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Annual Debate on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

40th Session of the Human Rights Council

Opening Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights  Michelle Bachelet

6 March 2019 

Mr. President,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and Friends,

It is 10 years to the day since this annual debate first took place, and before opening this discussion I'd like to take a moment to celebrate some of the positive changes we've seen over this period.

A decade ago, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had just come into force, with 50 States Parties. Today, that number has risen to 177, and the Convention has become the bedrock for recognition and implementation of the rights of persons with disabilities.

A decade ago, the Millennium Development Goals made no reference to persons with disabilities. Today, the Sustainable Development Goals contain explicit pledges to persons with disabilities, in addition to their core promise that no one will be left behind.

Alongside this progress, we have seen many important contributions from the Human Rights Council, including guidance on inclusive humanitarian action, and resolutions highlighting the key role of justice systems, international cooperation and national monitoring mechanisms in upholding the rights of persons with disabilities.

Reports by my Office and corresponding Council resolutions have become important tools to reinforce the human rights-based approach regarding the rights of persons with disabilities.

And of course, this annual debate itself continues to play a very significant role, enabling human rights practitioners and experts, including persons with disabilities, to come together and discuss how to drive change. 

Mr. President,

The focus of today's debate is on habilitation and rehabilitation – on services and measures which assist children and adults with disabilities to gain, or to regain, functions and important skills for everyday life: to go to school, work and participate in the community.

Habilitation and rehabilitation first emerged in a context in which action and policies related to persons with disabilities were primarily focused on "curing" or "fixing" people's impairments, as a precondition for their participation in society. These approaches and practices failed to view people with disabilities as full rights-holders – and in effect, perpetuated their exclusion.

It is essential that we avoid such errors, and that we adopt and ground all our action, including for habilitation and rehabilitation, in a human rights based approach.  Services should be based on free and informed consent; non-discrimination; ensuring affordability and accessibility. They should be community-based and individually tailored. And for children, an early start is essential.

In addition, we need to guard against using the terms rehabilitation and habilitation for any and all services associated with persons with disabilities. For example, while the obligation to ensure rehabilitation services and related measures is important to equip people for employment, education and a host of social contexts, all such measures do not amount to rehabilitation.  FUrther, to enter the labour market, people with disabilities will benefit from an inclusive education, vocational guidance and placement programmes. These should not be understood as rehabilitation services.   

Mr President,

Serious gaps in habilitation and rehabilitation persist in many countries. There is a pressing need for a range of actions by States, including to ensure that people with disabilities can access support from peer groups; that professionals have appropriate training; that rural residents can access services; and that assistive products are available, affordable and of good quality.  

Strengthened legal and policy frameworks should also be accompanied by measures to ensure full coordination between the different sectors delivering services; a fully-trained workforce; adequate funds; reliable research and disaggregated data; and awareness-raising with a  human rights-based approach.

Our recommendations are set out in a detailed study, which has been prepared for this Council session, as A/HRC/40/32.

Excellencies, Colleagues,

Many Council Member States and civil society groups have played a leading role in advancing the rights of persons with disabilities, including by forging this interactive debate. I urge all of you here today to take part in transforming your countries and communities, so that we can truly say that, when it comes to people with disabilities, no one is left behind.  

I wish you a productive debate. Thank you.