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Opening Statement by Mr. Adam Abdelmoula, Director Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division, at the Annual Debate on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Human Rights Council 34th Session

3 March 2017

Mr. President,
Colleagues and Friends,

I am delighted to welcome you to the ninth interactive debate the Human Rights Council is holding on the rights of persons with disabilities. This year’s debate will be devoted to the standards set in article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on equality and non-discrimination and the policies and practices developed under its guidance.


It is undeniable that we have come a long way since the adoption of the Convention.  In the international human rights framework, persons with disabilities are - formally recognised as right-holders on an equal basis with others.  Substantive Equality goes hand in hand with the principle of non-discrimination which underlies all human rights treaties and seeks to prevent any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference that nullifies or impairs the equal recognition and exercise of rights on different grounds, including on the grounds of disability.

While the human rights standards are clear in this respect, in practice, persons with disabilities continue to be subject to discrimination in the form of exclusion, isolation, segregation and violence.  Deprivation of legal capacity, forced institutionalisation, pervasive stereotypes and prejudices, exclusion from general education, and lack of access to employment, housing and social protection prevent persons with disabilities from fully enjoying their rights.  In particular, women and girls with disabilities face compounded barriers to the exercise and enjoyment of their rights across all spheres in comparison with men and boys with disabilities as well as other women and girls.

The second decade of the life of the Convention constitutes a unique opportunity to strengthen equality of persons with disabilities and to increase their inclusion and participation in society.  The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which the principles of equality and non-discrimination for persons with disabilities is a cross-cutting feature, should further galvanise the recognition, mainstreaming and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities and their inclusion across all sectors, its implementation always requires to be guided by the Convention.

The Convention superseeds and expands on previous international instruments and human rights standards to guarantee substantive equality for persons with disabilities which includes both equality of opportunities and equality of outcomes, requiring the transformation of existing social structures, systems and conceptions which perpetuate discrimination in their regard.  It provides a robust non-discrimination framework which encompasses direct and indirect discrimination, discrimination by association, structural or systemic discrimination, discrimination based on actual or perceived impairment, disability based exclusion, segregation and violence. 

Experience has shown that non-discriminatory laws, policies and programmes do not suffice to ensure equality of marginalised groups, including persons with disabilities.  Specific measures are needed to open up opportunities and establish preferences for persons with disabilities in an effort to dismantling structural and systemic discrimination still inherent to our societies.  These specific measures may be temporarily in force until equality is achieved in a specific sector, such as quota systems in employment, or they may be permanent in nature in order to address an enduring inequality, such as tax exemptions for importing vehicles or assistive devices. 

Central to the duty of non-discrimination is the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation and the recognition that its denial constitutes discrimination in itself.  This concept is a novelty in the human rights discourse and it is further consolidated in the Convention and by the jurisprudence of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  We are honoured today to have with us Judith Heumann who can share with us a first-hand account of this concept, particularly, in the American with Disabilities Act.   

Reasonable accommodation applies across all rights and entails a necessary and appropriate modification and adjustment which does not impose a disproportionate burden, in a particular situation, to ensure the enjoyment and exercise of the right by an individual on an equal basis with others.  It is still a relatively new concept in the human rights and disability discourse, and is commonly confused with other concepts, for example: specific measures, accessibility, provision of support and procedural accommodations.  Such misconceptions may lead to an erosion of the obligations incumbent on States, service providers, employers, among others, towards ensuring the enjoyment and exercise of all human rights by persons with disabilities.   It is thus essential that legislators, policymakers, judges, the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders have a thorough understanding of the legal implications of the duty to provide reasonable accommodation in order to ensure the effective protection of persons with disabilities  against discrimination and ensuring substantive equality. I kindly invite you all to participate of a side event that will take place in room XXIII here at the Palais, to further explore this concept.

Dear panellists,

Upholding equality and non-discrimination of persons with disabilities requires proactive steps:

First and foremost, States and all stakeholders should closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children, through their representative organisations in the development, implementation and monitoring of legislation, regulations, policies, programmes, campaigns, among others, to ensure that all actions, in practice and in principle, advance equality as envisioned in the Convention. 

Laws and policies must be harmonized, including through the repeal of discriminatory laws and provisions that deny rights and prevent the participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities.  Legislation should incorporate a definition of “discrimination on the basis of disability” which includes the denial of reasonable accommodation and which is applicable across all rights and explicitly covers all persons with disabilities including children, indigenous persons, women and girls, persons with intellectual disabilities, persons with psychosocial disabilities, and deaf and deafblind persons. Further, effective remedies must be available and accessible for those subjected to discrimination including injunctive relief and damages which also reflect the aggravated nature of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

A twin-track approach should be adopted to mainstream and include persons with disabilities in all policy plans and programmes as well as to develop disability-specific policies.  The principles of the Convention should inform all legislation and policies and guide their interpretation.  This also applies to measures for awareness-raising and training to promote positive attitudes vis-à-vis  persons with disabilities, to eliminate harmful stereotyping and stigmatisation including related to multiple and intersecting identities encompassing disability, age, gender, indigenous background, ethnicity, Afro-descendance, migrant status or provenance from a remote or rural region, among others.

As the aphorism goes, “there is no right without a remedy.”  It is essential to monitor compliance and implementation of legislation and policies on equality and non-discrimination, as well as to enhance powers of independent monitoring frameworks to carry out investigations and impose sanctions on public or private bodies committing acts of discrimination.  Data collection across all sectors should be systematically disaggregated by disability in order to monitor and identify situations of systemic discrimination and access to justice, and thus effectively formulate policies to combat discriminatory attitudes, laws, policies and practices.

I kindly invite you to read the study on equality and non-discrimination prepared for this session of the Council where you will find a complete analysis of these recommendations and to share it broadly with the entities responsible for implementing the rights of persons with disabilities in your respective countries.

Mr. President,

Since the adoption of the Convention, we have witnessed many strides to uphold the human rights of persons with disabilities.  Nevertheless, they continue to be left behind through discriminatory attitudes, laws, policies and practices.  The 2030 Agenda sets out to leave no behind and makes a call to reach first those who are furthest behind, among whom are persons with disabilities. To fulfil this, we must all engage. 

Last December, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  In the past years, we have been witnessing increasing attention to the rights of persons with disabilities across a range of fora and themes, beyond this annual panel debate.  Last year in October, the Human Rights Council’s Social Forum, for the first time, was dedicated to the rights of persons with disabilities and last May’s World Humanitarian Summit, opened the opportunity to start developing guidelines on humanitarian action inclusive of persons with disabilities.
At ten years, the Convention now counts 172 ratifications and accessions and its Optional Protocol has been accepted by 92 States parties. I encourage all States to continue moving toward the objective of universal ratification. I urge States with reservations to study these carefully with a view to their withdrawal.

As shown by this annual panel, the Council is committed to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, and increasingly they are being mainstreamed across the other agendas of the Council.  The Council and its Member States are encouraged to continue in their engagement to transform current societal structures, systems and conceptions which impede the inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.
I wish you a successful debate and I look forward to your discussions.

Thank you.