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On Dec. 4, the U.S. Senate voted down ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention, already ratified by 126 countries worldwide, is designed to help protect the 700 million-odd people on the planet with a disability from discrimination and to improve their access to education, services, and employment. It’s based on the language and ideals of the path-breaking Americans with Disabilities Act—which was shepherded through the Senate 22 years ago by Republican Senator and World War II hero Bob Dole, then the Senate majority leader.
Dole, now 89 and confined to a wheelchair, was back on the Senate floor to watch Tuesday’s debate. Dole had implored his fellow Republicans to ratify the treaty, which required two-thirds of the Senate’s support. But 38 of them voted against it, ensuring its defeat.
In some respects this was nothing new. The usual U.S. negotiating position when it comes to international treaty-making—already impressively intransigent given that the rest of the world contains a little less than 96 percent of the planet’s population—is that the country won’t agree to a treaty that involves changing U.S. law. What makes last Tuesday’s vote on the disability treaty particularly incomprehensible is that it doesn’t require a change in U.S. law. Indeed, it is modeled on U.S. law.
That may be why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce likes the treaty, even though the Chamber opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act back in 1990. The Chamber’s support for globalizing disability laws stems from its desire to see foreign companies bear the same costs of compliance that American businesses do. Backing the treaty would improve U.S. industry’s competitiveness. That’s usually the kind of activity that gets bipartisan support. But it’s a treaty. And in the Republican view, treaties might involve foreigners telling us what to do one day.
This is hardly a one-off case. For example, the U.S. actually proposed a lot of the language that ended up in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which proposes all sorts of radical things like not executing minors. Regardless, the Senate hasn’t ratified that one either. At least we’re not completely alone. Somalia and South Sudan have failed to ratify it as well.
Republican intransigence has also blocked ratification of the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994. It creates global rules to govern such things as mining rights on the ocean floor and shipping lanes in international waters. And it has been ratified by 161 countries—but not the U.S. That’s despite the fact that the Chamber of Commerce (again), the National Association of Manufacturers, secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger onward, and pretty much everyone with a star in the Pentagon wants the U.S. to sign up. One result of ratifying the treaty would be to secure 4.1 million miles of ocean floor for U.S. jurisdiction. It would be a useful tool in the effort to peacefully resolve disputes over the South China Sea. And signing would give U.S. companies more secure rights to mine and drill in parts of the Arctic. Perhaps the holdout Republicans should change their chant to “Drill, Baby, Drill* [*unless doing so requires treaty ratification].”
What about the global arms trade treaty? Once again, the U.S. already had laws that do most of what draft treaty language from earlier this year suggests, such as abiding by embargoes and publishing information on arms deals. Nonetheless, the U.S. walked away from a global deal in July before even signing it. And last week delegates to the Doha climate change conference had to get over their disappointment that the deaths and damage caused by Hurricane Sandy had made no noticeable impact on the U.S. negotiating position on climate—including the stance against legally binding emissions targets.
There was a time when America led from the front on international cooperation and treaty-making. The U.N., the Global Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, and the International Monetary Fund were all global institutions that the U.S. played a lead role in designing and supporting. But the last 30 years have seen a growing isolationism in the Senate—which means ratifying treaties takes ever more arm twisting and leaves international agreements larded with pork. Most recent U.S. trade deals have been bilateral, not global, and come attached with conditions demanding lower tobacco taxes or reduced gas mileage regulations in partner countries, despite the fact such conditions aren’t in the interests of either signatory.
Paranoid fear of treaty enforcement by U.N. black helicopters is a pretty sad condition for what is supposedly the world’s only superpower. Like it or not, we need the rest of the world. We need China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, to help deal with climate change. We need countless countries to supply the raw materials and parts that feed our manufacturing base as well as the final products that stock store shelves. We need multilateral cooperation to counter transnational illegal arms sales, crime, and terrorism. We need the rest of the world to finance our debts and keep the world economy ticking over while we teeter on a fiscal cliff.
We should be big enough to realize we can’t do everything alone. Signing a global treaty on disability with absolutely no implications for U.S. policy or law would be a pretty straightforward first step.