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Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities considers initial report of the Cook Islands

10 April 2015

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities considered the initial report of the Cook Islands on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Nandi Tuaine Glassie, Minister of Health and Internal Affairs of the Cook Islands, presenting the report, said the Cook Islands was a composite of 15 islands spread over two million square kilometres with a population of only 12,400 people. The Cook Islands was regarded as a leader for disability rights in the Pacific region and was the first Pacific island to present its report to the Committee. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the National Policy on Disabilities had been translated into the local Maori language. The National Policy on Disability was endorsed in 2003 and the 2008 Disability Act made discrimination against a person with a disability unlawful. The rights of persons with disabilities were included in several pieces of legislation, such as laws on ageing, gender equality, criminal acts, family and education and a mental health policy was currently being drafted.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts expressed understanding of the challenges faced by such a small nation scattered over a geographically vast area and commended it for its recognition and willingness to work on key areas. In the discussion Experts noted that many persons with disabilities were leaving the Cook Islands for New Zealand with one commenting that for every person with a disability who emigrated, their families left with them, and the Cooks Islands lost the richness and diversity of its population. Issues raised included accessibility of public buildings and sea and air transportation, measures to support children with disabilities and inclusive education, the early detection of disability, disaster risk preparedness, access to justice, and negative stereotypes of persons with disabilities in the media. The State party was praised for its work on the collection of desegregated data. Experts recommended the Cook Islands consider expanding the use of information and communication technologies to reach persons with disabilities on remote islands.

In concluding remarks, Diane Kingston, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur for the Cook Islands, said the Committee appreciated the readiness expressed by the delegation to work on areas of deficiency and fully understand the resources constraints faced. It urged the Cook Islands to take advantage of lessons learned from other countries, such as Greenland. It was important to begin with solid foundations, such as quality service provision and addressing barriers in communication, information across the board and access to sea and air transportation.

In concluding remarks Nooroa Numanga, representing the Ministry of Health and Internal Affairs, affirmed that persons with disabilities were highly valued members of the community in the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands might be a small nation with limited resources, but that would not stop it from working hard to ensure that all of its citizens enjoyed same opportunities.

The delegation of the Cook Islands included representatives of the Ministry of Health and Internal Affairs, Crown Law Office, and the Cook Islands Disability Council.

Today’s meeting concluded the Committee’s considering of country reports for this session. The Committee will publish its concluding observations and recommendations on all the countries examined during the session - Cook Islands, Croatia, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Germany, Mongolia and Turkmenistan - after 17 April 2015 on its webpage.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Wednesday 15 April in Room XVII of the Palais des Nations to hold its Day of General Discussion on the Right to Education of Persons with Disabilities.

Report

The initial report of the Cook Islands can be read here: (CRPD/C/COK/1).

Presentation of the Report

NANDI TUAINE GLASSIE, Minister of Health and Internal Affairs of the Cook Islands, said the Cook Islands was a composite of 15 islands spread over two million square kilometres with a population of only 12,400 people. Its main revenues came from tourism. More than 60,000 Cook Islanders lived in New Zealand, with which it had a relationship of free association that granted Cook Islanders automatic rights to New Zealand citizenship. This year the Cook Islands was celebrating 50 years of self-governance. It was regarded as a leader for disability rights in the Pacific region and was the first Pacific island to present its report to the Committee.

The Cook Islands ratified the Convention and its Optional Protocol in 2009 and submitted its initial report in 2011, said the Minister, briefing the Committee on the many positive developments in terms of disability rights over the last decade. He noted that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the National Policy on Disabilities had been translated into the local Maori language. The Disability Division was established within the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2000 to be the Government’s focal point on disability issues. There was also the Cook Islands National Disability Council which had committees on nine islands. The first ever national disability identification survey took place in 2001 and the National Policy on Disability was endorsed in 2003. The enactment of the Disability Act in 2008 made discrimination against a person with a disability unlawful. The rights of persons with disabilities were included in several pieces of legislation, such as laws on ageing, gender equality, criminal acts, family and education. A mental health policy was currently being drafted.

