U.S. Disgrace at UN Signing Ceremony

Representatives from U.S. skip the landmark launching of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities On March […]

Representatives from U.S. skip the landmark launching of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

On March 30, 2007, 82 countries signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The United States did not. The following letter, written last month by John Lancaster, Executive Director of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), describes his powerful and emotional experience at the March signing ceremony. In the letter, Lancaster encourages us to take action in response to U.S. inaction and disgrace by writing our Members of Congress and President Bush to urge that the U.S. sign and ratify the Convention.

New York–[On March 30th,] as President of the United States International Council on Disability (USICD) and Executive Director of NCIL, I had the honor to represent both organizations at the United Nations as a witness to the initial signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As I sat in the observers’ area on the floor of the UN’s General Assembly Hall, delegates from 80 nations and the European Community took their turn at the official signing table to commit their country to the human and civil rights of people with disabilities. At several points, my eyes welled with tears. They should have been tears of joy and pride as an American, as a citizen in the country that had created this world-wide movement for the rights and empowerment of people with disabilities. Instead, they were tears of shame and embarrassment in being an American.

I do not relate these feelings to you, my friends and colleagues in the Independent Living Movement, lightly or as a passive observer. Almost 40 years ago, I acquired my spinal cord injury as a Marine Platoon Commander in combat just east of Hue City, Viet Nam. I had become a Marine out of a Kennedy-era-inspired desire to defend my country and the principles for which we stand “that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights; Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Following law school, I dedicated my career to these principles as they pertain to people with disabilities. I was proud to work with many great Americans, many with disabilities, as part of a great movement for the rights, empowerment and independent living for all. The United States for many years took the world-wide lead with passage of Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and then the Americans with Disabilities Act and many other great laws ensuring the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities. From 1995 to 2004, I traveled many times to and then lived for four years in Viet Nam. There, I assisted Vietnamese with disabilities and their government in establishing similar principles, laws and policies within the context of their political system. I had always been proud of my efforts in this movement and especially of my country’s world leadership. For the last six years, that national pride has given way to shame, embarrassment and anger; it culminated for me emotionally last Friday during the Convention Signing Ceremony.

The UN General Assembly Hall was full; the observer galleries were packed with disabled advocates from around the world; and delegations from UN member nations huddled behind their respective desks and country signs. After initial speeches, one by one in alphabetical order, the delegations from the various signing nations filed to the ceremonial table to sign the treaty books. In some cases, it was that country’s ambassador to the UN. In the case of Ecuador, Vice President Lenin Moreno Garces, a wheelchair user, signed. Even the countries who were not signing at least had representatives from their UN Mission present and sitting at their country table out of respect for the UN processes and the historic importance of the occasion—all but the United States.

For the past several years of UN discussion, debate and negotiations that led to this historic day, the United States had been generally not present. When towards the end we did begin to participate, it was generally contrary and negative in nature. And then, on this truly historic day when we could have resumed continued leadership for rights for people with disabilities, the United States thumbed our noses in insolent arrogance at the United Nations, the signing countries, and the six hundred fifty million disabled people of the world. Our country did not even have the courage to seat a representative from our Mission to the UN at our country table or to make any sort of official comment or explanation as to why the country of the ADA was not signing on to the Convention. I was not proud to be an American. I was ashamed of my country and of myself for letting it happen. Please join me in recommitting ourselves as advocates and leaders to human rights, empowerment and independent living for all peoples of the world. Write your Senators and President Bush today urging that the U.S. sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.