By Senator John Kerry
Watching cable television you might not know it, but the Senate is on the eve of a major decision that -- regardless of outcome -- will ripple around the globe. It's time for action in the Senate on the Disabilities Treaty, and it's time for grassroots action to help push us across the finish line.
Here in the Senate, with all the world's eyes watching, we can tomorrow approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and keep faith with the best of America's tradition of leadership in the world when it comes to empowering people living with disabilities, wherever they live.
You'd think this issue can transcend politics. The Disabilities Convention is a non-discrimination treaty that will extend essential protections for millions of disabled Americans when they leave our shores.
Twenty-two years ago, when we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the United States set the standard at home to end discrimination against people with disabilities. Approving the treaty now won't require any changes whatsoever to American law -- none, zero, zip. It simply requires other countries to improve their own record on disability rights -- in effect taking our gold standard here at home and exporting it to countries that have never heard of disability rights or have never changed their laws to accommodate people with disabilities.
Fair treatment for persons with disabilities is a human rights issue like any other. And no one understands that connection in a more personal, searing way than Chen Guangcheng -- the self-taught lawyer and blind Chinese activist who suffered mightily at the hands of local authorities, but who refused to be silenced.
Chen recently wrote a letter to the Senate in support of this Convention, and we should all heed his words:
My work on civil rights began with trying to ensure that people with disabilities in my home country of China were afforded the same rights as everyone else. The [Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] is making this idea real in significant ways around the world today... The U.S. -- which was instrumental in negotiating the CRPD -- can continue to advance both its principles and issues of practical accessibility for its citizens and all people around the world, and by ratifying the treaty, so take its rightful place of leadership in the arena of human rights.
Republicans and Democrats both have spoken about Chen Guangcheng's courage against overwhelming odds -- the question tomorrow is whether we'll listen to him and act on a modest and common sense effort to honor his struggle with actions, not words.
The Senate floor has been the place where speeches are given about American exceptionalism -- the question now is whether, even in an age of polarization and gridlock, we can use the Senate floor to do something that makes the Senate worthy of the word "exceptional."
Across the developing world, persons with disabilities face indignities and prejudice on a daily basis. They are prevented from attending schools, subject to discriminatory hiring practices and often are unable to enter public buildings, safely cross a street or even ride a public bus.
Those millions of people with disabilities around the globe may not be watching the Senate this week, but make no mistake that in the course of the coming years of their lives they will feel and know whether we found common ground this week to do what is right -- or whether we found excuses to delay and defer and dither.
As the Washington Post wrote in an editorial urging approval of the Treaty,
THE UNITED STATES has made great progress over the past two decades in opening opportunities for people with disabilities. Many other countries lag far behind. That's why the U.S. Senate ought to ratify a U.N. treaty on rights for people with disabilities, a vote that's scheduled for Tuesday. Anyone who has traveled the world knows that many people with disabilities continue to face overwhelming barriers to participating in their societies. The wheelchair ramps we've come to expect in this country are nonexistent in many places. In developing countries, 90 percent of children with disabilities do not attend school. Huge pools of talent go to waste as a result, and millions of lives fail to reach their potential.
So what stands in the way? Mythology.
Some still reflexively resist anything associated with the word "treaty" and dismiss it as a Democratic effort. But there should be no controversy surrounding this treaty, because it's not controversial. Former Majority Leader Bob Dole supports it. As he said in a letter to me today,
Many know that I myself am a veteran with a service-connected disability. From my maiden speech in 1969 forward, I have worked tirelessly to make sure that veterans are not denied the rights and opportunities of others because of a disability. The CRPD is yet another important step in the right direction. It is no coincidence that 21 major veterans organizations and over 300 disability organizations support the treaty and have played a leading role in bringing it to a vote in this Congress. Members should not be intimidated by scare tactics. I encourage my colleagues to extend a helping hand to the disabled around the world. We now have the opportunity to officially ratify the CRPD and affirm our pledge to the rights of all people with disabilities -- and we absolutely should.
Bob Dole is not alone -- President George H.W. Bush and former Republican Governor, Senator and attorney General Dick Thornburgh supports it. They join a bipartisan group of Senators who believe we ought to move forward with this treaty, including Senators McCain Barrasso, Lugar, Moran, Durbin, Harkin and Tom Udall, among many others. This was, after all, a treaty we passed out of our committee on a bipartisan 13-6 vote appropriately on the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Others fear that the treaty would subject the United States to the command and control of a U.N. body. Let's be very clear: Does this treaty create a "Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?" You bet it does. Is that a reason to fear the treaty? Not for a second. What can this committee do? All it can do is review reports submitted by participants on the steps they have taken to implement the convention, and it can make non-binding recommendations. That's it. Nothing else. A committee that can give us advice that we can choose to ignore. That's a threat to our sovereignty? That's a price too high to pay to make sure that when American combat veterans who left their legs on a battlefield travel overseas, there's a ramp in front of the building so they can enter and exit or use a bathroom? You tell those veterans that a committee's advice is sufficient reason to deny them dignity and respect when they travel overseas.
As the Washington Post editorial argued this morning,
... opposition on the argument that the treaty would not help Americans with disabilities at home but would establish an international committee to review periodic reports from the United States and make "such suggestions and general recommendations on the report as it may consider appropriate." Suggestions from foreign experts! The horror!
What else have we heard? Well, we've heard that we can't do this during a lame duck session of the Senate. Never mind that we've been studying this treaty for the last year. Never mind that in this session we will deal with major tax and budget issues -- so obviously people accept that we can do important things here in the months of November and December. Since the 1970s alone, the Senate has approved treaties during lame-duck sessions a total of nineteen times! There is nothing special or different about lame-duck sessions. And I think our constituents expect us to do our jobs every day that were on the job on their dime.
So here we go, another debate, another decision -- and for all who count on the United States to speak and stand for those around the globe who cannot speak and stand for themselves, please use these next twenty-four hours to ensure that the Senate concludes this debate with a decision to be the Senate and the country we aspire to be.