The Policy on Disability Inclusive Development 2014-2018, aligned with the Convention, the Incheon Strategy and the Pacific Regional Strategy on Disability, aimed at improving the quality of life and realize the rights of persons with disabilities by empowering them, enabling inclusion and participation in all aspects of life. The Policy’s nine priority areas were: raising awareness and advocacy on the rights of persons with disabilities; support for families, care-givers and self-help groups; education and training; cultural life, leisure and recreation; rehabilitation; early identification and intervention; livelihoods; data and research; mainstreaming disability inclusive development within the Cook Islands Government and civil society; and women and girls with disabilities. Government-provided special assistance was allocated on a case by case basis and was subject to an income and asset test, noted the Minister.

Anticipating the many challenges it would face in implementing the Policy on Disability Inclusive Development, given its limited capacity and resources, the Cook Islands had sought and received support from the Government of Australia in the implementation of the Policy. The Disability Inclusive Development Project was underway with a National Action Plan developed to guide actions. Awareness-raising and training on the Convention had been conducted on three islands of the territory for Government officials, community leaders and civil society actors, service providers, students and persons with disabilities and their families. The database framework for collecting data on persons with disabilities was currently being modified and would be uploaded on the web to make it accessible to all disability stakeholders. It was expected that the data would be desegregated by numerous factors. Persons with disabilities remained a priority for the Cook Islands. While there were objective limitations in terms of resources and capacities, the State party acknowledged that there were additional steps which could be taken within existing capacities.

Questions from Committee Experts

DIANE KINGSTON, Committee Member serving as the Country Rapporteur for the Cook Islands, expressed her satisfaction that the Convention had been translated into the Maori language and widely disseminated across the islands. The Committee was very much looking forward to the forthcoming replacement policy and action plan. Visibility campaigns were also a welcome step in making persons with intellectual disabilities feel included in society.

The routine inclusion of persons with disabilities in shaping disability policy and implementation of the Convention was critical, said the Country Rapporteur. She noted that many persons with disabilities seemed to be leaving the Cook Islands en masse which contributed to its serious depopulation issue. If people were leaving, then the incentive to improve service provision was lacking. For every person with a disability who emigrated, their families left with them, and the Cooks Islands lost the richness and diversity of its population, she commented.

How could the Government ensure effective quality services for persons with disabilities, in line with the Convention, given a very scattered nature of the Cook Islands and its tiny population size, asked an Expert. He also expressed surprise at the lack of accessible available communication and information, and, in particular, the lack of trained sign language interpreters for deaf people.

Women and girls with disabilities were not fully included and had poor outcomes in education and employment, especially in the outer islands, said an Expert. Measures to tackle the multiple forms of discrimination suffered by many women with disabilities were enquired about by an Expert. Were there safe shelters for abused women?

What were the Government’s plans to amend legislation to enable persons with disabilities to be supported in every way to make their own decision about their own lives? How could persons with disabilities use the complaint mechanisms which existed in the legislation? What steps had been taken to ensure that organizations of persons with disabilities were being systematically consulted on issues relevant to them? What was the role of Ombudsman in protecting persons with disabilities?

On the subject of accessibility, Experts said there was reportedly a lack of accessible buildings and infrastructure, especially in the capital. How did fines apply in practice when there were cases of failing to meet accessibility standards? What concrete measures were in place for making urban areas more accessible, and the accessibility of sea and air transport? Reasonable accommodation had to apply to fundamental rights, added an Expert, and its denial had to be explicitly recognized as disability based discrimination. More information was sought on the accessibility of travel between the islands. Did the State party have any plans to ensure the accessibility of telecommunications to persons with disabilities, which was particularly important at times of crises and disasters?

Early identification and intervention for children with disabilities was critical said an Expert, asking the delegation to comment. She expressed concern that corporal punishment was still legal in some settings, including at home. How could it be ensured that children with autism or a developmental disability were not subjected to corporal punishment? What was being done to ensure that those working with children with disabilities were qualified and capable of dealing with multiple challenges such work included?

An Expert expressed concern about the right of life and the survival of children with disabilities. Girls with disabilities were often victims: they were exposed to negative social views, incest, abuse and teenage pregnancy and sometimes the judicial authorities were not even informed. What measures could the State party take to tackle the issue?

How was access for persons with disabilities in the most remote parts of the Cook Islands ensured? As it would be impossible to have expertise in all towns and villages, how was the Government tackling the problem?

