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Senate Fails To Ratify U.N. Treaty On Disabilities

Dec 5, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 9:09 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And amid that budget debate, a wall of Republican opposition to a new United Nations treaty kept it from being ratified in the Senate. The treaty is aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of disabled people. And even though it was inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Republicans argue that it would harm U.S. sovereignty and even interfere with home schooling. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: By the time the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities got to the Senate floor, most Republicans had already made clear they would not vote for it. John Kerry, the Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, pleaded with colleagues to give the UN treaty a second look.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: It just says that you can't discriminate against the disabled. It says that other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

WELNA: Both Presidents Bush backed the treaty, and President Obama signed it three years ago. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole - 89 years old and ailing - was on the Senate floor yesterday to show his support. Dick Durbin is the number two Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: We owe it to Bob Dole, to all of the disabled veterans like him who stand with locked arms begging us to pass this convention. We owe it to the disabled people across America and around the world.

WELNA: And John McCain, a former prisoner of war who's the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee called on his colleagues to ratify the disabilities treaty. He pointed out that disabled American veterans face far more obstacles trying to get around in countries that lack the laws the U.S. has.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: This is an expression of American leadership throughout the world, I think an obligation that America should embrace.

WELNA: But McCain's fellow GOP Senator from Arizona, Jon Kyl, argued that many of the 126 nations that have ratified the disabilities treaty don't abide by it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JON KYL: Becoming a party to this convention would actually put us in the company of nations that are nowhere near the high ground on this issue, moral or otherwise.

WELNA: Utah Republican Mike Lee made a more visceral argument against ratification. Lee said he's all for the rights of disabled people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MIKE LEE: But I, and many of my constituents - including those who home school their children or send their children to private or religious schools - have justifiable doubts that a foreign UN body, a committee operating out of Geneva, Switzerland, should decide what is in the best interest of the child at home with his or her parents in Utah, or in any other state in our great union.

WELNA: Democrats pointed out there is nothing in the treaty that changes any American laws, nor can it be enforced by any U.S. courts. Delaware's Chris Coons says outside group have ginned up unreasonable fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR CHRIS COONS: They have succeeded in scaring the parents who home school their children all over this country. My own office has gotten dozens of calls and letters demanding that I vote against this convention. As a matter of international law and as a matter of U.S. law, this convention does nothing, does nothing to change the home schooling of children in America.

WELNA: In the end, 38 Republicans voted against ratifying the treaty. Only eight voted for it, along with every Democrat. That left it five votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed. Majority Leader Harry Reid blamed that outcome on the Tea Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR HARRY REID: The Tea Party folks defeated this treaty and, in effect, really hurt the disabled community and the veteran community in America.

WELNA: Democrats vowed they'll be trying again to ratify the treaty. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.