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Address of the High Commissioner on the occasion of the Opening of the XVI World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Durban, South Africa

18 July 2011

Dear Mr. President,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to attend your first World Congress in Africa, and in my home country, South Africa. It is important that a global organization such as yours reaches out to members in all parts of the world. I hope that the coming days provide you with an opportunity to learn more about the specific issues facing deaf people in Africa; and to share experiences and issues of concern to all regions

Combating discrimination in all its forms is a priority for me and my Office, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And a key element of this strategy is promoting equality for persons with disabilities, including deaf people. Discrimination takes many forms. At times, it is embedded in laws and in practices. Yet more often, discrimination is less visible. It manifests itself in attitudes and in the belief that persons with disabilities are unable to learn and to work, or to take part in political decision-making that affects them. Or that persons with disabilities need charity to survive rather than rights. Discrimination also appears in the form of an inaccessible environment which prevents persons with disabilities from participating freely and independently in everyday activities.

It is true that relatively few countries deny deaf people access to basic goods and services or to political rights simply because they are deaf. However, deaf people constantly face an inaccessible environment. A failure to recognize sign language, a lack of inclusive bilingual education, as well as the limited availability of sign language interpretation services have perpetrated the invisibility of people who are deaf. This reality is compounded by a general unawareness of their condition. All these factors reinforce barriers which prevent deaf people from living independently in the community – a basic right recognized in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

At the United Nations, we have made some advances. Sign language interpretation services and captioning are provided for some meetings. However, this is far from a generalized practice. These services tend to concern meetings dealing specifically with disability rights. Yet persons with disabilities are interested in a variety of other issues. We have to work to ensure that the provision of sign language interpretation services becomes a common practice throughout the organization.

The World Federation of the Deaf is an important partner in improving the UN’s accessibility and, more broadly, in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities through our work. My Office works closely with your umbrella group, the International Disability Alliance (IDA). Through IDA, we are improving the participation of persons with disabilities within UN activities in Geneva, New York, and in specific countries. IDA facilitates our contacts with national organizations of persons with disabilities, according to the principle ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’. But there is certainly room for improvement at the UN and IDA’s advocacy can help us ameliorate our own performance, particularly in the area of accessibility.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to turn now to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which monitors implementation of the Convention, provides a great opportunity to step up equality for persons with disabilities. States that have acceded to the Convention have also agreed to report to its expert Committee – and they have two years to present their first report. On the basis of States’ reports, the experts in the Committee review the performance of each Government through a one-day dialogue with Government representatives. The experts then make recommendations to improve respect for rights.

You, as members of the World Federation of the Deaf, have a role to highlight the situation of Deaf people before the Committee. Civil society organizations can produce alternative reports and submit them to the Committee. In these reports, you can highlight the issues facing deaf people in a specific country. Representatives of the World Federation can also attend the Committee sessions. In this way, the Committee can include your concerns in their dialogue with the Government and make recommendations on issues that most concern deaf people.

You could also be involved in the Committee’s work on what we call General Comments. A General Comment is a document that sets out the Committee’s opinion on key issues facing the rights of persons with disabilities. General Comments provide greater clarity to Governments and civil society about human rights and what has to change to make them a reality. The Committee is currently working on a General Comment on Accessibility. This could provide an important opportunity for the World Federation of the Deaf to raise some issues of concern – such as those related to the limited availability of sign language interpreting services.

I strongly encourage you to turn to the Committee and ensure that the issues confronting you are high on its agenda. Earlier this year, I presented a thematic study which considered international cooperation related to the rights of persons with disabilities. One of the findings was that international cooperation tended to focus on some persons with disabilities, while others, including deaf people as well as people with visual impairments and intellectual disabilities, tended to be overlooked. I therefore encourage you to use every opportunity to raise the issues of most concern to your rights – and I believe the Committee is one of the avenues to do so.

Let me now highlight a thematic study that my Office is currently preparing related to the participation of persons with disabilities in political and public life. Participation is a key human rights principle. However, without adequate access to sign language interpretation, bilingual education and recognition of sign language, there are important barriers to your participation. My Office invites organizations, including the World Federation of the Deaf, to provide information related to participation in political and public life which can enrich the study. I hope that this thematic study will provide an opportunity to raise global awareness of these issues.

I would like to conclude by wishing you all the best at this meeting as you celebrate your 60th anniversary. The World Federation is just three years younger than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mirroring the trajectory of the Universal Declaration, your organization has achieved much in combating discrimination. Yet, as with the full implementation of the Universal Declaration principles, there is still much more to be done in your area of work. Your meeting will help spur new initiatives in that direction. . I wish you every success.

Thank you.