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December 05, 2012 11:45 AM What Good is a UN Human Rights Treaty?

By Erik Voeten

Dan Drezner argues that yesterday’s Senate vote to reject the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reflects a victory of a sovereigntist lobby that seeks to protect the U.S. from …… well, something . It is indeed a bit odd to describe the Convention as “just another UN power grab” when it was inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act, would require no reforms of existing U.S. laws, and would delegate no meaningful new authority to an international body (except the establishment of a Committee that reviews state reports on implementation).

This is, of course, not the first time a treaty like this fails in the Senate. For example, when the Bush Administration tried to ratify the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) opponents claimed that it would “end Mother’s day.”  The only evidence was a very liberal reading of a remark by a UN official in a Committee meeting (see the similarities with the current objections about the potential impact on homeschooling). Andrew Moravcsik has a nice chapter (pdf, ungated) that explains why the U.S. has long been at the forefront of promoting human rights but resists binding itself to human rights treaties. The short answer is that there is little domestic demand, difficult institutional requirements for ratification, and a very vocal small minority opposition to treaty ratifications.

While the arguments against ratification are poor, the arguments for are not that obvious either. Not ratifying would allegedly make the U.S. look bad. Fine, but international politics is not a popularity contest and the US does a lot more consequential things that can make it look good or bad. A more interesting claim is that the U.S. has an interest in spreading values and rights protections to other countries. Treaties could be a low cost policy option to achieve this goal.

The validity of this argument hinges on two claims: human rights treaties should be effective at improving human rights and the U.S. decision to ratify should increase the effectiveness of treaties. There is a large recent literature that examines the first claim. Although the results vary across treaties and methodological approaches, the majority view is that most treaties have a marginal and conditional positive effect on human rights observance (see for instance Beth Simmons’ award winning book). There are lots of states for whom treaties do little, either because they already have strong human rights protections in place (like the U.S.) or because they have no intentions to improve human rights. Some of these states will ratify treaties anyway but we should not expect this to matter (although see here for a more perverse theory).

Treaties are most likely to have a positive impact in countries that want to improve their rights record but that are not yet stable liberal democracies. For example, the mere presence of the UN Disabilities Convention creates a moment where a government and a legislature need to decide whether to ratify the Convention and whether to adopt implementation legislation. As any activist knows, getting an issue on the agenda is at least half the battle. This is especially true if it concerns the rights of marginalized minorities, which people with disabilities are in many countries. The Convention makes this an issue that is not just about disabilities rights but also about coming into compliance with international standards. In many countries outside the U.S., this actually is a powerful argument for policy change.

This gets me to the second question: does a U.S. ratification actually help this process in other countries? I am not aware of any research that would give us much guidance on this but it is at least plausible. If domestic politicians start caring about disabilities rights not necessarily because they care about disabilities rights but also because they wish to be in conformance with international standards, then that push may be larger if the biggest (liberal) power in the world accepts this as an international norm. In my mind, then, the Senate missed an opportunity to plausibly make a small positive impact for a marginalized group across the globe at very little cost. This is not a strong statement but given that many foreign policy tools are so costly it is wasteful not to use the cheap ones.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.