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End of Mission Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, on her visit to the DPRK

Delivered at the Taedonggang Diplomatic Club
Pyongyang, 8 May 2017

Members of the press,
Ladies and gentlemen,

In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, I conclude today my first official visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which officially took place from 3 to 8 May 2017. I am an independent expert who reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, and advises on progress, opportunities and challenges encountered in the implementation of the rights of people with disabilities worldwide.

I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Government of the DPRK for accepting my request to visit its country to assess, in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, the level of enjoyment of the rights of persons with disabilities, the opportunities and existing needs and challenges; and for the cooperation extended to me prior to and throughout the visit. I also would like to extend my appreciation to the Government focal point on disability – the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD) – for coordinating the visit and accompanying me throughout.

I would like to particularly thank all the persons with disabilities with whom I was able to engage and interact collectively, including women with disabilities.

I also take this opportunity to sincerely thank the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Representative and his Office for the support provided for the organization of my visit. 

During my stay, I met with senior Government representatives in Pyongyang, including the Ambassador for Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Division Director of Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Public Health, the Division Director of the Education Commission, the Division Director of the Legislative Department of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and the Chairman of the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled. I also held meetings with the Association of the Deaf, the Association of the Blind, members of the United Nations Country Team, the diplomatic community, development agencies and international cooperation actors, and some persons with disabilities.

In Pyongyang I visited the Okryu Children’s Hospital, the Munsu Rehabilitation Centre, the Korean Rehabilitation Centre for Children with Disabilities, the Sci-Tech Complex and its reading room for persons with disabilities, and the Pyongyang Primary Boarding School. I also attended the closing ceremony of the amateur table tennis tournament for people with and without disabilities, and a performance by the Korean Art Association of the Disabled. I also visited Pongchon in the South Hwanghae province, where I met with authorities of the Provincial People’s Committee and I visited a special School for the Blind. Tomorrow I will also meet with the representative of the Korean Foundation for the Disabled and Orphans (KFDO) in Beijing, China.

Although the majority of my requests for meetings and visits to places of interest to my mandate were accepted, I regret that my request to meet with the Central Court, the Minister of Labour, the Minister of City Management, the Ministry of State Construction Control, the Central Bureau of Statistics, and a visit to a mental health facility could not be accommodated.

I will now present some of my preliminary observations and recommendations based on information provided by Government officials, which I will elaborate in more detail in a report that I will present at the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018. These preliminary observations neither reflect all the issues presented to me, nor all the initiatives undertaken by the Government of the DPRK.

Legal and policy framework

At the international level, the DPRK is a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) On 25 August 1997, the Secretary-General received from the Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea a notification of withdrawal from the Covenant, dated 23 August 1997. As the Covenant does not contain a withdrawal provision, the Secretariat of the United Nations forwarded on 23 September 1997 an aide-mémoire to the Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea explaining the legal position arising from the above notification. As elaborated in this aide-mémoire, the Secretary-General is of the opinion that a withdrawal from the Covenant would not appear possible unless all States Parties to the Covenant agree with such a withdrawal. The above notification of withdrawal and the aide-mémoire were duly circulated to all States Parties under cover of C.N.467.1997.TREATIES-10 of 12 November 1997., the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. I would like to commend the Government of the DPRK for ratifying the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) and the “Marrakesh Treaty” to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled in 2016, and to encourage it to ratify the remaining international human rights treaties and Optional Protocols to which it is not yet a State party. I also hope that the DPRK Government reconsiders its decision not to ratify the Optional Protocol to the CRPD.

Last year, the DPRK submitted its 5th State party report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as its combined 2nd, 3rd and 4th report to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, which will be reviewed later this year. I was pleased to note that both reports contain specific sections on the rights of persons with disabilities. The State is however overdue to present its fourth reports to the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I encourage the authorities to submit these reports as soon as possible and to include information regarding persons with disabilities. In 2014, the DPRK underwent its second Universal Periodic Review, and accepted approximately two thirds of the recommendations, which included disability-related recommendations.

I would like to acknowledge the DPRK’s commitment to advance the realization of the rights of persons with disabilities. In accordance to the information received, in the past fifteen years, the Government has undertaken a number of initiatives that have the potential to significantly improve the lives of persons with disabilities in the country. I commend in particular the adoption, in 2013, of the amended Law on the Protection of the People with Disabilities, which brought the definition of disability into line with the CRPD and introduced new provisions such as the establishment of a central coordination mechanism for the protection of persons with disabilities, efforts to collect data on persons with disabilities, enhancing public awareness, and accessibility of public infrastructure.

