Disabilities Convention Will Be First Human Rights Treaty Signed by US in Nearly a Decade
July 24, 2009
This treaty was created to make sure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else and are fully included in society. This is a real victory for both that goal and for the disability rights advocates who have worked so hard for it.
Joe Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights Program

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which President Obama is scheduled to announce today that the US will sign, will be the first international human rights treaty signed by the United States in nearly a decade, Human Rights Watch said today. Obama is scheduled to make the announcement at a White House event this afternoon.

"This treaty was created to make sure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else and are fully included in society," said Joe Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "This is a real victory for both that goal and for the disability rights advocates who have worked so hard for it."

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and was signed by 82 countries when it opened for signature on March 30, 2007. Today 140 countries have signed, and 61 have ratified. It requires governments to prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities and support their dignity, autonomy, and full participation in society.

Amon said that signing the treaty sent a broader signal about US respect for international law.

"For nearly a decade, the US has been on the sidelines as new treaties have been developed and existing treaties gained international support," he said. "By signing the Disabilities Convention, the US is beginning to reassert leadership on international human rights."

The last human rights treaties signed by the United States were two optional protocols - one prohibiting the participation of children in armed conflict, and the other the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography - both signed in 2000 and ratified in 2002. They are the only human rights treaties that the US has ratified since 1994.

The United States has signed six of the nine core international human rights treaties, but ratified only three: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Human Rights Watch identified several other important outstanding treaties that the United States should sign and/or ratify:

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): This convention is the world's primary legal document on women's equality. The United States is one of only seven countries - together with Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga - that have failed to ratify it. Signed by the US in 1980, the treaty has been favorably reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee twice: once in 1994 and again in 2002.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): The US signed the convention in 1995, but is the only country other than Somalia that has failed to ratify it. The treaty emphasizes the rights of children to survival, to develop to their fullest potential, and to protection from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history.
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR): The covenant commits states to address basic rights such as to health and education. Together with its counterpart, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its protocols, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ICESCR forms what is known as the International Bill of Rights. The treaty has been ratified by 160 nations. Although the US signed it in 1977, it has yet to ratify.
  • Convention against Enforced Disappearance: The convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, prohibits the abduction and secret detention of any person by the state. The United States' use of CIA secret prisons for terrorist suspects during the Bush administration was in clear violation of the convention. However, President Obama's January 2009 executive order abolishing this practice has brought the United States into compliance with the treaty's core component. The US has neither signed nor ratified the convention.
  • Mine Ban Treaty: The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty comprehensively bans all antipersonnel landmines, requires destruction of mines that are stockpiled and in the ground, and urges assistance to landmine victims. The treaty has been ratified by 156 countries. Since it came into force in 1999, the use of antipersonnel landmines has largely ceased and more than 43 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed. The US is in de facto compliance with most of the treaty's provisions, but has neither signed nor ratified.
  • Convention on Cluster Munitions: The convention prohibits the use of cluster munitions, which pose grave dangers to civilians both during and long after attacks. The convention was adopted in 2008; 98 countries have signed it. The US has not used cluster munitions in Iraq since 2003 or Afghanistan since 2002. In after-action reports from Iraq in 2003, US forces called their own cluster munitions "relics" and "losers" and questioned the weapons' utility. The US has agreed to ban the weapon, but only starting in 2018. It has not signed the convention.
  • Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture: The US ratified the Convention against Torture in 1994, but has neither signed nor ratified an optional protocol that would establish a system of regular visits by national and international monitors to prisons, jails, and other places of detention, with the goal of preventing torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, with nearly 2.4 million persons behind bars on any given day, but has no independent agency monitoring prison conditions.

The State Department has indicated that three human rights conventions - the Disabilities Convention, the CRC, and CEDAW - are under active review.