A constitutional court in a Southeast Asian country upholds a decision that disqualifies an accomplished lawyer from serving in the judiciary because he uses a wheelchair.
A court in a European nation awards damages to plaintiffs who sue a hotel, complaining that their holiday was ruined when they were forced to share the company of a guest who held her fork with her feet because she was born without arms.
A girl who has a mental disability is taken from her home in South America to live in an institution where she is put in a cage; she soon dies of malnutrition and exposure.
Are these human rights issues? Matters for international legal concern? They certainly are if one agrees that such abuse and discrimination are unacceptable in a caring world community. The United Nations concurs, and it is drafting a convention to provide international guidelines for the rights of more than 600 million people with disabilities. The convention will provide people with disabilities the same compassionate legal protection that women, children, refugees and other vulnerable populations have under international human rights law.
But does the U.S. government support this work? No. The Bush administration has taken the position that disability is neither a human rights issue nor a predicate for international law but strictly a domestic policy matter. Because the United States has already enacted disability legislation -- the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) -- the U.N. initiative is mooted by our own legal accomplishment, according to the State and Justice departments. Problems faced by people with disabilities in other countries, they imply, should be dealt with by their respective governments.
To be fair, the Bush administration does not actively oppose the convention; it simply announced early on that the United States would not ratify it. The United States has offered "technical assistance" to the U.N. committee, if it is requested, and sent a small delegation of government representatives to observe the negotiating sessions. But is this a sufficiently worthy and engaged response to so significant a global initiative from the one nation that all the others view as the pioneer for disability rights?
When the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed and signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, it was greeted as a welcome model for reform around the world. For more than a decade it has inspired progress and legislation by other countries seeking to address disability discrimination in their own legal codes.
Still, fewer than 50 nations -- among 191 U.N. member states -- have adopted similar laws against discrimination based on disability. More than 100 have yet to establish comparable protections for their disabled citizens.
Historically, international law has been the crucial catalyst for development of effective national laws, particularly in defense of human rights. After World War II, starting with the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, it was U.S. leadership that established the legal principle of universality of certain values and norms. We championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. This grand notion is the basis for all the U.N. human rights instruments, which need to be augmented by including the rights of the world's citizens with disabilities.
Here is a remarkable opportunity to share America's national experience with our global partners -- to export the innovative concepts of the ADA through the United Nations and to offer our expertise in an area of the law where we excel in legal precept and in practical application. If the United States directs a change in course and joins in this enlightened effort to advance the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, we will seize a chance to show the world the best of America.
America's disability community includes many experts who have offered their services to help advance this U.N. process. But for its first two years, the U.S. delegation, sent only to observe, did not include one person with a disability. This is equivalent to sending an all-male delegation to a U.N. meeting on women's rights.
The United States should remedy this situation when the drafting committee meets at the United Nations in January, by sending an appropriate delegation of U.S. leaders with disabilities to represent our government and deliver the message that the United States will support the convention. Military triumphs and foreign aid packages won't ensure human progress if America fails to pursue its own international heritage as the founder of human rights concerns at the United Nations.
Dick Thornburgh was U.S. attorney general from 1988 to 1991 and undersecretary general of the United Nations in 1992-93. Alan Reich, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, is president of the National Organization on Disability. They serve as vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of the World Committee on Disability.