from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Santorum Champions U.S. Sovereignty (the Disabled, Not So Much)

December 06, 2012

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The Senate’s appalling rejection this week of the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities was a cruel and petulant gesture, particularly during the holiday season. Relishing the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge was Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania. Unbowed by his drubbing in the GOP presidential primary, the firebrand led the charge against an innocuous treaty—negotiated by George W. Bush no less—whose sole purpose is to extend to other countries the protections afforded to the disabled in the United States. Santorum’s specious claim that the convention posed a mortal threat to U.S. national sovereignty, which convinced enough of his former colleagues to block ratification, speaks volumes about the Republican Party’s antipathy towards international treaties—and the absurd lengths it will go to resist them.

The UN Convention on Disabilities was negotiated and signed during the administration of George W. Bush, whose own enthusiasm for the United Nations, one might recall, was limited. But Bush understood that the convention was entirely harmless in terms of its domestic implications for the United States, which, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), already possesses the global gold standard when it comes to conferring legal rights on people with a variety of handicaps. The significance of the treaty lies in promising to help bring other countries’ standards and laws up to the level outlined in the ADA. To quote Ronald Reagan (channeling colonial Massachusets governor Winthrop), the treaty would underscore the United States’ status as a “shining city on a hill,” worthy of emulation by other nations.

That’s not how Santorum and Co. view things. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has reported, their critique emerges from “the dark world of U.N. conspiracy theories.” In this netherworld, any multilateral agreement, once accepted by the United States, becomes a nefarious tool not only for Lilliputians to tie down Gulliver abroad but, more insidiously, to slowly challenge the foundational values of the United States and undermine U.S. institutions, including the Constitution. In this case, right-wing paranoia has focused on the fact that the treaty would create a UN committee that could, among other thing, interfere with choices by American parents to home school their children, as well as affect U.S. abortion laws. “Our concerns with this convention have nothing to do with any lack of concern for the rights of persons with disabilities,” said Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), who helped galvanize opposition to the treaty. “They have everything to do with protecting U.S. sovereignty, protecting the interests of parents in the United States and the interests of families.”

In the end, the unhinged ideologues triumphed over more open-minded GOP voices. Senator John McCain rightly dismissed the right-wing abortion rhetoric as uninformed. And former Senate majority leader Robert Dole blasted the treaty’s opponents for using “scare tactics” to scuttle a treaty that would help disabled U.S. veterans who seek to work, study, and travel abroad.  Richard Thornburgh, who had been the point man for the ADA under former president George H. W. Bush, assured GOP legislators that the recommendations of the treaty’s envisioned UN committee would be strictly advisory, force no changes in U.S. laws, and create no new legal rights in federal or state courts. The bottom line? The treaty would cede “no authority to the UN over the U.S. or any of its citizens. None. Zero.”

Such reasoned discourse fell on deaf ears. Despite the presence of the wheelchair-bound Dole—a disabled World War II veteran and the GOP’s standard bearer in 1992—only eight Republicans voted in favor of of the treaty, which fell several votes shy of the two-thirds hurdle for passage. (The final tally was 61-38 in favor).

What can possibly account for GOP resistance to a valuable treaty that has already been signed by 155 and ratified by 126 nations? A charitable explanation would be that disabled American citizens already enjoy ample protections under federal (and state) law. But the vehemence and substance of the minority’s opposition suggests a profound concern that the treaty would strip the United States of sovereign independence and undermine the constitutional supremacy that it is at the heart of American exceptionalism and national identity. James Inhofe, GOP senator from Oklahoma, gave voice to such anxieties: I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe on American society.”  Added Lee, “I applaud the Senate for preserving our sovereignty.”

There is a tradition of conservative opposition to human rights treaties, dating back to the Bricker Amendment of the 1950s, as Andrew Moravcsik of Harvard University has argued. Like their predecessors, today’s Republican conservatives are convinced that human rights instruments threaten to supersede the U.S. Constitution and create spurious new rights. They also fear that the world seeks to alter fundamental societal institutions, including what they imagine to be the traditional (and only legitimate) U.S. family structure. Beyond their opposition to the Disabilities treaty, these Senate Republicans are dead set against both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

I have written before about the tenacity of U.S. concerns about preserving national sovereignty—and the mixture of motivations that undergirds this “don’t tread on me” ethos. At times, the need to retain diplomatic freedom of action or domestic policy autonomy does justify opting out of international commitments. This is not one of those times. What we are witnessing today is a Republican Party whose mainstream has embraced a knee-jerk rejection of all international treaties, regardless of objective merit. Given the Senate’s critical constitutional role in the treaty process, the consequences for credible U.S. global leadership, both practical and moral, could be dire.

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