Kerry Tries to Convince Senate that UN Treaty Won't Affect U.S. Sovereignty

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry vowed in a hearing before the congressional recess to work with senators on caveats to a stalled United Nations disabilities pact, as some concern about threats to U.S. sovereignty remains among Republicans.

“We want senators to feel comfortable so we're prepared to address legitimate concerns,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. “We want to act in good faith...so you're not feeling like you're entering into a quicksand deal.”

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) opened for signature in 2007 and came into effect in May 2009 after 20 parties had ratified it. As of October 2013, it has 158 signatories. The U.S. has signed the convention, but a Senate vote last year failed to ratify it.

The treaty aims to promote and ensure the enjoyment of equal rights by people with disabilities.

The CRPD has received support from numerous U.S. business groups and companies, including Coca Cola, DirectTV, and the Consumer Electronics Association, and religious and nonprofit groups such as the Red Cross and the National Federation of the Blind.

The treaty must secure a two-thirds majority for Senate passage. In December 2012, the CRPD fell five votes short as only 61 senators voted in favor and 38 senators – all Republicans – voted against it.

Thursday’s hearing was the second on the CRPD in the current Congress. If the treaty passes, it will only be with some clauses that stipulate how the treaty will influence American law. Like other international human rights treaties that the U.S. has ratified, it will be “non-self executing,” meaning Congress would have to pass separate laws to give it effect.

“Nothing can change unless the United States Senate were to re-ratify whatever suggestion the United States Senate might engage in subsequently,” Kerry said.

One of Kerry’s last actions as chairman of the committee was to push for ratification of the pact.

“I am still convinced that we give up nothing, but we get everything in return,” he said.

Instead, he said, the treaty would give the U.S. influence to get other countries to raise themselves to the standards the United States set forward in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Opponents of ratification worry it could affect Americans’ ability to home-school their children.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) led a campaign against the treaty last Congress. He warned the agreement could lead to the government, rather than parents, determining the best interest of disabled children. Opponents also argue the treaty could result in more abortions by granting the disabled equal access to reproductive care.

Others, like the Heritage Foundation, oppose the pact because they say it will do nothing to advance American interests internationally.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked if the treaty creates a right to abortion, specifically under Article 25, which deals with access to health care and sexual and reproductive health.

Kerry responded the committee has already worked on some “RUDs” – which stand for “reservations, understandings, or declarations” in international law jargon – last year that make sure the convention does not include any language regarding medical procedures.

“Nothing in Article 25 or anywhere else in this treaty creates a right to abortion. That is a domestic legal issue and nothing in this treaty changes that,” he said.

Kerry also said the treaty would not have any effects on the ability of parents to home-school their children.

“U.S. ratification of this treaty will have absolutely no impact on parental rights, home-schooling, or any other aspect of U.S. law,” he said.

Kerry said he supports tweaks proposed by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), now leader of the Heritage Foundation, last Congress to allay the concerns of parents.

“It is absolutely incumbent on the administration to agree to very difficult language that absolutely assures [members of Congress] that a treaty like this will not infringe upon federalism and other kinds of issues that are very important,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the committee’s top Republican.

Corker raised the case of Bond v. United States, currently before the  Supreme Court, in which the Chemical Weapons Convention is being used to prosecute a case against an American citizen.

Kerry said that no new legislation is necessary to implement the CRPD, meaning that Bond would not be a proper analogy.

“In the [disabilities treaty] case, the implementing language has not only been passed, it has been found constitutional by the Supreme Court and has been put in practice for years,” Kerry said. “We're talking about the ADA. That's the implementing language.”

He reiterated U.S. compliance with the treaty would result from already existing laws that were passed independently from the treaty.

Many administration officials have been making the rounds in recent weeks, insisting on the need for the pact.

“If the ADA and the protections afforded to persons here were extended internationally, then these disabled vets or other Americans with disabilities would have, again, the same horizon, unlimited horizon, that their able-bodied American counterparts would have,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said at an event hosted by Politico. Power has made several trips to the Capitol for meetings with senior lawmakers.

“On behalf of America's service members, [Defense Department] civilians, and military family members with disabilities, I urge the United States Senate to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement.

One of the legacies of the past 12 years of war is that thousands of young Americans will carry physical wounds for the rest of their lives, Hagel said. “These wounded warriors deserve to have the same opportunities to live, work, and travel as every other American, and to participate fully in society whether at home or abroad,” he added.

In a move that has angered many Republicans, Senate Democrats deployed the “nuclear option” to end the minority’s ability to kill most presidential nominations by filibuster.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who supports ratification of the CRPD, told reporters after the vote he had spent an hour in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office trying to figure out a way to avert the nuclear option. He warned it would affect the ability to do other Senate business, including progress on the disabilities treaty.

“It puts a chill on the entire United States Senate,” McCain said. “It puts a chill on everything that requires bipartisanship.”