore the United States’ status as a “shining city on a hill,” worthy of emulation by other nations.

That’s not how Santorum and Co. view things. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has reported, their critique emerges from “the dark world of U.N. conspiracy theories.” In this netherworld, any multilateral agreement, once accepted by the United States, becomes a nefarious tool not only for Lilliputians to tie down Gulliver abroad but, more insidiously, to slowly challenge the foundational values of the United States and undermine U.S. institutions, including the Constitution. In this case, right-wing paranoia has focused on the fact that the treaty would create a UN committee that could, among other thing, interfere with choices by American parents to home school their children, as well as affect U.S. abortion laws. “Our concerns with this convention have nothing to do with any lack of concern for the rights of persons with disabilities,” said Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), who helped galvanize opposition to the treaty. “They have everything to do with protecting U.S. sovereignty, protecting the interests of parents in the United States and the interests of families.”

In the end, the unhinged ideologues triumphed over more open-minded GOP voices. Senator John McCain rightly dismissed the right-wing abortion rhetoric as uninformed. And former Senate majority leader Robert Dole blasted the treaty’s opponents for using “scare tactics” to scuttle a treaty that would help disabled U.S. veterans who seek to work, study, and travel abroad.  Richard Thornburgh, who had been the point man for the ADA under former president George H. W. Bush, assured GOP legislators that the recommendations of the treaty’s envisioned UN committee would be strictly advisory, force no changes in U.S. laws, and create no new legal rights in federal or state courts. The bottom line? The treaty would cede “no authority to the UN over the U.S. or any of its citizens. None. Zero.”

Such reasoned discourse fell on deaf ears. Despite the presence of the wheelchair-bound Dole—a disabled World War II veteran and the GOP’s standard bearer in 1992—only eight Republicans voted in favor of of the treaty, which fell several votes shy of the two-thirds hurdle for passage. (The final tally was 61-38 in favor).

What can possibly account for GOP resistance to a valuable treaty that has already been signed by 155 and ratified by 126 nations? A charitable explanation would be that disabled American citizens already enjoy ample protections under federal (and state) law. But the vehemence and substance of the minority’s opposition suggests a profound concern that the treaty would strip the United States of sovereign independence and undermine the constitutional supremacy that it is at the heart of American exceptionalism and national identity. James Inhofe, GOP senator from Oklahoma, gave voice to such anxieties: I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe on American society.”  Added Lee, “I applaud the Senate for preserving our sovereignty.”

There is a tradition of conservative opposition to human rights treaties, dating back to the Bricker Amendment of the 1950s, as Andrew Moravcsik of Harvard University has argued. Like their predecessors, today’s Republican conservatives are convinced that human rights instruments threaten to supersede the U.S. Constitution and create spurious new rights. They also fear that the world seeks to alter fundamental societal institutions, including what they imagine to be the traditional (and only legitimate) U.S. family structure. Beyond their opposition to the Disabilities treaty, these Senate Republicans are dead set against both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

I have written before about the tenacity of U.S. concerns about preserving national sovereignty—and the mixture of motivations that undergirds this “don’t tread on me” ethos. At times, the need to retain diplomatic freedom of action or domestic policy autonomy does justify opting out of international commitments. This is not one of those times. What we are witnessing today is a Republican Party whose mainstream has embraced a knee-jerk rejection of all international treaties, regardless of objective merit. Given the Senate’s critical constitutional role in the treaty process, the consequences for credible U.S. global leadership, both practical and moral, could be dire.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Steve

    Dear Stewart,

    Are there any pending treaties in which you oppose U.S. membership?

    Best,

    Steve

  • Posted by Brianvh

    “The Devil Is in the Details” as the saying goes. The UN treaty, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is filled with wonderful nondiscriminatory ideas for those of us in the “disabled community.” This treaty is filled with “in the best interest of the child” language, but never determines who makes that decision. In addition, Article 18 Section 2 states that all children born with disabilities must be registered immediately after birth. (That’s interesting)
    Article 25 allows for early intervention, as appropriate, and services designed to minimize and/or protect against future disabilities, including among children and older persons.

    In the UK the NHS hospitals now do this by placing individuals on the Liverpool Care Pathway. Of course, the LCP is a process in which seniors and terminally ill patients and more recently babies are denied food and water and starve to death. This I’m certain was not the original intent of the national health service in the UK, but why should we worry about that?

    Not everything needs to “hit the fan” before we think about.

  • Posted by Stewart Patrick

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for the question—it’s an interesting one. Yes, there are some pending treaties that I am not in favor of. For example, the American Convention on Human Rights, which was submitted for ratification in 1978 remains pending. However, it contains problematic provisions about very sensitive issues such as the death penalty and the definition of when a human life begins. U.S. citizens should retain the power to decide how these issues should be dealt with through their elected officials, without being bound to international agreements. For another example of areas in which I do not support an international treaty, see my previous blog criticizing proposals for a new treaty regulating the Internet. There are also a number of areas for which I recommend a Code of Conduct rather than a binding treaty—for example in Outer Space.

  • Posted by @147DegreesWest

    This Treaty is the worst of all possible Treaties.

    The ultimate insult is that this treaty was hawked as something that would help people with disabled children tour Europe. Seriously? What Starlet is is this treaty for?

