By Michael Yudell
Sometimes I wonder if a subset of Republicans in this country completely misunderstood the classic and creepy 1990s TV show The X-Files. You know, the one where a sinister shadow government works in cahoots with space aliens to facilitate the colonization of planet earth. That series made constant references to a government out of control, seeking to diminish our rights and sacrifice our nation’s sovereignty in preparation for the alien landing. Sound familiar? Save for the alien landing part (for now, at least), that rhetoric sounds an awful lot like the hogwash offered up by many on the far right and, sadly, by those who on Tuesday led the Republican effort in the Senate to vote down the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.
All but eight Senate Republicans voted to defeat a treaty inspired by and modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark disabilities rights law passed in 1990. With cries of the treaty’s threat to American sovereignty, I’m curious whether these same Senators and other treaty opponents thought The X-Files was a documentary film rather than a dramatic exploration of our fear of the irrational and unfamiliar.
The U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities was first signed by former President George W. Bush (the ADA was signed by his father), and later by President Obama. Its biggest booster – former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, now a frail 89 who was recently released from Walter Reed – was wheeled onto the floor of the Senate by his wife, Elizabeth, in a show of support just before voting began.
It didn’t help.
The treaty failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority and went down on a vote of 61-38, with Republicans accounting for all the “No” votes.
What in the name of Fox Mulder happened here? Does this treaty really threaten our sovereignty? And are space aliens involved?
Despite fulmination by some on the far right, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities is a treaty designed “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” Take a few minutes to read the treaty. It rests on principles of human dignity and decency, calling upon the best of who we are as human beings to protect the vulnerable among us.
The United States, which has the strongest disabilities rights protections in the world as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act, could have shown its leadership by ratifying the treaty and helping to encourage other nations to commit to the same basic protections by including things like sidewalk ramps and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.
Instead, the treaty's opponents, led by Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), stoked irrational fear of so-called foreign bodies deciding what is best for American families. Lee and others preyed particularly on the concerns of parents who homeschool their disabled children. “The Senate rightfully rejected a treaty that could threaten the rights of parents to determine the best education, treatment, and care for their disabled children,” Lee said in a statement released on Tuesday.
This is nonsense.
Early in the day, Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) quashed such fear-mongering, explaining on the floor of the Senate that the treaty “has no recourse in American courts and no effect on American law.” “It really isn't controversial,” Kerry added. “What this treaty says is very simple. It just says that you can't discriminate against the disabled. It says that other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans With Disabilities Act.”
The official statement from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney offered a disappointed, but hopeful look at the Senate’s failure, commending “former Senator Dole and the bipartisan coalition of Senators who worked to secure the treaty resolution’s passage, including Senators Reid, Kerry, Lugar and McCain. We hope the Senate will reconsider this treaty soon in the next Congress. As President Obama declared in a written statement read in tribute to Senator Dole just before the vote, “disability rights should not stop at our nation's shores.”
No, it shouldn’t.
The truth is out there. Somewhere. But not Tuesday in the United States Senate.
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