January 3rd will mark the conclusion of the 112th Congress, culminating what has been described as the least productive legislative session since records began in the 1940’s. Though the lame-duck session continues, one can only hope that its productivity will improve next year.
This past September, thirty-six Senators had affirmed their intent to oppose considering any treaty on the floor during the lame-duck session. These senators argued that the aftermath of the Presidential election might hinder the ability of lawmakers to adequately consider the implications of such treaties, not to mention the age-old claim that ratification would threaten U.S. sovereignty to a larger body.
For these reasons, they posed delaying a vote on international treaties until the 113th Congress next year. Unfortunately, thirty-six senators are more than the necessary one-third of the Senate plus one to reject a treaty.
On November 27th, the Senate voted 61-36 to move the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Disabilities Treaty) to the Senate floor for consideration. Currently signed by 154 states and ratified by 126, the treaty aims to achieve equal rights for the disabled worldwide. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that U.S. ratification of this treaty would take the gold standard established through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and “extend it to countries that have never heard of disability rights,” since the treaty was modeled after the Act. President Obama signed the treaty back in 2009 and is ready to ratify it should Congress bestow its approval.
Any optimism for progress during this session disappeared December 4th when the Senate voted 61-38 for the treaty, short of the two-third majority necessary for passage. In an alarmingly polarized Congress, all Democratic senators voted in favor of the Disabilities Treaty while most Republicans voted against it.
Several other international treaties are before the Senate at this time. The grounds for their approval seem obvious, but the recent rejection of the Disabilities Treaty implies they too have little chance for ratification. These include the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, The Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The arguments against these treaties aren’t sustainable. The measures that will be put into place through their passage not only benefit Americans, but the countries the U.S. might influence as a global leader. Even the Disabilities Treaty, which could have benefited disabled veterans seeking jobs overseas, was based on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and wouldn’t have changed any U.S. laws.
Below are brief descriptions of these three treaties and the implications of U.S. ratification:
The Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): This international convention entered into force in 1981. It seeks equal opportunity for women in employment, education, healthcare, and also regarding the right to vote or run for office. CEDAW defines discrimination against women as, “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” The U.S. is the only developed country that has not ratified this treaty.
Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT): This multilateral treaty prohibits nuclear explosive testing, or more specifically, all nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, underwater or underground. It serves as one of the mechanisms to prevent non-nuclear states from building a nuclear weapon or from acquiring updated nuclear weapons technology, and would limit the harmful effects of nuclear testing on the environment. The treaty establishes a global network of monitoring and detection systems to conduct inspections and identify violators. The U.S. is one of eight states still required to ratify CTBT before it can enter-into-force.
U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea: The Law of the Sea Treaty is an agreement that establishes international law to govern maritime activity in an effort to maintain international stability and peace on the seas. Claimed to bolster national security, it has received bipartisan support in the U.S. The Treaty entered into force in 1994 and has been ratified by 163 countries as well as the European Union. Thirty-four countries, including the United States, have not ratified it.
Despite the many benefits described above, the rejection of the Disabilities Treaty casts doubt that the Senate will approve these other treaties. Their support should be an easy decision. Our lawmakers need to stop making the U.S. the exception to the rule and do the right thing – approve these treaties.
Perhaps the 113th Congress will finally vote in their favor and allow the U.S. to truly become a global leader. For now, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised to bring the Disabilities Treaty to a vote again in the next Congress. As he stated, “our wounded veterans and millions more around the world deserve better.”