WASHINGTON, DC — A packed hearing room awaited Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday as he prepared to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the latest move in a renewed effort to ratify the stalled Disabilities Treaty through the upper house of Congress.
Thursday’s hearing was the second on the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) in the current Congress, presenting the opportunity for Kerry to speak out in favor of the treaty that he attempted to ratify in one of his last actions as Chairman of the same committee. Last year’s attempt to gain the two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the treaty fell just five votes short, despite the best efforts of such prominent figures as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS).
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. “The meetings we’ve had thus far have been pleasant but unsatisfying.” Corker also raised the case of Bond v. United States, currently before the Supreme Court, in which a chemical weapons treaty is being used to prosecute a case against an American citizen. Kerry insisted that no new legislation is required to implement the CRPD, meaning that Bond has been improperly cited as an analogy.
“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.”
The former senator’s appearance before his colleagues in the committee he once chaired is the latest in a push from the Obama administration to get the treaty over the finish line since the president signed it in 2009. 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.”
The Obama administration isn’t alone in urging Congress to act. Advocates in support of the treaty filled the largest hearing room in the Senate’s offices to show their support. Deaf audience members watched as two translators signed the discussion and television screens displayed closed-captioned images from the front of the room. Prior to the hearing’s start, members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told ThinkProgress that 35 – 40 veterans were expected to attend. Veterans have been some of the largest supporters of the CRPD’s passage, with groups whose members number in the millions signing onto efforts to lobby senators. Kerry, himself a noted veteran and member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, pointed to that support as a key reason for ratification.
Veterans, for all their numbers, make up only a small part of the coalition that has come together urging ratification of the CRPD. Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), in his opening remarks, listed off dozens of groups, businesses and individuals in support of passage, including as varied a group as Coca-Cola, NASCAR, the Consumer Electronic Association, Microsoft, the Red Cross, Chinese dissident Chen Guancheng and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A group including Handicap International, VoteVets, UNICEF, USICID, and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) also delivered to the committee a bound petition containing roughly 67,500 signatures pressing for ratification.
One such individual is Jessica Cox, a motivational speaker and pilot, who was born without arms as part of a birth defect. ThinkProgress spoke with Cox before the hearing began, where she told the story of a trip she took to speak in Ghana. While there, a woman named Louisa made her way through the crowd to speak with Cox. Louisa was also born without arms, Cox said, but her family was told that they should abandon Louisa to the woods. A passerby convinced her mother to go against the community and raise her in hiding. “Fortunately, she’s now an elementary school teacher,” Cox said, but stressing the way that many countries still fail to understand and provide for people with disabilities.
“I think also what’s hard is some of the attitudes,” Cox confided. “So if I’m you know, walking through [an airport] and have people looking at me and — it’s not even pity. Some people scoff at the fact that this is a person with a disability out in public. And it’s very frustrating to know that these attitudes exist in so many countries. That people with disabilities are looked at as less and looked at in a very negative light. And I think that is the more challenging thing, the emotional discrimination from people around that country.”
In total, some 800 groups are pressing the Senate to ratify the treaty. “We’re so pleased there’s such a diverse coalition of disabilities, civil rights, veterans, business interests with us on this issue,” David Morrissey, Executive Director of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, told ThinkProgress. “My confidence is always in bipartisanship,” he went on, noting that there were no senators who weren’t being lobbied to gain their vote. Chris Neiweem, VetsFirst’s Director of Veterans Policy, previously told ThinkProgress that between nine and eleven Republicans are being looked as possible votes in support of the treaty.
Despite the support of several prominent Republicans, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), conservative groups are still attempting to counter the alliance of administration and activists, insisting that the treaty will harm American interests. “Creating false hopes of a better world to come is a disservice to Americans with disabilities, especially our wounded warriors,” Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Steven Groves wrote. Groves insisted that the failure of several other treaties to follow through on their promises, including that several countries who have signed onto the Convention Against Torture still engage in torture, shows that the CRPD should not be ratified.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) has also been a leader in trying to scuttle the treaty, claiming that it would force his family to be stripped of its ability to take care of Santorum’s daughter, Bella, who is disabled.
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.”
“Changes will not happen overnight,” Kerry warned the assembled senators, “but the Disabilities Treaty, like the ADA, is a process.” Once ratified, Kerry promised, he will send a message to each of the United States’ embassies around the world pledging support in implementing the treaty’s provisions. Given the Democratic majority, there’s little doubt that the CRPD will win enough votes to make it out of the Foreign Relations Committee once again. It’s what happens once it reaches the Senate floor that will matter most, as the administration, Senate leadership, and advocates all race to lock in the 67th vote needed to make the Disabilities Treaty into law. No vote is scheduled yet, giving all sides more time to sell the American public on their views. “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.”