Regarding negative stereotypes of persons with disabilities, an Expert asked whether any steps had been taken to foster positive images of persons with disabilities and what training was provided to the judiciary and legal professionals. Public awareness-raising campaigns targeting changes in the existing traditional attitudes and the portrayal of persons with disabilities in the media were also enquired about.

Responses from the Delegation

A delegate explained that the Cook Islands included a number of islands which were very remote and spread across an immense area. Communication and travel were major challenges. Since 1974, when the international airport opened the Cook Islands to the world, many nationals had started leaving the Cook Islands for Australia and New Zealand in pursuit of better life.

All of judges in the Cook Islands were from New Zealand, and they flew to the country to preside over six sessions a year, a delegate explained. The judiciary had undergone training in respect of human rights in general within the Cook Islands.

A delegate acknowledged that the Disability Act was not fully consistent with the Convention, which was something that the Government planned to address. The Ombudsman had an important role for complaints under the Disability Act. There were presently no reported complaints to the Ombudsman. The delegation said that the awareness on the existence of that mechanism would clearly need to be raised further, even though a public campaign had been conducted.

Corporal punishment was forbidden under the Education Act, said a delegate, but there was a need to look into expanding its prohibition to the family context as well.

Regarding questions on the abuse of children with disabilities, a delegate said that there had been an improved coordinated approach by key State agencies on a wide range of related issues. Very recently, there had been a successful prosecution in a case of sexual violence against children. A non-governmental partner was providing safe house for the victims of violence.

Early identification and intervention programmes for children with disabilities involved a wide range of stakeholders, who would all help each other with the view of minimizing the increase of disability in the country.

On the question of the involvement of civil sector in the development of policies, it was said that the sector was involved when there were available resources, but there was room for progress, especially when it came to consulting people from the outer islands.

Regarding the eradication of negative stereotypes, a delegate explained that the media promoted positive models and shared positive information on persons with disabilities. There was also a programme by the Ministry of Interior Affairs on raising general awareness about persons with disabilities.

Concerning accessibility a delegate agreed that more work was needed, particularly in terms of new buildings and the building code, and sea and air transportation. A delegate emphasized the challenges the Cook Islands faced when it came to reliable sea transport to the outer islands. He said sea transport was indeed rather sporadic because its costs were very high. There was one single operator that provided shipping services and a single operator providing air transportation. It was definitely an area where improvement could be made regarding access to and for persons with disabilities.

When it came to funding, there was a joint partnership with New Zealand to provide core funds to organizations running projects on disabilities. Persons with disabilities in the outer islands were still largely under the responsibility of their families for the regular provision of food and care. There was an ongoing request to donors to provide some funding to address those needs.

Questions from Committee Experts

How did the authorities ensure that persons with disabilities were included the national action plan for disaster and risk management? Was the State party planning to change the existing definition of disability, and, if so, what was the expected timeframe?

How were independent living schemes being set up? Could the delegation elaborate on the ideas on how to give to persons with disabilities a possibility to remain and live on their islands? Were social security allowances given to persons with disabilities or to their families? What obstacles would persons with disabilities who wished to come and visit the Cook Islands face, asked an Expert.

Had the State party explored possibilities in the field of accessible information and communication technologies to make it possible for persons with disabilities to remain with their extended families and obtain other kinds of services? The Cook Islands, having English as its official language, could use the existing systems from Australia or New Zealand and the English sign language. An Expert also asked whether the State party had any plans to apply the ITC facilities to comprehensive disaster risk reduction.
More information was sought about provision of sign language interpretation in health centres.

What was the State party doing to mainstream disability into anti gender violence programmes? Could more information be provided on forced sterilization and abortion? Was the Cook Islands planning to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, asked an Expert. Did the Government plan to change the approach towards deprivation of liberty of individuals with psychosocial disabilities, another Expert asked.

Responses from the Delegation

The Cook Islands had a National Plan for disaster risk management and preparedness, which in particular addressed the needs of vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and persons with disabilities. The plan had been prepared in cooperation with the National Disability Council. The locations of persons with disabilities would be identified, which would help with their protection or evacuation in case of a disaster.

