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Human Rights Council holds Annual discussion on the Human Rights of persons with disabilities

Human Rights Council
MIDDAY 1st March 2012

The Human Rights Council today held its annual discussion on the human rights of persons with disabilities.

Opening the discussion, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that since its adoption in December 2006, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had been ratified or acceded to by 109 States and one regional integration organization, while 66 States had ratified its Optional Protocol. The speed of the ratification process demonstrated the strong commitment of the international community to a society for all, in which persons with disabilities were entitled to the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others. However, ratification alone was not sufficient to ensure the removal of barriers that continued to hinder the full and effective enjoyment of all civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights by persons with disabilities on an equal basis. The Council was perfectly positioned – and indeed expected – to highlight obstacles and identify possible measures to strengthen the political participation of all persons with disabilities in line with the Convention.

Theresia Degener, Rapporteur of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, panellist, said that many countries had laws that denied persons with disabilities, who were declared legally incapacitated, the right to vote and stand for election. She urged States parties to review voting laws and ensure the inclusion of all persons with disabilities; abolish de facto denial of the right to political participation by making the political process accessible; protect persons with disabilities from disenfranchisement by third parties such as welfare organizations; and take affirmative actions to ensure that disabled persons, especially disabled women, were represented in political bodies.

Shantha Rau Barriga, Disability Rights Researcher and Advocate, Human Rights Watch, panellist, said governments might have good intentions thinking that the disabled could not make decisions and should be protected, but the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities started on the premise that they had the same rights and recognitions as others. The challenge was how to implement this and disabled persons organizations had to take the lead. Sweeping legal reform at the domestic level and parts of the international system were therefore needed. Thinking on the political participation of disabled persons had to shift, and legal restrictions had to be removed to make the voting process more accessible. Further training for voting supervisors was also necessary.

Patrick Clarke, President of Down Syndrome International, speaking also on behalf of the International Disability Alliance, panellist, said there were many restrictions and barriers facing persons with disabilities in the enjoyment of the right to participate in political and public life. The first step in changing these restrictions and barriers was to identify them. Legal barriers could take form based on constitutional law, election laws and other laws that denied persons with disabilities their civil and political rights. Documents pre-dating the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities needed to be updated. Lack of accessibility involved physical barriers and information barriers.

Maria Alejandra Villanueva of the Peruvian Down Syndrome Society spoke in a video message.

In the discussion, speakers said given the historic invisibility of persons with disabilities both physically and legally, their participation in public and political life was of fundamental importance. They agreed that participation in public affairs was a vital issue and said it was the responsibility of States to ensure the full enjoyment of rights of persons with disabilities; discrimination could be eliminated with the change in wrongly held attitudes and misconceptions. The realization of the human rights of persons with disabilities entailed financial resources and technical assistance, and thus was a significant challenge for least developed countries.

Speaking in the discussion were Uruguay, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, China, Finland, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Turkey, Ecuador, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Austria, South Africa, Senegal, Thailand, Morocco, Peru, Azerbaijan, and Australia. The United Nations Children’s Fund also spoke.

The International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions, All Russian Society of the Deaf, the National Human Rights Council of Morocco, International Humanist and Ethical Union also took the floor.

Signmark (Mark Vuoriheimo, the first deaf rap artist in the world to obtain a record deal) also spoke after performing in front of the Council.


At 3 p.m., the Council resumed its High-level Segment, which will conclude later in the day.

 

Opening Statement

NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said since its adoption in December 2006, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had been ratified or acceded to by 109 States and one regional integration organization, while 66 States had ratified its Optional Protocol. The speed of the ratification process demonstrated the strong commitment of the international community to a society for all, in which persons with disabilities were entitled to the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others. Ratification alone was not sufficient to ensure the removal of barriers that continued to hinder the full and effective enjoyment of all civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights by persons with disabilities on an equal basis. The achievement of this goal required States parties to give effect to the Convention at the domestic level. In its resolution 16/15, the Human Rights Council requested the High Commissioner’s Office to prepare a thematic study on participation in political and public life by persons with disabilities and the study had been made available on the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights website. The Office was extremely grateful to Inclusion Europe for their support in making the study accessible to persons with intellectual disabilities.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities heralded a new era for the political participation of persons with disabilities. Article 29 of the Convention referred to political participation in terms of the right to vote and be elected. Article 29 required States to take appropriate steps to promote an enabling environment in which persons with disabilities could effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs. In its broadest sense, participation was a theme that ran throughout the whole Convention. The study prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights provided a number of positive examples of the efforts undertaken by States to remove the barriers that prevented or limited the equal and effective participation of persons with disabilities in political life and in the conduct of public affairs and ensure that they could exercise their voting rights on an equal basis with others. However, it also showed that in many countries persons with disabilities continued to encounter a number of legal, physical and communication barriers. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provided a road map to improve this unacceptable situation. The Council was perfectly positioned – and indeed expected – to highlight obstacles and identify possible measures to strengthen the political participation of all persons with disabilities in line with the Convention.

