The Intellectual Poverty of the Sovereigntist Argument Against the Disabilities Convention

by Erik Voeten on December 7, 2012 · 14 comments

in International Relations

There is a pretty strong consensus that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the Senate rejected on Tuesday, would have imposed no meaningful sovereignty costs on the United States.  So when the New York Times wanted to line up a debate on the merit of ratification, it had to look long and hard for credible counterpoints. That is the only way I can understand how they would end up with David Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Denver. Professor Kopel apparently doesn’t know much about the UN or human rights treaties because he had to put this request to his readers on the Volokh Conspiracy:

 I respectfully request commenters to describe previous situations in which a UN body has, in the commenter’s view, made an inappropriate interpretation or application of a Convention of Treaty.

Unfortunately, the commenters proved little help. But professor Kopel still wanted to argue that:
Experience shows that the U.N. bureaucracy can take innocuous treaty language and “interpret” it to impose the political agenda of the global hard left.

So what did he do? Just make stuff up:
When many nations (not including the U.S.) ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, they had no way of knowing that the U.N. would declare Mothers Day to be illegal, if a nation’s version of that holiday puts too much emphasis on women’s role as mothers.

Nor could governments ratifying that “discrimination against women” treaty foresee that the U.N. would later decide that it mandates the legalization of prostitution, or numerical gender quotas in both government and the private sector.


This is utter nonsense. Virtually all of the 184 state parties of the CEDAW treaty celebrate Mother’s Day and very few have legalized prostitution (and none because CEDAW demanded it). The committee does not have the authority to declare anything illegal. It may write reports criticizing countries but these reports can be and often are ignored. The Mother’s day myth (which I referenced on Wednesday) stems from a 2000 Committee report on Belarus, which criticized the country for:
[..] continuing prevalence of sex-role stereotypes and by the reintroduction of such symbols as a Mothers’ Day and a Mothers’ Award, which it sees as encouraging women’s traditional roles.

You may well disagree with this statement but to say that it had any legal effect is nonsense (nor has this been repeated against any of the many other countries that celebrate Mother’s Day). Similarly: quotas are not mandated for CEDAW signatories nor is legalizing prostitution.

I suspect David Bosco is right that this is not about the Disabilities Convention at all but based on a “slippery slope” logic where even minor instances of acceptance of international standards will lead to the slow and gradual slipping away of sovereignty. For Kopel it seems to be all about an arms trade treaty that is currently being negotiated (and which will have zero chance of passing the Senate).

The problem that I have with this is that the UN debate is increasingly dominated by liberal and conservative fantasists. The liberal fantasists see submission to the UN as a way towards a peaceful global order in which the role of power politics slowly dissipates. The conservative fantasists see the UN as a severe threat to U.S. domestic and international freedom of action. Both are based on wholly irrational ideas about the potential power of the UN. What we should be talking about is how to best use the UN to take small steps towards a better world (with apologies to Marginal Revolution). But that conversation all too often gets hijacked by ideologues.

ps. the other skeptical piece is by Julian Ku, who agrees the sovereignty cost of the Convention are minor but worries about the Law of the Sea. There is a reasonable argument there because there are real sovereignty costs, thus creating the need for a trade off between cost and benefits.

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