The US and the UN Disability Convention

in Program

By Nancy Langer  – Today Ambassador Susan Rice will sign, on behalf of the United States, an international human rights treaty at the UN. The US has ratified only 3 of 26 international human rights treaties, with some in Congress still clinging to the idea that the US should forever view itself as an exception. It’s not a sensible policy and President Obama is right to move in another direction. 

For decades there has been growing dissonance between US leadership on human rights and institutional US resistance to international instruments. History on the Disability Convention exemplifies the point.

Americans created the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, giving governments an education in how to include people with disabilities in their social and economic architecture. When the AIDS epidemic hit, US law ultimately viewed the disease through the prism of the ADA, leading policymakers around the world away from reprisal policies like quarantine and job discrimination. Yet this same state resisted joining the global community in most verbal commitments to human rights principals. The approach puzzled allies and advocates alike.

During the last US Administration, as the UN General Assembly formally considered a specialized disability human rights treaty in 2001, American diplomats said disability was a domestic issue, of no international importance. The US insisted it would never sign or ratify an international agreement relating to disability rights. Why?

650 million people worldwide live with disability. Eighty-percent live in developing nations. People with disabilities in poor countries face ostracism and worse. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable. A 2004 survey in India found that virtually all of the women and the girls with disabilities were beaten at home; 25 percent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped. Conflict creates human insecurity, including more people with disabilities.

Secretary Clinton is promoting broad development goals as pillars of US foreign policy. Clearly, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is line with what the US is trying to achieve in post conflict countries. Rule of law and participatory democracy all require access for people with disabilities; societies that respect the rights of disabled people are more likely to respect the rights of women and other minorities.

US humanitarian assistance and disaster relief must incorporate a disability dimension into emergency preparedness and relief programs, in line with Article 11 of the Disability Convention that addresses the rights of persons with disabilities in situations of risk. Disability rights are not merely “domestic” as the Bush Administration insisted. Disability rights – like the rights of girls and women — represent a cross-cutting issue that transcends the individual and has domestic, regional and international policy outcomes.

By making good on his promise to support the UN Disability Convention President Obama has set sail toward more sensible US policy, a course correction long overdue. The Senate should support the President and people with disabilities around the world and ratify the Convention.

Photo credit: UN Photo by Devra Berkowitz (

 Nancy Langer is the Director of External Relations at the Stimson Center.

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