MADELEINE BRAND, host:
On the international stage, President Obama is breaking with tradition. He's signing and seeking Senate ratification of a major human rights treaty.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The treaty in question is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It would require countries to guarantee that disabled people have legal rights to things like jobs, education and access to public places. The U.N. passed the convention nearly three years ago. Some 140 countries have signed on, but not the United States, until President Obama's action today.
President BARACK OBAMA: Today 650 million people, ten percent of the world's population live with a disability. In developing countries, 90 percent of children with disabilities don't attend school.
SHAPIRO: He announced that the United States will sign. That pleased Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democratic, Iowa): By signing this declaration, it puts us back in the game. It puts us back in a position of being able to help lead the rest of the world in breaking down barriers to people with disabilities.
SHAPIRO: Harkin was a lead author of the major disabilities civil rights on this country: The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA became the model for the U.N. convention, but the United States said it would not become a participant. Dick Thornburgh was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, who supported and signed the ADA. Thornburgh pushed President George W. Bush to sign the U.N. convention.
Mr. DICK THORNBURGH (Former U.S. Attorney General): It's always been hard for me to figure out what the basis of the opposition was, but I would speculate that there's some resistance to the United Nations, generally, in this country. But history teaches us that any number of U.N. conventions dealing with human rights in particular have been signed and ratified by our country. And I think that view ought to prevail on the disability rights convention.
SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama also announced he'll ask the Senate to begin the ratification process. The last major U.N. human rights treaty was the convention on the rights of the child. President Bill Clinton signed it in 1995. But there was opposition, and the U.S. was the only major country not to ratify it. In 2000, the U.S. did sign and ratify two protocols to the convention: One protecting children in armed conflict and one on child prostitution. Mr. Obama has indicated he'll review whether to seek ratification of the full convention on the rights of the child.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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