Will Samantha Power Champion Disability Rights?
President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Ambassador Samantha Power to be the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This is a significant moment for human rights activists. It points to the commitment by the Biden administration to reinstate the leadership role of the United States in terms of standing up for human rights and working with our international allies on developing strategies to support the most vulnerable.
According to the WHO, over 1 billion people live with some form of a disability. 80% of persons with disabilities live in developing countries and experience periodic abuse and discrimination. Women and girls with disabilities are the most unprotected and experience physical abuse and exclusion, according to the United Nations.
Samantha Power is a globally recognized human rights defender who fiercely fought for Syrians during the height of the Syrian civil war, calling out the Assad regime for violating international norms on the use of chemical weapons against civilians in 2013. As a journalist in the Balkans, she educated the public about atrocities committed against women “as a tactic of war” and called for accountability for those involved in these crimes.
Fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities will not be a new role for Ambassador Power. Under the Obama administration, she worked closely with the appointed disability advisors who helped shape strategies for U.S. leadership in a multi-lateral response to disability protection. In his announcement of the nomination of Ambassador Power to lead USAID, Biden recognized her as a “world-renowned voice of conscience and moral clarity—challenging and rallying the international community to stand up for the dignity and humanity of all people.” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said that Ambassador Power “will not only help lift up the world’s most vulnerable and advance our nation’s interests around the world, she will be a powerful voice for the values and ideals we cherish as Americans.”
One of the most treasured values Americans have is the belief that every person should have access to the resources and be treated with dignity, regardless of one’s abilities. The United States is one of the few countries that have laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities and ensuring their human rights are protected. The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is an international agreement that provides a framework for countries to make certain persons with disabilities enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The U.S. signed CRPD in 2009 but has not yet ratified it. Having a Democratic majority in Congress might help ratify CRPD which would once again show the U.S. commitment for supporting the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities in the U.S., as well as across the globe.
The Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 adopted in 2015 by all UN members calls to leave no one behind. 2020 showed that persons with disabilities and their support systems have been extremely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19, led by the United Nations, provided a systematic approach for UN member states to support persons with disabilities during the pandemic. However, evidence shows that many persons with disabilities lost access to their services and support systems due to COVID-19, which left them feeling isolated and forgotten.
At the same time, the pandemic weighted heavily on the caregivers. For many, having to work from home, with no respite services available and with the added responsibility to perform some of the much-needed services at home, caregivers have been asked to carry too much weight on their shoulders. The Biden administration should create a plan to support persons with disabilities and their caregivers during the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the UN and the WHO call for states to assess the barriers faced by persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and develop long-standing solutions for building back inclusive and accessible societies. Ambassador Samantha Power should lead the USAID to work closely with disability advisors and persons with disabilities to establish such strategies and share them with U.S. partners across the international community.
Disability activists are hopeful that the Biden administration, as well as USAID under the leadership of Ambassador Samantha Power, will prioritize disability rights as one of their components of domestic and international human rights policies.