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Friday, November 15, 2013

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Issues in the U.S. Ratification Debate

Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

During the 113
th Congress, the Senate might consider providing its advice and consent to ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, or the Convention). CRPD, which has been ratified or acceded to by 138 countries, is a multilateral agreement that addresses the rights of disabled persons. Its purpose is to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities.

Many U.S. policymakers, including President Obama and some Members of Congress, agree that existing U.S. laws and policies are compatible with CRPD. In fact, some CRPD provisions appear to be modeled after U.S. disability laws. The United States has historically recognized the rights of individuals with disabilities through various laws and policies, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In July 2009, President Obama signed CRPD. The Administration transmitted it to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification in May 2012. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC) held a hearing on the Convention in July 2012 and later that month reported the treaty favorably to the full Senate by a vote of 13 in favor and 6 against, subject to certain conditions. In December 2012, the Senate voted against providing advice and consent to ratification of CRPD by a vote of 61 to 38. The treaty was automatically returned to SFRC at the end of the 112
th Congress.

In debates regarding U.S. ratification of CRPD, the treaty’s possible impact on U.S. sovereignty has been a key area of concern. Critics of the Convention maintain that treaties are the “supreme Law of the Land” under the Constitution, and that U.S. ratification of CRPD could supersede federal, state, and local laws. Supporters assert that CRPD is a non-discrimination treaty that does not create new obligations. They contend that U.S. laws meet, and in some cases exceed, CRPD requirements. Debate may also center on the following issues:

Role of the CPRD committee. Critics are concerned that recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention’s monitoring body, could deem U.S. laws to be in violation of CRPD and presume authority over the private lives of U.S. citizens. Supporters, including the Obama Administration, emphasize that committee decisions are non-binding under international and domestic law.

Possible impact on U.S. citizens and businesses abroad. Some CRPD proponents contend that U.S. ratification may (1) improve the lives of U.S. citizens with disabilities living, working, or traveling abroad, and (2) “level the playing field” for U.S. companies that, unlike many of their foreign counterparts, already comply with higher disability standards. The extent to which U.S. ratification of CRPD may positively affect U.S. businesses or disabled U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad remains unclear.

Role in U.S. foreign policy. Supporters contend that U.S. ratification may enhance U.S. credibility as it advocates the rights of persons with disabilities globally. Opponents argue that existing U.S. laws and policies are robust enough examples of U.S. commitment to the issue.

Abortion. Some critics worry that the term “sexual and reproductive health” in CRPD could be a euphemism for abortion. Supporters note that the word “abortion” is never mentioned in the Convention and contend that no U.S laws related to abortion would be created as a result of U.S. ratification.

Parental rights. Some are concerned that the U.S. ratification may give governments, and not U.S. parents, the right to make educational and treatmentrelated decisions for their disabled children. Others, including the Obama Administration, hold that existing federal, state, and local laws protect parental rights.

Other issues that Senators may wish to consider include challenges to evaluating CRPD’s effectiveness, obstacles to CRPD implementation, and the role and participation of civil society in CRPD mechanisms.

For information on U.S. efforts to address the rights of persons with disabilities domestically, see CRS Report 98-921, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Statutory Language and Recent Issues, by Cynthia Brougher. An overview of treaty process is available in CRS Report 98-384, Senate Consideration of Treaties, by Valerie Heitshusen.

Date of Report: October 31, 2013
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: R42749
Price: $29.95

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