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What prevents the U.S. from signing the U.N. disabilities treaty?

March 13, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
Opponents of U.S. ratification by Congress of a United Nations convention that pushes for equal rights for those with disabilities argue that it would give the U.N. jurisdiction over domestic laws. Judy Woodruff gets two views on the treaty from Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin and Michael Farris of Patrick Henry College.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining to us talk about the prospects for a vote on the convention and two points of view on what it means for the United States is Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island. And Michael Farris, he’s chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Virginia and the chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

We welcome you both to the program.

Congressman Langevin, let me start with you. What would this convention mean for countries around the world if it were ratified in all these countries?

REP. JIM LANGEVIN, D-R.I.: The ratification would mean so much, in terms of protecting the rights of persons with disabilities around the world, ensuring the — protecting their human dignity, and ensuring that they enjoy the same protections that people with disabilities enjoy here in the United States.

This is both a policy statement, but it’s also a policy in substance that would ensure that all the things that — many of the things that we enjoy here now and sometimes maybe even take for granted because of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act would be now set forth for other nations to aspire to and to adhere to as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it would to the have enforcement mechanisms; is that right?

REP. JIM LANGEVIN: No. In a sense, this is a — ratifying the treaty sets out broad principles to which nation was aspire to when they are passing their laws or when they’re reviewing their laws and their access to public accommodations or even how they treat with disabilities, that people with disabilities aren’t hidden or brushed aside, but they are actually — and would be included in society.

Again, the — in many ways, the treaty is such that it is really aspirational and encourages nations to adopt the kind of laws and enact the kind of laws that we have enacted, both with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the ADA…

REP. JIM LANGEVIN: … act, which has made such a profound difference in the lives of people who deal with disabilities.

I was injured before the ADA was passed. I was injured in 1980. And I can tell you, the ADA has made a profound difference in my life and that of people with disabilities across this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask Mr. Farris, then, why do you oppose the ratification of this convention?

MICHAEL FARRIS, Home School Legal Defense Association: Treaties are not merely as operational documents.

They’re international law. They have binding legal effects. And the legal effects have different approaches in different nations, depending on that nation’s own constitution, relative to how they treat international law.

But they’re creating a binding legal obligation to obey the standards that are set forth in the treaty. There were aspirational documents. The U.N. has a declaration on the rights to persons with disabilities. Nothing wrong with the declaration. I am all for these as aspirational statements.

But I believe that the United States should make the law for itself, in that I don’t believe that using international law to control domestic policy is the most effective way to deliver the kind of services that we need for our disabled community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even though the language here is based on existing law in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act. What is it that would be different about the U.N. convention from what is already law?

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, there are several differences in the U.N. treaty. The rules on guardianship are different. The rules on families with disabled children are different.

Right now, the law in the United States for families with disabilities are, parents are presumptive decision-makers for their children in every case, unless there is proof of harm. Article 7 of this treaty changes that rule from a presumption of parental authority to a presumption that the best interests of the child standard controls, which is not a question about what is decided, but who makes the decision.

That decision, that rule in Article 7 means the government is the presumptive decision-maker for children. It’s a big shift in law and would take away rights that we have under the IDEA, for example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is a reference to the educating of children.

MICHAEL FARRIS: That’s right. Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Langevin, how do you respond quickly to this point about the change in the convention?

REP. JIM LANGEVIN: So, two points.

First of all, there is already a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says that these treaties that would be ratified by the United States are basically saying they are international commitments, but do not have the force of law.

And that is clear in a U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the state of Texas. The second of which is, the RUDs, if you will, the reservations, understandings, and declarations that have been adopted by the United States Senate make it clear that it wouldn’t infringe on parents’ rights, in terms it of either educating their children or the other arguments that the chancellor has raised.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let — you want to respond to that?  And then I want to pick up on this, because a number of Republicans are arguing in favor of this, Senator John McCain, former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Senator Bob Dole, as we saw.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Right.

There are a number of people that are on the moderate side of the Republican Party that have supported the treaty. But the basic question is, do we want to make our policy decisions for this country using international law or American law?

The congressman has properly described his view as setting an as aspirational standard. What we don’t need is more aspiration. We need more implementation. And the disabled community has some legitimate complaints about the way families are being treated right now under our own policy.

Rather than wasting time on this aspirational document, as they see it, we should really be dealing with trying to implement good policy to help disabled people overcome some of the barriers that still exist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just very quickly, the congressman’s point about the United Nations — I’m sorry — that the Supreme Court has said that this kind of language wouldn’t supersede American law.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, I have filed briefs in the Supreme Court on this very issue. And I have a degree in international law.

They’re just — his point is relative to the technical meaning of implementation. Do the judges implement it or does Congress have the implementation power? We have a duty when we ratify to obey it. Congress has a duty to implement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just a few words, Congressman Langevin?

REP. JIM LANGEVIN: The RUDs, the reservations, understandings, and declarations, make it very clear that there is no one that has standing to sue in a U.S. court, for example, to require the states to do anything that they do not want to do under the treaty.

It doesn’t supersede U.S. law. And it has been made very clear that this document will encourage other nations to aspire to what we have achieved if in the United States. It is such important — and it weakens our argument if we don’t pass and ratify this treaty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there.

Congressman Jim Langevin, Michael Farris, we appreciate it. Thank you.