U.S. signs U.N. disabilities pact, in change of course

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States signed a U.N. convention on Thursday aimed at ensuring equal rights for the world’s 650 million disabled people, a pact that the former Bush administration refused to endorse.

In a ceremony at U.N. headquarters, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice inked the pact, billed by the United Nations as the first human rights treaty of the 21st century. It came into force last year.

The 32-page U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities outlaws all forms of discrimination at work on the basis of disability, including in hiring, promotion and working conditions. It requires equal pay for work of equal value.

It also calls on signatory states to promote the employment of disabled people, including through “affirmative action” programs that favor them.

The pact stipulates the disabled may not be excluded from mainstream education systems. It demands that governments provide them with physical access to transportation, schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces.

Bush administration officials had said the document was weaker than the 1990 U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act and therefore could complicate enforcement of that law.

But Rice said the United States was “very pleased to join 141 other countries that have signed this convention in pursuit of a more just world.” Sixty-one countries have ratified the pact.

President Barack Obama would soon submit the convention for Senate approval, Rice said at the ceremony attended by representatives of U.S. disability groups.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, told the gathering the signing was a “historic step toward advancing our global commitment to the fundamental human rights for all persons with disabilities.”

She also announced the creation of a senior-level position at the State Department to develop a strategy to promote the rights of disabled people around the world.

The signing underlined the more favorable attitude toward the United Nations of the Obama administration than that of its predecessor, which often criticized the world body and was leery of international treaties that could have an impact on U.S. law.

Human Rights Watch, one of several advocacy groups that welcomed the signing, said the United States had signed six out of nine core international human rights treaties but ratified only three -- on racial discrimination, civil and political rights, and torture.

Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union said that Thursday was “a great day for the rights of people with disabilities and a step forward for the U.S. human rights movement.”

Editing by Peter Cooney