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Signed And Shelved

Today, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls for eliminating discrimination against disabled persons and promoting their full participation in society. "As long as we as a people still too easily succumb to casual discrimination or fear of the unfamiliar, we've still got more work to do," President Obama said at an event last Friday, endorsing the convention. This is the first international human rights treaty that the United States has signed in about a decade, and it will now head to the Senate for review and ratification.

But Capitol Hill is where other treaties have hit a dead end. Take, for example, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which calls for abolishing gender-based discrimination. The treaty was signed by President Carter in 1980, but has yet to be ratified by the Senate. The United States finds itself in questionable company on CEDAW: Iran and Sudan are among the few UN countries that haven't adopted it. "We ought to be engaging with women's issues globally," says Ellen Chesler, director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Initiative on Women and Public Policy at Hunter College. "The CEDAW committee actually meets in New York, and we aren't represented. ... It's embarrassing."

So what's the hold-up? It takes 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, and so far, thanks to opposition from the right, those votes haven't existed. For years, CEDAW's staunchest critic was Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who called it "a terrible treaty negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical antifamily agenda into international law." Today, many conservatives still argue that the treaty infringes on national sovereignty. A January 2009 Heritage Foundation report claimed that the CEDAW committee has urged states to intrude into private family matters, used the convention to "advance the homosexual-lobby agenda," and "requir[ed] countries to liberalize" abortion laws. (Women's rights activists insist that conservatives consistently misinterpret the committee's nonbinding recommendations.)

Lacking Republican support, CEDAW has made it through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee twice--in 1994 and 2002--only to be sidelined later. But even some liberal women's rights activists don't want it ratified--at least, not as it's presently constituted. In adopting a UN convention, states may attach addenda, known as RUDs, that exempt them from certain treaty provisions. Over the years, the United States has added several RUDs to CEDAW, including one asserting that the country isn't required to provide paid maternity leave and another, tacked on by Helms, stating that "[n]othing in this Convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning." In an article last winter, Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, wrote that "engagement via this gutted CEDAW poses even more danger than continued U.S. isolation." (On a side note, whether RUDs will be added to the disabilities convention depends on the Senate's and State Department's reviews of it.)

In addition to Obama, who supports ratifying CEDAW, there are strong advocates throughout the new administration. These include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and Harold Koh, whose nomination to be legal adviser to the State Department was met with hostility by many conservatives who angrily recalled his 2002 Senate testimony in favor of CEDAW. ("I cannot explain to [my daughter] why this country we love... has for so long failed to ratify the authoritative human rights treaty that sets the universal standard on women's equality," Koh said.) The State Department is currently reviewing the treaty, along with its RUDs, and, according to Chesler, a coalition of women's rights groups is gearing up to push for its ratification. Eventually--either late this year or early next, CEDAW backers hope--the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold new hearings on the treaty.

Senator Barbara Boxer, who sits on the committee, has said she wants to consider the document without RUDs. But Obama hasn't made clear his stance on the reservations, and, unfortunately, it could be that some RUDs will be necessary to gain the required 67 votes. The trick will be wording them such that they draw in Republicans--at least seven of them--without alienating liberals, but still have minimal substantive impact on the treaty. Not an easy balance to strike. "There's a sense that the [foreign relations] committee may not want to hold official hearings until they know that they can secure full advice and consent," adds Jo Becker, acting deputy director of Washington advocacy for Human Rights Watch--which puts further pressure on CEDAW advocates to advance their message and find conservative Senate allies as soon as possible. 

But CEDAW isn't at the end of the treaty waiting line. In addition to the disabilities convention--which, hopefully, will have a smoother ride than CEDAW has--the Senate also has yet to approve the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which President Clinton signed in 1995. The only other state in the UN that hasn't ratified it? Somalia.

Pictured: UN Ambassador Susan Rice, right, hugs Marca Bristo, chair of the National Council on Disability, after signing the disabilities convention Thursday. (Getty Images)

Seyward Darby