On July 26, 2012, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to recommend that the full Senate ratify the International Convention on Human Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), with a reservation that the treaty requires no change in state of federal law.
Like all foreign treaties, this disabilities rights treaty requires a two-thirds majority (67 Senators) of the full Senate to become law.
Over 300 disability organizations support this treaty, also 21 veterans’ groups, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Wounded Warrior Project, the National Disabilities Rights Network says.
But some mental health civil rights advocates say the reservation takes away a “legal hook” that can be used someday to abolish forced psychiatry. Andy Imperato, from American Association of People with Disabilities. says that’s true, but without the reservation, the Senate won’t ratify the disabilities rights treaty at all. And the treaty is a great leap forward for people with disabilities.
CRPD will improve access for Americans with disabilities who live, work, or travel abroad, including veterans, Cindy Smith of the National Disabilities Rights Network told her mailing list. She said they are six or seven votes short of the 67 they need to ratify the treaty, and join the 117 nations that already have.
She urges you to call both of your U.S. Senators. The Capitol Switchboard number is 202-224-3121, Smith says. “Ask to be connected to your Senators’ offices. Tell them the treaty will require no change in U.S. law, and will make foreign travel easier for Americans with disabilities, including veterans,” she says. For letters or email contacts, you can find Senators’ contact information at this link: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
Does the Reservation in the Disabilities Rights Treaty Matter?
The reservation is no big deal, Smith says, because U.S. law already protects people’s rights at least as much as the treaty. State laws can give more protection than federal law, but not less.
Imperato says the reservation was added to achieve a “strong bipartisan vote in support of [the disabilities rights treaty]. A bipartisan vote is crucial for us to get the necessary two-thirds vote in the full Senate.”
Some Senators will vote against the disabilities rights treaty unless it has the reservation, Imperato says. Without it, they could not have gotten any Republicans on the committee to join all 10 Democrats in the 13-6 bipartisan vote to recommend the treaty to the full Senate, he says.
Some Disabilities Rights Treaty Advocates Oppose the Reservation
Some disabilities rights treaty advocates, particularly in mental health, disagree with Smith, and want the Senate to ratify the treaty with no reservations.
Those advocates are a minority, but they include the leading expert on international disability law, Eva Brems, professor of law at the University of Ghent in Belgium. She said the Senate committee “gutted the protections in the disabilities rights treaty” by saying it does not require changes in U.S. law.
“This [reservation] claims that any actions taken to improve U.S. existing laws would be a matter of political choice rather than legal obligations to comply with the CRPD. In essence, it removes any U.S responsibility to change their current laws oruphold any treaty mandates that aren’t already in place within the U.S federal law,” Brems says.
Darby Penney, a prominent American advocate in the mental health civil rights movement, issued an urgent call saying, “OUR HUMAN RIGHTS ARE NOT CURRENTLY FULLY PROTECTED BY U.S. LAWS! SPEAK UP! CALL YOUR SENATORS! Tell the Senate that current U.S. laws do not adequately protect the Human Rights of all persons with disabilities. Tell them you want the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities passed without reservations.”
Activist Tina Minkowitz of the Center for the Human Rights of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (CHRUSP) wrote a letter opposing the reservation to the Senate. It was co-signed by Voices of the Heart, Inc., the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, Intentional Peer Support, the Ithaca Mental Health Patients Advocacy Coalition, and the Mental Health Empowerment Project.
“Human rights are not negotiable,” she said, adding, “I hope that our movement can move forward no matter what happens in the Senate, without disagreements turning into divisions. ”
Imperato says he disagrees with Penney. “[Penney] implies that we lost something big on the committee’s vote in favor of the reservation. I couldn’t disagree more. We are on the verge of an historic victory,” he says.
“For advocates who would like to be able to use the ratified treaty to advance changes in U.S. law, the federalism reservation and other reservations forecloses that as a legal tool; however, advocates can continue to use moral persuasion in the democratic process,” Imperato says.
Minkowitz replied: ” What was lost was a legal hook to advocate for the U.S. government to work for full implementation of the CRPD standards requiring abolition of forced psychiatry and abolition of all other discriminatory laws and practices. International law is still law even without domestic court enforcement. The experts [the mental health community] listens to have no interest in supporting the abolition of forced psychiatry.
All Advocates Agree on Most of the Disabilities Rights Treaty
Only nations which have ratified the CRPD can participate in official conferences to discuss how the disabilities rights treaty is to be interpreted, vote to appoint members to the CRPD Committee, and work with other nations who are party to the treaty in protecting the rights of persons
“Senate ratification of the CRPD is an important first step towards enabling the United States to more deeply engage the international community on disability rights,” said David Hutt, Senior Staff Attorney with the National Disability Rights Network and Co-Chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities International Task Force.