Kerry Statement Markup of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

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Jodi Seth, (202) 224-4159


Washington, DC – On the 22nd anniversary of the landmark passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Chairman John Kerry made the following statement during a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee to consider a resolution of advice and consent to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Treaty Doc. 112-7).  The resolution was amended and passed by a strong bi-partisan vote of 13 to 6.

“I’ve heard from countless advocates on this issue—from various places; from the Perkins School for the Blind in my home state to disabled Americans across the country to veterans groups, all of whom tell me that this Convention will make a difference in their daily lives,” said Sen. Kerry.  “The United States is a leader in domestic disability rights protection. What joining the Convention does is provide a critical tool as we work to ensure that American citizens, including our men and women in uniform and our disabled veterans, are free to travel, work and live abroad.”

The full text of Chairman Kerry’s hearing statement, as delivered, is below:

Today, as we all know, marks the 22nd anniversary of the landmark passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I have to everybody, in every committee and all of you, I know you’re enthusiastic, and we appreciate that, but under the rules of the Senate, I have to ask you to just please be good observers here without demonstrations of any kind.

I think all of my colleagues will agree that over the last 22 years, the ADA has become one of our country’s most important—and treasured—civil rights laws. I’m proud of the vote I cast for that, and I think those of us who have seen the progress that has been made feel very strongly that it’s truly one of the most important pieces of legislation that we’ve passed in recent time.

Before passage of this law, Americans faced many indignities and prejudice on a daily basis. They suffered from significantly lower employment rates, lower graduation rates, and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. Many were denied the opportunity to participate fully in society simply because of intolerance or unfair stereotypes.

Today is an important milestone to celebrate the progress we have made as a nation over the last two decades. But, most importantly, today is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to eliminating the remaining barriers that undermine the goals of equality of opportunity, independent living, economic self-sufficiency, and full participation for Americans with disabilities both here and abroad. 

And just to put this into context, there are 54 million Americans with disabilities. 54 million.

There are an estimated one billion people in the world with disabilities. 

Now, I know that some have said we don’t need this treaty. Everyone obviously is entitled to his or her point of view. But on this anniversary of the ADA, I would ask people to remember John Lancaster’s words. John Lancaster is a disabled Vietnam veteran who testified on this treaty and who challenged us all to do the right thing. What he said was:

“As someone who volunteered and laid my life on the line for freedom, rights, dignity…now to have this whole debate that we’re not willing to espouse [the Disabilities Convention] to the rest of the world? That we’re not willing to walk the talk in international circles? To step up to the forum and advocate…and to say we are not afraid to sign this thing. We aspire to what’s in this Convention. That is what we are about as a nation: including people, giving them freedom, giving them rights, giving them the opportunity to work, to learn, to participate. Isn’t that what we are about? Isn’t that what we want the rest of the world to be about? Well, if we aren’t willing to say that [this treaty] is a good thing and to say it formally, what are we about?”

I really couldn’t agree more with that. I think the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is more than a piece of paper. And it’s certainly not an empty promise. It’s a reflection of our values as a nation and who we are—from the Civil Rights Act to the Voting Rights Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I’ve heard from countless advocates on this issue—from various places; from the Perkins School for the Blind in my home state to disabled Americans across the country to veterans groups, all of whom tell me that this Convention will make a difference in their daily lives.

The United States is a leader in domestic disability rights protection. What joining the Convention does is to provide a critical tool as we work to ensure that American citizens, including our men and women in uniform and our disabled veterans, are free to travel, work and live abroad.

In effect, this Treaty doesn’t require any change in American law.  We’re already way ahead of where the Disabilities Convention seeks to go. It simply requires and encourages other countries to come up to where we are. It’s one of the least-intrusive, or least-requiring of U.S. effort of anything I have worked on in the course of being on this Committee where we’ve had great neutrality. The reason is we are living here, we’ve set the standard.

We’ve heard from some people the argument that this will require radical changes to U.S. law.  Every one of us on this Committee knows that we’re in a strange state in our U.S. politics.  On both sides of the aisle, people can say things, and a lot of commentators outside of us say things every single day and they have no basis in fact, no basis in truth.

Our old pal, Pat Moynihan, once said, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion but you’re not entitled to you own facts.”

Nowadays, we’ve got folks that just buy their own facts.  Put money on there, put something out there, and we are debating things that have no reasonable right, anyways, to be considered.

I just say to you that it is inaccurate that this Treaty requires any change in U.S. law. The legal opinions that have come before us have all made that clear.  With the Administration’s recommended RUD package including the declaration of the Treaty as not self-executed.  By not being self-executed, there is no change required of U.S. law, no access to U.S. courts, and no litigation bonanza that comes about as a consequence.

The Department of Justice and former Attorney General Thornburgh thoroughly addressed these questions. But they’re important and I want my colleagues to be thoroughly satisfied with respect to this. That’s why, today, we have an amendment before us that would declare that, with the recommended reservations, U.S. law fulfills or exceeds the obligations of the Convention. I will support that amendment and I urge my colleagues to support it. I think that will clarify it even further. 

We’ve also heard the argument that the Convention could somehow change U.S. domestic law on abortion. I’ll say a little a little more about this later. Again, let me just say, that that is absolutely, positively, factually inaccurate. The Convention does not address abortion— and to the degree that any question might be raised by it – and we will get to that later – the Convention specifically addresses why it is not applicable here.

The treaty is, in my judgment, an opportunity for us to come together and do the right thing on behalf of millions of disabled Americans. I don’t want this Treaty to become derailed by becoming a debate about the hot topic of America in social politics that it is not, and that the language of it clearly states that it is not.

I will offer a second degree amendment if it’s necessary to make it clear that abortion is a non-issue with respect to the Convention. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I will urge people not to necessarily have that debate, but if we do need to, we will deal with it.

Some have also made the argument that the disabilities committee within this framework will somehow intrude on the daily lives of Americans. Again, the facts just don’t support this position. By the terms of the treaty, the committee has very, very limited powers. It can accept and review country reports and it can make recommendations. That’s it. Nothing else. It cannot compel any action by the government of the United States.

We have an amendment that carefully delineates what the committee can and can’t do, and again, I would urge everybody to support that, because I think it would clarify for anybody who has any concerns.

My objective here, colleagues, is to try really and legitimately address those concerns that have been raised and to try and eliminate them in the most effective way possible. Hopefully the Committee can join together in a resounding vote to send this to the full Senate.

 

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