Where Human Rights Treaties Go To Die

Senate Blocks Pacts on Women, Children, Disabled and Sea

Nothing New: Sen. Mitch McConnell and Republicans in the Senate recently mustered enough votes to block a needed two-thirds vote in favor of approving a U.N. treaty on the rights of the disabled.
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Nothing New: Sen. Mitch McConnell and Republicans in the Senate recently mustered enough votes to block a needed two-thirds vote in favor of approving a U.N. treaty on the rights of the disabled.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 18, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
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Given all the bellyaching these days about the decrepitude of the United States Senate, I’d like to say a word in its defense. There’s never been a shortage of critics pouring bile on that august body, but lately the carping has reached a crescendo. A little perspective is in order.

The current wave of vitriol reached a peak on December 4, when the Senate failed to ratify a United Nations treaty protecting people with disabilities. The vote was 61 (all the Democrats plus eight Republicans) to 38 (all the other Republicans), a majority but shy of the two-thirds required by the Constitution to approve treaties. Considering that one of treaty’s prime initiators was President George W. Bush, and that it was based on his father’s landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, liberals were predictably livid about the defeat. One commentator, writing in the Kansas City Star, called it “a new low” in congressional dithering.

That’s where the critics are wrong. The truth is, there’s nothing new or unusual about our Senate rejecting an international human rights treaty. We reached that particular low a long time ago. In fact, it’s the norm. Of 10 major human rights treaties adopted by the U.N. since World War II, America has ratified just three.

One of the treaties our Senate rejected is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, approved by the General Assembly in 1989 and ratified by every nation except the United States, Somalia and South Sudan. Another is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, approved by the General Assembly in 1979 and accepted by all but seven countries: the United States, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga and Palau.

In all three cases — the rights of women, children and the disabled — Senate opposition arose from a mixture of isolationism, Christian fundamentalism and a sort of militant American exceptionalism, along with a surprisingly well-organized home-schooling movement. Opponents have claimed the treaties would let the U.N. intervene in local American communities to force children into public schools, outlaw spanking and force women to have abortions. Business lobbyists were also involved, warning, for example, that the women’s rights treaty would overrule the free market by mandating equal pay.

Beyond those specific fears, a perennial complaint is that the treaties would violate American sovereignty. That was a key factor in Senate dismissal of three other treaties as well, the conventions on the rights of refugees (1951), stateless persons (1954) and migrant workers (1990).

The opposition’s base has always been among senators from what we now call Red States, namely the Old South and the prairie-mountain West. Those are the same regions that opposed relaxing U.S. immigration laws to let in Jewish refugees before and after World War II. The party labels have changed — back then the South was Democratic and the Northeast had a flock of liberal Republicans — but the philosophical and demographic breakdown has endured.


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