Responding to the question on sign and Brail languages, a delegate said the Cook Islands recognized their importance, even though there were only a few deaf and blind persons in the country. The Cook Islands would explore the possibility of bringing in external trainers and resources to conduct necessary education. At the moment, such services were non-existent.

The definition of disability in the legislation needed to be corrected. Working groups were to be established to coordinate reform activities with inclusion of persons with disabilities.

Currently personal assistance services did not exist in the country, a delegate said, so the responsibility to care for persons with disabilities lay with their families. Caregivers were paid allowances to help them care for persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities were also paid an allowance. The Government was aware that services provided to such persons needed to expand in order to limit their emigration to New Zealand or Australia.

Regarding victims of violence, the delegation explained that a twin-track approach was in place, and the problem was dealt with through mainstream channels, but also the division on persons with disabilities. The Family Law bill was a comprehensive piece of legislation which addressed domestic violence of all kinds. That law directly covered persons with disabilities within the family context.

Abortion was currently illegal, even in cases of rape. The Cook Islands was nonetheless aware of the merits of exceptions being made in such cases, said a delegate. On forced sterilization and forced abortion a delegate said the Crime Act had undergone a final stage of its review process in which many of its outdated provisions had been modified. Consent was necessary for any medical intervention, including sterilization.

Access to justice was provided to persons with a mental impairment and courts had the power to appoint a legal officer to represent a person with a mental impairment.

The Cook Islands had their own prison services, the delegation explained. Retired judges from New Zealand could preside and sit as judges in the Cook Islands and Cook Islands judges could also be appointed, but there were none at the moment. Ongoing training on human rights was provided to judges, local justices of the peace and the staff of the Ministry of Justice. Other forms of training, including on tackling domestic violence, was provided across the Pacific island region.

Depopulation of the Cook Islands was a serious and ongoing issue, a delegate said. Some specialized services were simply not available in the country at this stage, so people were leaving to avail themselves of such services elsewhere. The authorities were continuously working to get such services in place in the Cook Islands.

There were programmes for distance learning and specific and inclusive learning, which used information and communication technologies. The cost of mobile and internet services in the Cook Islands were among the highest in the Pacific because there was a monopoly in telecommunications. In the outer islands, English was not always the first language and information and communications technology services were not always so easily implemented in Maori. Some islands had a population of less than 200 people, added a delegate.

Follow-Up Questions from Committee Experts

In a series of follow-up questions Experts asked about accessible tourism in the Cook Islands, rehabilitation services and the lack of mental health services, particularly for children and adults. It was also important to provide sexual and reproductive health services to the youth, especially youth with disabilities, said an Expert.

With regard to Brail, another Expert asked whether there was a specific timeframe in place to ratify the Marrakech Treaty as to facilitate the access to published works to those who were blind or visually impaired. Were library books available in an easy-to-read format?

Inclusive education was raised by an Expert, who asked whether segregated education was considered a form of discrimination. How were teachers educated to deal with children with disabilities attending mainstream schools and how were the Cook Islands making its classrooms accessible.?

An Expert asked if persons with psychosocial disabilities were able to vote on an equal basis with other citizens. It seemed to be quite difficult for persons with disabilities to transition from education into an open labour market. How were persons with disabilities supported in the process of finding employment?

Only six weeks of maternity leave was provided which particularly affected women who had children with disabilities. More information was sought about court cases of persons with psychosocial disabilities. The delegation was also asked about the census questionnaire and the collection of desegregated data.

Responses from the Delegation

An independent body had not been designated yet to monitor the implementation of the Convention. Persons with disabilities and the National Council would naturally be involved in the creation of that body. Such a mechanism would be in place before the end of 2016, confirmed a delegate.

Responding to questions on inclusive education a delegate said the quality and distribution of services and resources to the islands was covered under the Ministry of Education, a delegate stated. Air services delivered material resources to the southern group of islands. Segregation was indeed perceived as a form of discrimination. The delegation emphasized that the official policy was that of inclusiveness.

Answering questions on healthcare for persons with disabilities a delegate said there was a draft mental health policy in place. Nurses visited schools on certain days, in order to provide mental health services to children. The Cook Islands had a sexual and reproductive health strategy in place, through which addressed, inter alia, women and girls with disabilities. On the employment of therapists, he said an approach of community-based rehabilitation was being introduced which would not be restricted to medical means but would expand across the community at large.

