Friday, November 22, 2013

“The American standard” – arrogance and contempt in the CRPD ratification debate

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 138 parties have ratified, but the US refused to do so again last year. There’s a major push right now for ratification from a broad spectrum of groups. This is largely heartening, but the arguments with which ratification is being promoted in the US reflect an arrogance and contempt that will undoubtedly undermine it if it does happen.

I was first alerted to this framing by a post by Tina Minkowitz at Mad in America. (I’ve been writing about her reports from the UN for a while now.) Minkowitz, one of the drafters of the CRPD and who supports full ratification of the convention, pointed out recently that many of those urging ratification are using rhetoric and promoting measures (such as reservations, understandings, or declarations, or RUDs) that basically entail the homeopathization of the treaty in the US. They’re also employing a false and damaging narrative about how ratification, while having no effect on domestic practices, will provide an opportunity for the US to export its so-called gold standard of disability policies to other countries. To make matters worse, advocacy communities – those who are being listened to, at any event – are going along with this narrative:
All the proponents of CRPD ratification who are allowed a voice in these discussions are in agreement that the US ratification is aimed ONLY at giving the US greater influence over other countries and over the development of customary international law, and NOT at improving the enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities in the US itself. This is astounding. It is hard to imagine any self-respecting group of people that would work so hard for a treaty about their own rights, and yet argue that it won’t apply to themselves but instead is only meant to help their government promote the national ‘brand’ (as per Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge).
Minkowitz’s post describes some of the arrogant and contemptuous arguments from the politicians involved. Sadly, you see these arguments discussed uncritically and even supportively in “progressive” media outlets. This series of remarks from an article yesterday at ThinkProgress, for example:
• “The CRPD’s failure on the Senate floor then was a ‘rough day for a lot of us who support the treaty’, Kerry said during his testimony, noting that he heard regret afterwards — even from those who had voted against the treaty — about the message it sent to the disabled around the world.”

• “The executive branch, Kerry promised, is ‘100 percent prepared, as we have been’ to work with Congress on various proposed reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) that could be added onto the treaty.

Kerry’s promise was in response to the concerns Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) put forward in his opening remarks. ‘I think the ratification of this treaty really rests solely on the administration’s willingness to ensure that this treaty has no effect on domestic law’, Corker said.”

• “‘I am still convinced that we give up nothing, but get everything in return’, Kerry said. ‘Our ratification does not require a single change in American law and isn’t going to add a penny to our budget’. Instead, he said, it would provide leverage to get other countries to raise themselves to the standards the United States set forward in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which the CRPD is based on.

• “‘There are countries where children with disabilities are warehoused from birth, denied even birth certificates, treated as second class citizens every day of their lives’, Kerry said, adding, ‘Moments like this clarify for me the work we must do to export our gold standard – the American standard. I hate seeing us squander our credibility on this issue around the world’.”

• “A slew of officials have been making the rounds in recent weeks, each insisting on the need for the treaty to help raise other countries to the standards the United States prides itself on when it comes to supporting people with disabilities.”

• “‘You know, if the ADA and the protections afforded to persons here were extended internationally, then these disabled vets or other Americans with disabilities would have, again, the same horizon, unlimited horizon, that their able-bodied American counterparts would have’, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told Politico on Wednesday. ‘So there’s a real core interest here for our people’.” [I have no idea how this is supposed to make sense – SC]

• “Advocates disagree with the notion that the CRPD strips any measure of sovereignty from the United States. ‘This treaty is empowering people with disabilities around the world, and asserts that the family is the central unit of society, and that it’s in the best interest of children with disabilities that society protect and support families’, Morrissey told ThinkProgress. ‘So I think this treaty actually advances our sovereignty by bringing U.S. leadership to the world table. We’ve done so much on disability in this country and we really can be a world leader.’”

• “‘This treaty is not about changing America’, Kerry told the committee, summing up the administration’s pitch. ‘This treaty is about America changing the world’.”
Or this, from Ted Kaufman at HuffPo:
• “You don't have to listen to one Democratic voice to make the strongest possible case for ratification of CRPD. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, said, ‘Ratification is an opportunity to export to the world the very best we have to offer. This is a chance to use our rich national experience in disability rights -- which has gained us the respect of the world community -- to extend the principles embodied in the ADA to the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities worldwide who today have no domestic protection. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing the role the world expects of us’.
These ideas are completely contrary to the purpose of international instruments, as Minkowitz argues in her statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
The United States has been admired as a leader in the field of disability rights because of the ADA. However, the ADA is not the gold standard for comprehensive protection of human rights of persons with disabilities without discrimination in all aspects of life. That mantle belongs to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

…It is…disturbing to witness not only the numerous RUDs of unprecedented number and scope, but the intent of the RUDs as apparent from their content and from the statements of both Senators and witnesses in the Foreign Relations Committee hearings. It appears that the intent and effect of the RUDs taken as a whole is to preclude any necessity for action by the US to bring its own law into compliance with international standards that it would claim to ratify. Ratification on these terms violates the core principle of international law that domestic law does not excuse a government from complying with its international obligations1, and its corollary that states parties are expected to conform their domestic law to the requirements of a ratified treaty2. The United States cannot escape this obligation by declaring that its law fulfills or exceeds the requirements of the treaty.

…To reject this central obligation or seek loopholes to avoid it does a sad disservice to persons with disabilities, and is not in keeping with the purpose or principles of the CRPD.
It’s bad enough to refuse to ratify, but to “ratify” in this manner and with this obvious agenda is to display not just arrogance but contempt. (The cheering acquiescence of so many independent advocacy groups to this imperialistic rhetoric parallels that of some international human rights organizations responding to US foreign intervention.)

Reading about this debate brings to mind a recent article by Noam Chomsky, “Why the Rest of the World No Longer Wants to be Like U.S.” Chomsky describes:
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the leading establishment journal, David Kaye reviews one aspect of Washington's departure from the world: rejection of multilateral treaties ‘as if it were sport’.

He explains that some treaties are rejected outright, as when the U.S. Senate ‘voted against the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012 and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999’.

Others are dismissed by inaction, including ‘such subjects as labor, economic and cultural rights, endangered species, pollution, armed conflict, peacekeeping, nuclear weapons, the law of the sea, and discrimination against women’.

Rejection of international obligations ‘has grown so entrenched’, Kaye writes, ‘that foreign governments no longer expect Washington's ratification or its full participation in the institutions treaties create. The world is moving on; laws get made elsewhere, with limited (if any) American involvement’.

While not new, the practice has indeed become more entrenched in recent years, along with quiet acceptance at home of the doctrine that the U.S. has every right to act as a rogue state.

…Whatever the world may think, U.S. actions are legitimate because we say so. The principle was enunciated by the eminent statesman Dean Acheson in 1962, when he instructed the American Society of International Law that no legal issue arises when the United States responds to a challenge to its ‘power, position, and prestige’.
Mano Singham posted this morning about the possible effects of the Snowden revelations in impeding the US government’s ability to behave with this sort of hypocritical arrogance and contempt on the international stage.

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