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UN disability treaty heads to US Senate floor, critics fear it limits parental rights

The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs passed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday.
Tue Jul 22, 2014 - 8:09 pm EST
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The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday passed a controversial United Nations treaty that critics say could interfere with the rights of parents of children with disabilities to make decisions about their children’s education, living arrangements, and health care. Now, it will go before the whole Senate for potential ratification.

The treaty in question, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), was adopted by the UN in 2006 and signed by President Barack Obama in 2009.  However, the Senate narrowly voted against ratification in 2012 over concerns about national sovereignty.  Opponents claimed the treaty’s failure to define what constitutes a “disability” could result in a broad application that would enable unelected bureaucrats to encroach on parental rights, outlaw homeschooling, and expand abortion access.

One of the treaty’s harshest critics has been Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which offers legal aid to nearly 200,000 homeschooling families in the United States.

“This United Nations treaty says ‘in all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration,’” Farris wrote in a recent op-ed opposing the treaty. “Not ‘parental rights,’ as our U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. But ‘best interests of the child,’ a legal term only used during divorce and abuse and neglect cases.”

“Government officials could use this section to override parental decisions for their child with a disability,” Farris wrote. “Other provisions of this treaty threaten U.S. sovereignty, promote abortion rights, and require a national registry of all children with disabilities (the term ‘disability’ isn’t even defined.).”

Farris says that the UNCRPD is unnecessary because the U.S. already has laws protecting the disabled.  In fact, the UN document is largely based on current U.S. disability law. 

“The UNCPRD isn’t about protecting people with disabilities—our nation’s own laws and strong leadership overseas already do this,” Farris wrote. “It’s about whether we will surrender our freedom to an unelected, unaccountable United Nations.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, himself a homeschooling parent of a disabled daughter, said the UNCRPD is much broader than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on which it is supposedly based, and therefore far more dangerous.

“[UN]CRPD hits close to home for my wife, Karen, and me because it could impact the care we give our own special-needs daughter, Bella,” Santorum wrote in an April column for Townhall.  “Embracing the United Nations’ ‘it takes a village’ mentality, [UN]CRPD would empower the federal government to run roughshod over existing laws that protect parents’ and children’s rights.”

“The treaty’s supporters tell us that [UN]CRPD simply mirrors the Americans with Disabilities Act. Don’t buy that,” Santorum wrote.  “The ADA is very specific and limited in its scope. Anyone who actually reads the [UN]CRPD will see that it is a blunt instrument. It has few specifics but a lot of question marks.”

“Consider the following: [UN]CRPD states that its provisions ‘shall extend to all parts of federal states without any limitations or exceptions.’ So much for American federalism,” Santorum wrote. 

“The ADA carefully defines ‘disability,’ making the scope of the law clear. The drafters of [UN]CRPD, however, specifically rejected a clear definition of ‘disability,’ asserting that ‘disability is an evolving concept.’ Really? What will the U.N. consider to be a disability in the future, after we have ratified the treaty? Drug addiction? Online gambling? Bad breath? And how much will this endless re-definition of the concept of disability cost employers and families?”

In an interview with Politico, Farris said he thinks the main reason Democrats have thrown their support behind the treaty is to obligate the U.S. to follow European-inspired international laws that would never pass muster in politically moderate America.

“The political left has determined that they can’t get the entire public policy agenda through the normal processes of American politics, so they want to use international law to accomplish their political objectives,” Farris said.

Proponents of ratification say that it’s important for America to sign the treaty in order to set a positive example for the rest of the world, and because it could open up a market for U.S.-made disability equipment in other nations.  They claim Farris’ and Santorum’s concerns are unfounded because the UN has no way to actually enforce the treaty – nations that agree to the treaty are responsible for policing their own application of its tenets. Former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, a core supporter of the treaty who is himself disabled, said several “reservations” have been added to the proposed ratification bill that would clarify that the treaty will have no effect on American law.

“I don’t know what the problem is with the Republicans,” Dole told Politico. “I don’t know what the repercussions could be — it’s not a Democratic or Republican treaty, liberal or conservative.”

“It would be a lot easier if I were still in the Senate,” he added.

Since leaving the Senate for a failed presidential bid in 1996, Dole has been vocally critical of his party for not being more willing to compromise with Democrats – particularly President Obama. 

Last year, he famously said the GOP should be “closed for repairs” until it can learn to collaborate more effectively with the left.  And last month, he slammed conservative stalwarts before an audience in his home state of Kansas, telling them, “In the Republican Party, we have the traditional Republican conservatives, like most people are in Kansas. And then we have people who are a part of this right wing ‘fringe,’ people who are extremely conservative, who don’t contribute much and just vote against everything.”

He said he particularly regretted his own history of speaking out strongly against abortion during political campaigns, and that he had personally called to apologize to the abortionist who challenged him during his first senatorial re-election race because he felt bad about the “nasty” things his pro-life supporters had said about him.

It’s unclear whether the UNCRPD has the votes to pass the full Senate should it be brought up for a vote before the August recess.  In order to be ratified, it must win the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.  HSLDA’s Farris says he’s optimistic he can mobilize enough grassroots support from concerned homeschooling parents to stop that from happening. 

“We … think we have more than enough votes to kill it on the floor of the Senate,” Farris told Politico. “We’ve got grass-roots activists who will stand up and speak on this issue.”


  parental rights, un convention on the rights of persons with disabilities

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