Disabilities Treaty Committee in the Crosshairs (LawProf to the Rescue)

by Peter Spiro

Very interesting hearing yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. C-Span video here.

Treaty opponents are focused on the associated Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (charged with considering state-party compliance) and the risk of evolving treaty meanings. It’s perfect terrain on which to transpose longstanding anxieties regarding activist judges onto even more freighted, counter-majoritarian-challenged international institutions. In yesterday’s hearing, treaty opponents pushed the line that the committee would end up interpreting the the CRPD, for example, to find a right to abortion (and, of course, to prohibit home schooling).

Enter University of Georgia law professor Timothy Meyer. As a witness, Tim offered up a way to switch some votes: beef up an understanding making clear that treaty committee interpretations would have no consequence. In the last attempt at Senate approval, the resolution package included an understanding to the effect that “The United States of America understands that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has no authority to compel actions by states parties, and the United States of America does not consider conclusions, recommendations, or general comments issued by the Committee as constituting customary international law or to be legally binding on the United States in any manner.”

To this, Tim would add:

The United States further understands that the Committee’s interpretations of the Convention are not entitled to any weight apart from that given to them by States Parties to the Convention.

Moreover, the United States understands that no interpretation of the obligations of the Convention issued by the Committee or any other international institution can have binding legal effect with regard to the United States unless the United States consents to such an interpretation in accordance with its constitutionally required procedures.

Who knows, maybe this is the path to ratification. Ranking member Bob Corker seemed to be buying, and there was an unusually high level of genuine engagement with Tim as a witness (another way of saying that he was very effective). He urged Tim to work with treaty foes Michael Farris and Susan Yoshihara to work out a RUDs package that “fully inoculates” the US from the parade of putative CRPD horribles. (All very well for US ratification purposes, but would seem to invite international hackles that US RUDs are getting even more inconsistent with the objects and purposes of the treaty.)

The hearing is worth a background listen. A number of (misplaced) allusions from treaty skeptics to the Bond argument taking place across the street at the Supreme Court, of the “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” variety (see, for instance, Jeff Flake at 1:34, persuasively rebutted by Dick Durbin at 1:42). Supporters stressed how acceding to the treaty would bolster US leadership globally on disability rights (and how it would incidentally benefit disabled Americans travelling abroad). The overriding concern was with insuring with triple redundancy that the treaty could never force the US to change its way of doing things — as if the US can sustain some sort of splendid isolation from international law.


One Response

  1. Lawprofs are important!   Are the CRPD activities transparent (i.e., funding, selections, open meetings, opportunity to comment, etc.)?

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