Skip to main content

Senate GOP failed on disability rights

By Ted Piccone, Special to CNN
updated 11:23 PM EST, Sat December 8, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last week, Senate Republicans defeated the international convention for disability rights
  • Misinformation and fear overrode decency and common sense, says Ted Piccone
  • Opponents argued that the U.N. could deny parents their rights to raise children as they see fit
  • U.S. is losing its moral voice on human rights because it is not leading by example, he says

Editor's note: Ted Piccone is a senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and author of "Catalysts for Change: How the U.N.'s Independent Experts Promote Human Rights."

(CNN) -- As human rights advocates around the world celebrate the 64th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this week, their counterparts in the United States are mourning the Senate's rejection last week of the international convention for disability rights. Appalling in its own right, the Senate Republicans' defeat of the 21st century's first human rights treaty is a sad but sharp reminder that misinformation and fear can still override fundamental principles of human decency and common sense.

More importantly, it is yet another blow to the United States' ability to play a leading role in promoting freedoms and human dignity in the world.

The international bill of rights adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, still stands as the gold standard in the daily fight for basic human rights today. As our societies democratize, mature and progress, human rights defenders are winning longstanding battles to expand the frontiers of rights to include women, children, indigenous peoples, LGBT communities and migrants. Economic and social rights are ascendant as well, as people make claims for the essentials of human life: water, food, health, jobs and education.

Ted Piccone
Ted Piccone

The United States has a long and generally bipartisan tradition of concern for human rights, a pillar of its founding principles. Americans also have been at the forefront of the global human rights movement for generations and consider ourselves a leading example for others of a rights-respecting society, even if we still have much work to do to improve our record. Indeed, it was Congress' passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 that paved the way for the international campaign for disability rights and which served as the standard for the treaty the Senate rejected.

When it comes to international law, however, some Americans get confused. The image of the United Nations as a supranational body with powers to insert itself into our living rooms persists even though there is no evidence to support it.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This myth-making, and its inherent contradictions, are in full display in Rick Santorum's bizarre opinion essay published last week in The Daily Beast. In it, the leader of the conservative movement, to defeat the treaty, claims that unelected U.N. bureaucrats could take away a parent's power to demand special education services for a disabled child. He then asserts that there is no point in ratifying the treaty because it "would do nothing to force any foreign government to change their laws or to spend resources on the disabled. That is for those governments to decide."

Precisely. The hallmark of the U.N. human rights system is its success in elaborating international standards for protecting a comprehensive set of human rights, monitoring states' respect for those rights and making recommendations for improving their records. In exceptional cases involving gross violations, such as war crimes and mass atrocities, governments (though not the United States) have agreed to a more robust set of mechanisms, like the International Criminal Court, to hold individuals accountable.

Employing the blind
Disabled vet: I feel alive SCUBA diving
Girl with rare disorder gets bike

The emerging doctrine of responsibility to protect civilians has even been applied to prevent the slaughter of civilians in Libya. But these measures are a far cry from any alleged interference of U.N. lawyers in our schools and homes.

At the end of the day, however, national sovereignty trumps these efforts, leaving any state free to follow its own path for governing its people. For better or worse, that's the way it works.

There is a broader and more disheartening message that the world hears from Washington on this year's International Human Rights Day: The United States is losing its moral voice on human rights because it is not leading by example.

As one human rights defender remarked to me recently, his government routinely cites U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantanamo as justification for its own violations of human rights. When the exceptional case, like the "necessary" measures adopted to wage battle against terrorists, becomes the norm, we have lost a major source of credibility to promote basic principles of due process and "innocent until proven guilty."

Unfortunately, the conservative movement's victory in defeating the disability rights treaty is just the latest example of our political leaders' failure to convert high-sounding rhetoric into meaningful action when it comes to human rights. If a war hero Republican like Bob Dole, who uses a wheelchair, cannot persuade his colleagues to do the right thing, then we are all the losers in the battle for human rights.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ted Piccone.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT