For two years, members of the Obama administration have been waging a battle with U.S. lawmakers over whether the United States should ratify a United Nations treaty on disability rights.
Now, as this battle enters its third year, administration officials are hoping to turn the tide - though opponents are showing no signs of giving in.
The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006. Based largely on the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act
passed by the U.S. in 1990, it aims to help the disabled by ensuring their right to education, health care and employment.
So far, 139 countries have ratified the treaty but the U.S. is not among them.
George Akhmeteli finds that puzzling.
“I think America has done the best in this field, so why don't they have the view to promote this?” he asked.
The 32-year-old activist from Tbilisi, Georgia has been in a wheelchair ever since he suffered a spinal cord injury in an accident in 2003. These days, he is getting used to making his way through the streets of New York City, not easy, he says, but nothing compared to the situation in his hometown.
“You will walk there for a month, maybe a year, and you will never meet no one disabled person in the streets and outside,” he said. “No public transport. No curb cuts. No accessibility in the streets. And the people's minds are full of stereotypes.”
Stereotypes and stigmas
Akhmeteli said the stereotypes, and stigmas, get worse outside major cities.
“In rural Georgia where there may be a [disabled] child in the family and nobody, no neighbors, nobody knows,” he said. “There are some religious reasons, too, somebody don't want because it's like God cursed [them].”
Akhmeteli’s native Georgia is one of a number of countries that has signed the U.N. disability treaty but has yet to ratify it. He says America’s failure to ratify the treaty has not gone unnoticed.
“Sometimes the counter argument from different authorities was, you see, even U.S.A. hasn't ratified it yet,” he said.
One of the treaty’s biggest proponents has been U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who fought for ratification while still a member of the U.S. Senate.
At a hearing this past November before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he again laid out the case.
"The ratification of the Disabilities Treaty will advance core American values,” Kerry told lawmakers. “It will expand opportunities for our citizens and businesses, and it will strengthen American leadership."
But key members of the Foreign Relations Committee are unconvinced, warning the treaty gives too much power to the United Nations and the treaty body.
“I hope our country will look for every appropriate opportunity to be a leader in pushing for the rights of persons with disabilities internationally,” Republican Senator Bob Corker said in a December statement. “Ultimately, I’m unable to vote for a treaty that could undermine our Constitution and the legitimacy of our democratic process as the appropriate means for making decisions about the treatment of our citizens.”
There are other concerns as well.
“It’s a question of, does the piece of paper that you’re signing actually achieve the things that the piece of paper promises to do,” said Ted Bromund with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “And the answer in this case is no, the treaty does not achieve the objectives that its supporters claim it’s going to achieve.”
Bromund says, often, the opposite is true.
“These sorts of treaties tend to shield people who don’t live up to their commitments,” he said.
And there have been problems in the more than 150 countries that have already signed the convention. A recent Human Rights Watch report on Russia, for example, found millions of people with disabilities still face significant problems, like wheelchair access.
State Department Special Advisor Judith Heumann believes that can change with U.S. ratification.
“We need to play a meaningful role and our failure to ratify makes other countries, and civil society, really question our sincerity,” she said.
The U.S. State Department runs its own programs for promoting rights and opportunities for the disabled.
In December, its Middle East Partnership Initiative worked with U.S. embassies across the region for a series of events, including social media campaigns in Iraq, seminars for parents of children with disabilities in Yemen, and a program with the Palestinian Paralympic Committee.
Still, Heumann said such programs can only do so much if the U.S. is not a part of the U.N. treaty.
“This treaty, which will put no new obligations on the United States and only afford Americans opportunity over time, is something that we need to do,” she said. “We need to take our head out of the sand and do the right thing.”