    The vast majority of families with disabled persons are NOT touring the world on junkets. They are trying to scrap together the next meal. They are trying to cover medical expenses. They are researching the latest treatments in particular areas. They are NOT touring Europe nor are they on Safari in Africa nor are they galavanting in Guatemala nor are they sashaying in Shanghai; that treaty was for the 1%. After all of the vilification of the 1% by THIS administration, I am personally not predisposed to be of support for treaty. Why would I give those who voted for Obama anything? Indeed, why would anyone in the GOP allow Obama to have any diplomatic accomplishments?

    Besides, parden me for not wanting the likes of Morisi or that Crazy Iranian to be in charge of what is a disability or what is the appropriate treatment. The number of countries that base their family law on Sharia in the UN is not small anymore. Why should these nations have any say in what is family policy in a remote place like… Alaska.

    Nope, scrape that Treaty. Do not bring it back for a vote. Oh, and I was fighting it before Rick Santorum caught wind of it. Kudos to the Parentalrights.org for their ongoing vigilance on Federal and State issues, as well as HSDL. Please, keep your UN Treaties off the Senate floor.

  • Posted by EthanP

    This anti GOP, anti Santorum hype doesn’t wash. If we want more for the disabled, (and I am and qualify for NOTHING) then we should do it ourselves.
    The UN is a corrupt organization run by the corrupt for the corrupt.

  • Posted by Laura

    What next, a treaty to eliminate the right to bear arms for all world citizens because some cultures are more violent than others? No worries, leave it to the Patricks of this nation to want to destroy our rights and Constitution. The US is broke! What we need to do is to cut funding for the UN, and to stop funding the CFR, an NGO plagued by Leftists, whose main aim is to destroy the legacy of our Founding Fathers, so they can be in charge to the abysm their ideology represents. There is plenty of Historical reference.

  • Posted by Charles Elliott

    Brianvh, I’m unclear on the point of your invocation of Article 18, section 2. The entire text of Article 18, section 2 reads: 2. “Children with disabilities shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by their parents.” Birth registration immediately after birth is customary internationally and is usually necessary to prove citizenship. The purpose of the provision is to *protect* the interests of those born with disabilities, including avoidance of statelessness, not to require the creation of some separate list of the disabled for nefarious purposes.

  • Posted by Thomas Brooks

    Stewart, there are a lot of things wrong with this country and Congress is at the top of the list. But one of the few things worse than Congress is “Executive Orders”, which have been used across the srectrum from Morsi of Egypt to our own Obama. At least with Congress, we have a chance to ask people to deny the scope and creeping influence of Executive Orders, or legislation without the participation of the Electorate.

    Another thing you conveniently ignore is that those 38 no votes represent aprovimately 38% of this country, who have the right to say, “No”, to the compromise of our sovreignty to the benefit of ANYONE, no matter how deserving they are of it. A quick glance at the UN treaties on Arms Control and on the Internet should give any rational person reason to question the “sainted” demenor of those supporting such treaties. Thanks for representing the Globalist side so well, but no thanks. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes.

  • Posted by Thomas Brooks

    One of the thing we need less of is polarization to the extremist positions. But your article continues the tradition of demonizing anyone who doesn’t agree with your position. Allow me to quote, ” appalling rejection”, “a cruel and petulant gesture”, and,”Relishing the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge”.

    But for things you don’t like, “I recommend a Code of Conduct rather than a binding treaty—for example in Outer Space.”

    If the GOP is intransigent over the treaty you want, tell me why a Code of Conduct wouldn’t work just as well? What about those who want the treaty – aren’t they just as intransigent over insisting on their way over a Code of Conduct instead? I am VERY suspicious of those who think that soverignty needs to be conceded in order for something good to be done, particularly when they refuse to accept a solution which doesn’t include ceding sovereignty.

    I am sick and tired of the bickering between extremist positions, and the only thing that makes me sicker is apologists for one extremist position over another, like YOU, who continue the demonization that both sides use like spoiled children to get their way at the expense of consensus, fair government, and the good of the country.

    There are TOO MANY things which could be solved if we could just find some middle ground instead of extremism. Illegal immigration? We need a reasonable guest-worker policy, because it isn’t necessary to become a citizen to work in agriculture, nor is it necessary to become a citizen to receive a fair wage. Taxation? We need loopholes closed for the super rich who fund both parties far more than we need higher rates. It’s not appropriate that the mom and pop businesses pay 35% while GE pays 0%, and that’s LOOPHOLES, not tax rates. The same thing applies to personal tax rates, lower rates and less loopholes would be better for the country. Health care? Over 1/3 of every dollar spent on health care goes to insurance companies or lawyers. While I don’t want people to be harmed by poor medical practice, do we really need that much of our health care dollars going to lawyers?

    If you aren’t a voice for agreement, then you are just a shill for one of the extremists. Shame on you for being a shill.

  • Posted by Nico

    If the ADA is such a shining gold standard, why do we need to adopt the convention? “Symbolism” is not a good enough reason to adopt such a thing. Brian raises my concern over vague wording.

    Also, the emphasis on Santorum and hyping this as a conservative move is hilarious. The conservative “tradition” of not fighting for human rights? So prohibition of slavery and the 19th amendment weren’t human rights?

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