by Sam Bagenstos, Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School; former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Justice
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is our nation’s Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities, and it is the envy of the world. The United States is far more accessible than any other nation. Americans with disabilities have far greater opportunities to participate in the mainstream of political, civic and economic life than do individuals with disabilities in other countries. Although our nation has not yet fully realized the promise of the ADA, we are far ahead by any international standard. The point is sometimes hard for me to remember as I spend my time fighting to ensure that states and private entities comply with the ADA. But every time I meet with students or activists with disabilities from other countries, they heap praise on America’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion.
But America’s leadership on disability access has been drawn into question, because we have not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This convention, colloquially known as the Disability Treaty, embeds the principles of the ADA in international human rights law. It was opened for signature in 2007 and came into force in 2008 when 20 countries ratified it. President Obama signed the treaty in 2009, but the Senate has refused to ratify it. Last December, a ratification vote narrowly failed, with the measure receiving 61 of the necessary 67 votes in the Senate.
The Senate is poised to take up the treaty again soon, with a hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee scheduled for this week. This time around, here’s hoping the Senate heeds the counsel of the treaty’s bipartisan band of supporters—including such Republican stalwarts as former President George H.W. Bush, former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, former Attorney General, Senator and Governor Dick Thornburgh, 2008 Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge—and consents to ratification.
On 1: The vehicle for the alleged takeover is the World Conference on International Telecommunications, now underway in Dubai. The WCIT has been convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and it involves, in the ITU’s words, “review of the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), which serve as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services.”
It sounds harmless enough. The ITU (and its regulations) go back almost 150 years. In the late 19th and early 20th century, international telecommunications meant telegraphs and telephones, and the ITU was created by 20 European countries to standardize telephone/telegraph interconnection protocols so that a telegraph message or phone call placed in London could be received intact in Rome (and, somewhat later, Rio de Janeiro and Riyadh). It’s not a trivial task, involving both technical standards and economic arrangements (to work out a system for allocating transmission charges), and by all accounts the ITU performed it well. Because telecommunications facilities were generally state-owned and state-operated for most of this period in most of the world, the ITU was constituted as a kind of “treaty organization,” one to which nation-state governments sent official representatives from the Ministry of Telecommunications (or its equivalent) to negotiate with their counterparts from other countries. After WW II, the ITU was absorbed into the United Nations as a “specialized agency.”
SEIU, which represents millions of workers nationwide and more than 100,000 in Alabama, has lodged a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations urging it to press the federal government to move on immigration reform.
SEIU and its affiliate, the Southern Regional Joint Board of Workers United, state in their complaint before the U.N. that Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, H.B. 56, “denies fundamental civil rights to immigrants and minorities and impacts trade union activities between and among union members, inhibiting freedom of association ….”
In a press statement announcing the complaint, SEIU says, “Only federal legislative reform can stop the proliferation of laws like Alabama’s H.B. 56 that penalize unauthorized immigrants who apply for jobs or work; fine anyone who transports or harbors an undocumented immigrant; and prevent courts from enforcing contracts that involve a person without legal status …. Such provisions jeopardize the ability of workers to form and join trade unions and to bargain collectively.”
Authors of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, which The New York Times has dubbed the harshest in the nation, are pushing some revisions to it that aides to the state’s governor claim will significantly improve its treatment of undocumented immigrants. (The federal government has challenged in court several provisions of the law, saying they interfere with the government’s effort to create one national law on immigration. In March, a federal appeals court blocked some of the law’s provisions.)
For example, Lyman notes, a proposed revision would allegedly soften the law’s controversial section requiring public school officials to check and report on the immigration status of students. A proposed revision would require “state schools superintendent to file an annual report on the fiscal impact of undocumented” immigrants on the school system.
Ala. Gov. Robert Bentley, in a press statement, however, said the proposed revisions would not undercut the “essence of the law …. Anyone living and working in Alabama must be here legally.”
Civil rights and other public interest groups have argued that H.B. 56, and other harsh immigration laws, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, allow authorities to engage in racial profiling and discrimination against people based on how they look and speak. Those groups, moreover, point out that the individual state laws can create a confusing patchwork of laws that endanger constitutional freedoms.
By Jamil Dakwar, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights Program & Steering Committee Member of the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda
Seven months ago, the United States issued a list of human rights commitments and pledges in support of U.S. candidacy for membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The decision to join the Human Rights Council was the right thing to do. It was as an important step in breaking with the Bush administration's unilateral and disastrous policies on human rights. While we welcomed this move, we noted that the Obama administration had "missed an opportunity to detail exactly how it will reaffirm its commitment to ending human rights violations at home beyond vague rhetoric." We warned the Obama administration to "move beyond ambiguous commitments which are similar to the ones heard from the Bush administration over the past eight years."
There is no question that this administration is currently facing multiple and daunting challenges, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the safe closing of Guantánamo, the economic crisis and rising unemployment, health care, energy reform and much more. However, nearly a year after Obama's inauguration, the administration has yet to announce any major domestic human rights initiative, outline a detailed plan to honor and expand our existing human rights commitments and translate them into domestic policy, or incorporate them into the daily working of the U.S. government.