The DPRK has also adopted or amended other general legislation which contain specific provisions for persons with disabilities; for instance the Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of the Child, the Law on Public Health, the Socialist Labour Law, or the Law on Disaster Prevention, Rescue and Recovery, which gives priority to children, women and persons with disabilities in the delivery of relief goods. Moreover, I was informed that the State has adopted some implementing regulations to enforce its legislation, such as the Regulations on Job Placement, the Regulations on for Schools for the Blind and the Deaf or the Regulations on Social Insurance and Social Security.

To complete the process of legal harmonization in accordance with article 4 of the CRPD, it would be important that the relevant legislative authorities undertake a comprehensive review of its normative framework. I have noted the use of pejorative language to refer to persons with disabilities and the widespread use of the terms “dumb” in various laws. Moreover, as I will explain further on, I am particularly concerned about certain provisions that are not in line with article 12 of the CRPD, which recognises the full legal capacity of persons with disabilities.

Implementation and monitoring of the CRPD

Considering that the DPRK has ratified the CRPD only five months ago, it is fair to acknowledge that implementation is still at an early stage. In order to implement the Convention and domestic legislation on disability across State institutions at the central, provincial, district and county levels, I acknowledge the efforts of the KFPD – an institution under the Cabinet which provides direction for the implementation of the policy on the protection of persons with disabilities – to advance the disability agenda within the Government and to serve as the technical focal point in line with article 33 para 1 of the CRPD.

I was informed that the KFPD is in the process of developing a Strategic National Action Plan for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities for the next decade, coupled with sub-strategies in priority areas, which is a welcome development. I encourage the KFPD to prioritize the prompt finalization of this Strategic Plan, which should include time-bound benchmarks and dedicated budgetary resources, so as to submit it for approval as soon as possible.

I encourage the Government to prioritize coordination among the relevant ministries tasked to mainstream disability provisions and policies within their institutions, allocate budgetary resources for their implementation, and monitor implementation at central, provincial, district and county levels. In this regard, I welcome the creation in 2016 of the Central Committee for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities within the Cabinet, which serves as the national coordination mechanism as required by article 33 para 1 of the CRPD. It is chaired by the Vice-Premier, and composed of the Education Commission, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Public Health, and other line Ministries, the KFPD, as well as representatives of the Association of the Deaf and the Association of the Blind. I would strongly recommend the Government to also consider including the Ministry of City Management and the Ministry of State Construction Control as members of this Committee.
I could not obtain information regarding access to justice and deprivation of liberty of persons with disabilities. I was informed that the Ministry of Public Security will be invited to become a member of the above-mentioned Central Committee to guarantee the inclusion of disability-related issues in these areas.

I would also like to encourage the Government of the DPRK to designate or set up an independent mechanism to monitor the implementation of the Convention, as required by article 33 para 2 of the CRPD.

Data collection

Generally, there is limited data and statistics disaggregated by disability. However, I acknowledge that the 2008 Population Census included for the first time questions on disability, and that in 2014 the KFPD conducted a Disability Sample Survey in four provinces, in collaboration with the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). The CBS also conducted a Socio-economic, demographic and health survey (SDHS) in 2014 with UNFPA support, which collected information on mobility impairments of older persons. I was very pleased to learn that the 2018 Population Census will include the whole set of questions of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, and that the 2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) to be conducted later this year will include the UNICEF-Washington Group module on child functioning, which will allow to disaggregate national collected data by disability and to obtain international comparable data. I encourage the State to apply the methodology developed by the Washington Group also in future data collection efforts.

Accessibility to the physical environment, information and communication

During my visit, I have observed that the majority of infrastructure is not accessible to persons with physical disabilities, including new public buildings such as the Sci-tech Complex built in 2015 and the Pyongyang Primary Boarding School, which was entirely renovated in February this year. Environmental barriers as well as the lack of assistive devices for persons with physical disabilities, such as wheelchairs, prosthesis and orthosis, hinders their integration into society and community life. To address some of these issues, I was informed that persons with disabilities who live in Pyongyang can use taxi services free of charge, and that the Ministry of State Construction Control has developed regulations on accessibility. The Government has specifically requested technical assistance in the area of accessibility and international standards on universal design, to which I have agreed.