On the right to vote of persons with disabilities a delegate said there was currently no intention to amend the Electoral Act in terms of provisions of secrecy for persons with intellectual or psychosocial impairments. The returning officer normally accompanied the disabled person to the booth for the casting of the vote.

In terms of social assistance the Committee was informed that caregivers received a monthly allowance of 165 New Zealand dollars, the same amount given to persons with disabilities. Wheelchairs had to be procured from New Zealand. Funds were provided for the provision of the facilities for accessible toilets and ramps in residential homes.

The delegation explained that teachers were trained by the inclusive education advisor, who went through schools and conducted individual trainings there. The assistance that the Government provided to teachers and children with disabilities in the classroom was through teaching aides, paid by the Ministry of Education.

The Cook Islands had not been aware of the Marrakech Treaty, but would certainly follow up on it and look into signing it and taking advantage of its provisions. With regard to the libraries in the Cook Islands, a delegate responded that people with a physical impairment could access books, but persons who were visually impaired were still not catered for. That was an issue that the delegation would follow up on with the two main public libraries and school libraries in the Cook Islands.

The Disability Inclusive Development Policy was a five-year policy, in place until 2019. In terms of its monitoring, a delegate explained that the policy was a general guideline for all initiatives and programmes for persons with disabilities across the islands. Organizations for persons with disabilities would be involved in its implementation. The database was linked to the National Statistics Office, which defined the census questionnaire. The National Disability Council would work with that office to prepare an appropriate questionnaire for the 2016 national census.

Concerning access to justice, a delegate explained that the courts usually made the necessary arrangements to ensure that persons with psychosocial disabilities were treated fairly in the legal process. Courts would appoint a legal representative for those persons if they did not have one. Assistance was not only afforded to victims, but also to those charged with a criminal offence.

On the right to education, a delegate said the e-learning process enabled students residing in remote northern islands to tune in to live learning sessions in classrooms. That had helped the Ministry of Education efforts to ensure that education was provided to all. Provisions were also made for students from outer islands taking advanced classes in subjects such as accounting.

The delegation confirmed that the paid maternity leave in the Cook Islands was six weeks. The Public Service Commission had finalized a draft on all public servants, which added other types of leave for women who wanted to take longer maternity leave. External family members provided the most assistance to mothers who left outer islands to come and work in Rarotonga.

The Employment Relations Act of 2012 provided that persons with disabilities could not be discriminated on grounds of employment and awareness-raising was ongoing in that regard.

The delegation acknowledged a recommendation from the Committee regarding cooperation with New Zealand, especially when it came to the Braille language. More could certainly be done in bilateral relations and that in other regards, including diplomatic representations around the world.

Concluding Remarks

NOOROA NUMANGA, Ministry of Health and Internal Affairs, affirmed that persons with disabilities were highly valued members of the community in the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands might be a small nation with limited resources, but that would not stop it from working hard to ensure that all of its citizens enjoyed same opportunities. The Cook Islands valued the engagement of persons with disabilities with the National Disability Council and civil society. The Government had a close partnership with the Council which had done great work to improve and promote the rights of persons with disabilities. On its fiftieth anniversary the Cook Islands would continue its journey as one people, he concluded.

DIANE KINGSTON, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur for the Cook Islands, thanked the delegation for what had truly been a constructive dialogue, thanking it for being very proactive and demonstrating a candid and can-do approach. The Committee appreciated the readiness expressed to work on areas of deficiency and fully understand the resources constraints faced by the Cook Islands. It urged the Cook Islands to take advantage of lessons learned from other countries, such as Greenland. The Country Rapporteur said it was important to begin with solid foundations, such as quality service provision and addressing barriers in communication, information across the board and access to sea and air transportation. She noted that the delegation could provide answers to any outstanding questions within 24 hours which would enable the Committee’s recommendations to be as comprehensive as possible.

MARIA SOLEDAD CISTERNAS REYES, Chairperson of the Committee expressed her appreciation for the candid dialogue and expected that the State party would respond well to the Committee’s concluding recommendations.

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