The Protection of American Sovereignty

Bob Dole Addresses the US Senate Ahead of a Vote on the Disability Treaty.

Bob Dole Addresses the US Senate Ahead of a Vote on the Disability Treaty.

The United States Senate last week rejected a United Nations-backed treaty that sought to protect the rights of disabled persons around the world. The treaty, known as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, essentially requires other countries to institute policies similar to those already in place in the United States under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Convention, which has been signed by more than 150 countries and has been ratified by 126, including Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia, failed to receive the two-thirds majority necessary to ratify a treaty in the United States Senate.

Opposition to the treaty came primary from Senate Republicans, who claimed that the treaty infringed on American sovereignty. While the outcome of the vote was not entirely surprising, there had been some hope that the high profile support of key Senate Republicans, including Senator John McCain and former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, would convince enough Republicans to support the treaty to ensure its passage. The treaty also divided conservative groups, with the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute both opposing the treaty while the US Chamber of Commerce supported it.

Several bloggers have already examined the international implications of the Senate’s rejection of the treaty. At Foreign Affairs, David Bosco asserted that the US position makes little difference globally, and that US rejection may ironically increase the number of countries ratifying the agreement, as some holdouts seek to illustrate that they are more progressive than the United States on this issue. Erik Voeten at the Monkey Cage reaches a similar conclusion.

Those opposed to the treaty cast their opposition primarily in terms of the need to protect American sovereignty. This opposition was captured by Daniel Drezner, who concluded that “critics don’t like the treaty because….it’s a treaty.”

But what does this mean? What is sovereignty and why is it important?

The concept of sovereignty is central to international relations. It is simplest sense, sovereignty refers to the exercise of supreme decision making authority over a given piece of territory. More broadly, sovereignty encompasses both a domestic and an international element. At the domestic level, sovereignty refers to the control or authority over space exercised by the state. Importantly, not all states are equally capable of exercising this authority. Some states, like Somalia throughout much of the 1990s, was controlled not by the national government but by various competing militia groups. In this case, we characterize Somalia’s sovereignty as “juridical” (or legal), rather than actual.

Sovereignty also has an external or international component, which is usually embodied in the mutual recognition of states and the ability of one state to prevent another from interfering in its domestic politics.

In the case of the Disability Rights Treaty, Senate Republicans were arguing that the treaty would have undermined American sovereignty by requiring US law to comply with international dictates. In practice, however, this was unlikely to be the case, as US law was already in compliance with the treaty—indeed, as noted above, the ADA was the model for the treaty itself.

So what do you think? Did the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities represent a threat to American sovereignty? Or were Senate Republicans just playing politics? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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