With regard to access to information and communication, I appreciate information received that Korean sign language is recognized as an official language of the DPRK since 2003, the existence of an Association of Sign Language Interpreters, the initiative to enable deaf persons to send text messages for free, and the provisions of the Criminal Procedures Law and the Civil Procedures Law requiring the provision of sign language interpretation for deaf persons during investigation and trials. During my visit of the Sci-Tech Complex, I visited the e-reading room which is equipped with computers with sign language programmes to enable deaf persons to access information, as well as audio files and Braille keyboards for blind persons. With respect to blind persons, I was informed of the existence of the Kwangmyong Press enterprise for printing Braille documents, and of an initiative to grant them reduced fare on phone calls is under discussion. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to ensure full coverage and access and to information and communication for all persons with disabilities.

Stigma

During my visit I observed that the medical model of disability remains prevalent and permeates and influences the way in which persons with disabilities are perceived and treated by society, despite the emphasis on a new understanding of disability introduced by the amended Law on the Protection of the People with Disabilities in 2013. I noted that there is still a strong emphasis on “curing” and “rehabilitating” persons with disabilities. I recommend to the Government to engage in awareness-raising campaigns to combat stereotypes and prejudices relating to persons with disabilities and to ensure the use of correct terminology to refer to them, and avoid terms such as “sane”, “healthy” or “normal” when referring to persons without disabilities.

I was also informed that families are reluctant to expose children and adults with disabilities in the community, and that women and girls with disabilities, in particular, are ashamed to participate in community activities due the strong stigma attached to disability. During my visit, I noted that efforts are focused primarily on deaf and blind people. I only interacted with one wheelchair user, and although I have encountered a few autistic children and children with intellectual disabilities, and one little person (i.e. a child with achondroplasia). I could not obtain information from them on their particular situation. Moreover, I did not meet any person with psychosocial, multiple or severe disabilities.

I welcome the actions undertaken by the KFPD in raising awareness about the dignity and the capacities of persons with disabilities, particularly in the fields of sports and arts. I encourage the Government of the DPRK to increase and expand these awareness raising programmes.

Participation of persons with disabilities

I commend the efforts of KFPD in promoting the creation of associations of persons with disabilities at national, provincial and county level, including associations of women with disabilities and its role to coordinate their work with associations of persons with disabilities. I also took note of the fact that representatives of the Association of the Deaf and the Association of the Blind participate in the Central Committee for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities of the Cabinet.

However, more efforts are required to ensure consultations and the representation of the diversity of persons with disabilities in decision-making in the DPRK. I would like to encourage the Government to promote and support the establishment of associations representing all persons with disabilities, including little persons and those with physical, intellectual, developmental, psychosocial and multiple impairments, who are currently not represented by any of the existing associations. In addition, it would be important to take measures to increase the participation of persons with disabilities in public functions, including the Supreme People’s Assembly. The meaningful participation of women with disabilities in all decisions affecting them should be strengthened, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

The right to education

I was informed that in 2012 the DPRK extended the timeframe for free and compulsory education from 11 to 12 year in a universal manner, from pre-school to higher secondary school. I was told this included children with disabilities, and that there are three special schools for the blind and eight schools for the deaf. With regards to children with physical disabilities, they are reportedly included in regular schools, although they face challenges due the lack of accessibility and reasonable accommodation. In relation to teachers, I received information that deaf persons are being trained to become teachers in deaf schools, which I consider to be a good practice.

I was also informed that children with other types of impairments, such as those with severe intellectual disabilities, autistic children, children with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, are only receiving education in the Korean Rehabilitation Centre for Children with Disabilities. Individual learning plans, including curricular adaptations and accommodation in the classroom, are currently not available at this facility, although they are essential for securing access to quality education on an equal basis with others. I did not receive information on the situation on access to school for children with multiple disabilities and psychosocial disabilities.

Children with disabilities enrolled in mainstream schools face multiple barriers to access education on an equal basis with others, not only due to the lack of accessible infrastructure, but also because of the unavailability of assistive devices.

I was informed that after completing secondary school, there are different opportunities for further education for persons with disabilities, including vocational training and distance learning. Further efforts are needed to increase the access of persons with disabilities to universities. 

I would like to recommend that the Education Commission takes measures for the progressive implementation of an inclusive quality education system across the DPRK and to provide learners with disabilities the support needed to access education on an equal basis with others.