Statements by Panellists

THERESIA DEGENER, Rapporteur of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said that situating the right to political participation into the context of disability meant to examine if disabled persons had equal access to elections and public affairs and whether they were heard and represented in all areas of political life. Many countries had laws that denied persons with disabilities, who were declared legally incapacitated, the right to vote and stand for elections, and as these were persons with intellectual or psycho-social impairments such laws were in violation of article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There was growing readiness to revise the traditional understanding of voting capacity, for example a number of European Union Member States had lifted all restrictions on political participation for persons with psycho-social or intellectual impairments. Ms. Degener made the following recommendations for States parties: review voting laws and ensure inclusion of all disabled persons; abolish de facto denial of the right to political participation by making the political process accessible; protect disabled persons from disenfranchisement by third parties such as welfare organizations; and take affirmative actions to ensure that disabled persons, especially disabled women, were represented in political bodies.

SHANTHA RAU BARRIGA, Human Rights Watch, said governments might have good intentions thinking that the disabled could not make decisions, and should be protected, but the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities started on the premise that they had the same rights and recognitions as others. The challenge was how to implement this and disabled persons organizations had to take the lead. The disenfranchisement of those with disabilities was not uncommon and currently most democratic countries restricted the legal capacity of some persons, though the abundance of laws did not make this acceptable. Sweeping legal reform at the domestic level and parts of the international system was therefore needed. There could be no clear and objective criteria for casting a vote and the en masse exclusion of the disabled for the reason that they lacked mental capacity violated the right to political participation. As to the risk of manipulation or fraud, this held disabled persons to a standard not expected of others. Thinking on the political participation of disabled persons had to shift, and legal restrictions had to be removed to make the voting process more accessible. Further training for voting supervisors was also necessary. Governments also had to ensure that persons with disabilities ran for office on an equal basis.

PATRICK CLARKE, President of Down Syndrome International, speaking on behalf of the International Disability Alliance, said there were many restrictions and barriers facing persons with disabilities in the enjoyment of the right to participate in political and public life. The first step in changing these restrictions and barriers was to identify them. Legal barriers could take form based on constitutional law, election laws and other laws that denied persons with disabilities their civil and political rights. Documents pre-dating the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities needed to be updated. Attitudinal barriers were just as dangerous and discriminatory as legal barriers. Lack of accessibility involved physical barriers and information barriers. There was a lack of data and statistics on the levels of participation in political and public life by persons with disabilities and related human rights violations. The cumulative effect of these barriers was that many democracies were not fully democratic. Best practices included consultation, making no distinction on the basis of disability, expressing prohibition of discrimination in constitutions, election laws and other laws, revising legislation and eliminating restrictions. Positive or affirmative actions included increasing office-holding by persons with disabilities and improving accessibility standards, among others.

MARIA ALEJANDRA VILLANUEVA, Peruvian Down Syndrome Society, speaking in a video message, said the national authorities of Peru had not given her a national identity card and said she could not vote, but she complained and had been successful and felt satisfied. Within the video message it was explained that she was invited to the Fourth Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, held in New York, where she was applauded.

Discussion

During the interactive discussion, the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions said that given the historic invisibility of persons with disabilities both physically and legally, their participation in public and political life was of fundamental importance. Uruguay agreed that participation in public affairs was a vital issue and Ethiopia said it was the responsibility of States to ensure the full enjoyment of the rights of persons with disabilities; discrimination could be eliminated with the change in wrongly held attitudes and misconceptions. Mauritania said that the very image of persons with disabilities had changed in the eyes of policy makers and the public; their needs were now taken into consideration and protection measures were provided. Indonesia said that expressing political rights for persons with disabilities was often problematic and hindered. The challenge lay in how to harness the knowledge that the persons with disabilities possessed and enrich the exercise in democracy from that perspective, said Mexico and asked the panelists to share the experience in integrating persons with disabilities in public life.

New Zealand informed the Council of the measures taken in this country to facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities in elections and asked about other good practices developed around the world to ensure the participation of persons with disabilities in political life. Brazil said that its policies were in line with the Secretary-General’s report on mainstreaming disability in the development agenda and that the challenge now was in finding the balance between policy and practice. Spain said it had been steadily moving towards increasing political participation of persons with disabilities, which included scores of measure to improve their participation in elections. Argentina said it had created an electoral accessibility programme with the aim of providing all sorts of facilities so that people with different abilities could participate in elections; a set of indicators had also been developed to monitor the participation.

There were 13 million disabled persons in the Russian Federation, and needs of this vulnerable group were high on the Government’s agenda, Russia said. All Russian Society of the Deaf said it was working on bringing Russian legislation in line with the Convention. In Saudi Arabia, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations and human rights institutions were active in providing services to persons with disabilities. China was ready to work with the international community to further improve the situation of persons with disabilities. The United Nations Children Fund said it was increasing the level of support to Governments in their work on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, including assistance in preparing their national action plans, with special focus being provided to children with disabilities.