The rights to health and to social protection

In the DPRK the State is the sole provider of all living conditions for its citizens, including those with disabilities. Its social protection framework includes, inter alia, universal free healthcare, 240 days of maternity leave on full pay, and the provision of basic food, clothing and housing. However, despite high coverage, the Minister of Public Heath acknowledged the existence of general shortages in medical equipment and medicines, including essential medicines.

According to the Law on the Protection of the People with Disabilities, persons with disabilities can benefit from pensions and specialized services, including workshops, with priority given to “honoured soldiers” with disabilities. However, I did not receive sufficient information about the process of disability assessment and determination.

During my stay, I had the opportunity to visit a hospital for children with disabilities and two rehabilitation centres in Pyongyang, equipped with modern infrastructure and technical equipment. I consider the use of telemedicine to connect the Okryu Children’s Hospital with other 11 provincial hospitals as a good practice, as well as the facilities of the Munsu Rehabilitation Centre. It is my understanding that these facilities are model hospitals and centres that the Government intends to replicate elsewhere in the country.

With regard to women with disabilities, I was informed that they have access to sexual and reproductive health information and they can take decisions concerning family planning. With regard to little persons, I was informed that they are not under the responsibility of the KFPD, but rather the Ministry of Public Health. The latter indicated that little persons are registered and provided special attention, and that research is undertaken to identify treatment to increase their height.

In the area of mental health, despite this is a priority issue for my mandate, the limited information received so far does not enable me to make an adequate assessment of the situation.

Whilst acknowledging achievements in the areas of health and social protection, I identified a need to expand the effective coverage of those benefits and services to all persons with disabilities, including little persons and those with intellectual, developmental, psychosocial, multiple and severe disabilities, so as to ensure their enjoyment on an equal basis with others. In addition, I would like to encourage the Government to progressively implement disability-specific support services in the community to ensure the independence, inclusion and autonomy of persons with disabilities throughout the country.

Regarding the Pyongyang Primary Boarding School, while I acknowledge the attention given to the situation of orphans with and without disabilities that do not have family support, I would like to highlight the need to transition from residential care institutions to family and community-based forms of child care, such as foster care, adoptive families and other family-like settings, in accordance with article 20 and 23 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child and article 7 of the CRPD.

I have been informed that persons with disabilities are seen as less productive and often engage in light labour activities. I would like to underline that the cost of excluding persons with disabilities from society is always significant, not only for persons with disabilities themselves and their families, but also for any country’s economy. To achieve the commitment of “leaving no one behind” in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, the DPRK needs to foster the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and to ensure that all their national strategies, policies and programmes are inclusive of persons with disabilities.    

Legal capacity

In relation to the equal enjoyment of legal capacity, it is of concern that Article 50 of the amended Law on the Protection of the People with Disabilities provides for the appointment of a guardian for persons with disabilities. I was informed that this provision must be read it in conjunction with articles 40 and 41 of the Family Law, and article 49 of the Civil Procedure Law, which regulate the appointment of a guardian to minors and those who cannot exercise their legal capacity due to disability. I would like to note that any provisions that establish guardianship systems for persons with disabilities are not aligned with article 12 of the CRPD. I recommend to the Government of the DPRK to further engage in a process of knowledge development to transition from substituted decision-making to supported decision-making.

UN system and international cooperation

I would like to acknowledge the increasing awareness on the rights of persons with disabilities and the efforts of United Nations agencies and international cooperation organizations in this area.

I strongly encourage the United Nations system, and especially the UN Country Team, the diplomatic community in the DPRK and international cooperation actors to make all of their projects inclusive of persons with disabilities and to mainstream disability in all of their humanitarian strategies and programmes in the country. Moreover, UN efforts to support the implementation of the SDGs in the DPRK should consider the rights of persons with disabilities in a cross-cutting manner, so as to truly ensure that no one is left behind.

Members of the press,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me conclude by reiterating that I am very grateful to the Government of the DPRK for accepting my invitation to visit the country, enabling me to learn about the efforts they are making to improve the situation of persons with disabilities and the opportunities for improvement. This invitation and the recent ratification of the CRPD, whereby the authorities will have to progressively implement its provisions, are a positive indication of the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the country. This is an opportunity for the UN system, UN human rights mechanisms including my mandate, to continue the dialogue.

I hope that my visit and my report will assist the Government in moving forward on this issue and to help prepare its first State report to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in two years’ time. 

I hope that this visit will have a positive impact on the lives of persons with disabilities in the DPRK!