Signmark, (Mark Vuoriheimo, the first deaf rap artist in the world to obtain a record deal), speaking after performing in front of the Council, said that the Convention was not yet ratified in his country Finland and expressed his concern about the long time it was taking. There were many examples from every day life of discrimination; it happened in developed and developing countries equally. It was important to address poverty and eradicate it. This required clear policies and prioritization. Universal education for children was needed, together with the cooperation between schools and opening of the minds from early on. Mainstream services should be adjusted through the lenses of persons with disabilities and without discrimination.

Finland said it was an honour and pleasure to speak after Signmark. Finland’s new disability policy action plan was based on a human rights approach. Finland asked the panellists for an elaboration of best practices. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said governments had the responsibility to create an enabling environment. Turkey said 2010 was the year for accessibility of disabled persons in Turkey. A provision on the rights of disabled persons was included in the constitutional change of 2012. Ecuador said 40 per cent of the households in the world had to deal with the problems of disabilities. Ecuador proposed a special session for discussing disabilities. Burkina Faso said the problems of disabled persons were even more difficult in developing countries and Burkina Faso had made addressing the issue a priority. Bangladesh said realization of the human rights of persons with disabilities entailed financial resources and technical assistance, and thus was a significant challenge for least developed countries. Austria asked the panellists, apart from laws and regulations, what measures could be taken to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities and what role human rights mechanisms could play.

South Africa said that it was fully committed to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol. In South Africa the national disability access campaign focused on full access to public spaces and buildings and reasonable accommodation in the workplace. Senegal appreciated the report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the useful review of best practices in areas of promoting the rights of persons with disabilities. The challenge for the international community was to ensure a full accounting for civil and political rights of persons with disabilities. Thailand said that in the area of political participation for the disabled it was important that election venues were accessible and that there was a provision of sign language during election campaigns. Morocco said that in 2009 the Government had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and had adopted obligations in the labour market requiring 7 per cent of persons employed in the civil service and 3 per cent in the private sector to be reserved for persons with disabilities. Peru said the Government had recognized that disabled persons were not participating in political life and had made changes to its policies and the registry of voters now included 23,000 new people regardless of their disability. Azerbaijan said that according to the Election Code, all commissions and their members had to provide access for the participation of voters with disabilities. The Government had provided technical and financial assistance for the publication of press material for persons with disabilities. Australia asked the panel to elaborate on what changes were being made to policies and service provision practices to enable persons with disabilities, particularly marginalized groups such as people with learning difficulties or those living in rural and remote areas, to participate in voting and in political and public activities. The National Human Rights Council of Morocco said that there was a need to upgrade the legal framework in the country to realize the full participation of persons with disabilities in political life. The Government should adopt a bill to strengthen the rights of persons with disabilities and establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure that public policy was in line with international standards. International Humanist and Ethical Union said that the key to integration was mutual communication. The Austrian Government had opened its internet by providing access to persons with hearing disabilities and urged the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to do the same. There should be a strategy to include persons with disabilities in Council debates.

Concluding Remarks

THERESIA DEGENER, Rapporteur of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said in her concluding remarks that it was encouraging to hear all the positive examples of including persons with disabilities in public and political life. Very good examples of affirmative actions were quotas, said Ms. Degener, because people needed incentives to include persons with disabilities in public life; this applied to persons with disabilities too who sometimes would not see themselves as capable. On striking the right balance between special or alternative measures and inclusive measures, from a legal standpoint the answer was seen in the Convention in articles on reasonable accommodation and accessibility. Accessibility related to groups and was group-negotiated, while reasonable accommodation was individual-based and was negotiated with an individual.

SHANTHA RAU BARRIGA, Disability Rights Researcher and Advocate, Human Rights Watch, in concluding observations gave a positive example of where the quota system was working, which was in Uganda where five parliamentarians had to be persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities were not always elected to represent persons with disabilities, but had a much wider agenda. It was important not to restrict persons with disabilities as experts on only disabilities. It was important to include persons with disabilities in other decision-making processes and bodies as well, such as for example in the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

PATRICK CLARKE, President of Down Syndrome International, in his closing remarks said he was pleased to hear about all the actions taken to increase the participation of persons with disabilities in public and political life. There was still a huge chasm to be crossed however. Mr. Clarke welcomed the countries planning to ratify the Convention and invited his own country, Ireland to do the same. He urged Argentina to continue its excellent work on the inclusion of persons with disabilities and said that in Uruguay attention needed to be given to the right to vote of persons with disabilities. Denial of legal capacity was a major issue, together with the awareness of abilities of persons with disabilities to participate in political life.

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For use of information media; not an official record