Header image for news printout

Launch of 'Disability and Armed Conflict,' a report by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
7 May 2019

Professor Sassoli,
[Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas (or: my dear Catalina Devandas)]
Colleagues and friends,

I am very glad to be with you today at the presentation of the Geneva Academy’s research project on a vital, and unfortunately, very timely issue –‘Disability and Armed Conflict.’

I thank the Geneva Academy, and particularly Alice Priddy and Andrew Clapham, for the invitation.

I also want to acknowledge Giles Duley's work, which reminds us of the human beings, whose lives and concerns need to be at the core of everything we do. Art is a great way to tell the human rights stories of persons with disabilities without stigmatising them. It can also promote greater understanding and a shared vision of the way forward. I welcome the efforts of the artistic community to better portray persons with disabilities as people who face, specific challenges, and achieve equal accomplishments, when there is proper support.


A much more focused consideration of the needs of persons with disabilities in the context of armed conflict is long overdue. Some conflicts are lasting longer – the war in Syria, for example, has gone on for longer than World War II.
Conflicts are now more likely to be civil wars, and frequently fought in civilian settings. We are seeing massive violations of international humanitarian law, including the use of starvation as a weapon of war, with blockades of essential humanitarian assistance. These and other issues place persons with disabilities at vastly heightened risk. 

In conflict situations, children with disabilities face specific exclusion: they are left behind, institutionalised and exposed to violence. Women with disabilities also experience higher rates of violence, and are more exposed to sexual violence than other women. 

One of the first attempts to focus on the issue from a human rights point of view was the 2015 thematic study of the UN Human Rights Office on persons with disabilities in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies was
Last December, in an informal meeting, the UN Security Council considered for the first time the specific situation of persons with disabilities, and in the coming days, the United Nations system will adopt the UN's first Disability Inclusive Strategy.

These developments call for greater action and stronger coordination, to increase the scope and impact of work by States, UN entities, humanitarians and civil society to protect and uphold the rights of persons with disabilities.


Practical guidance and pragmatic action need to be firmly rooted in international law. We need to do more – and we also need to do it right. 

The Geneva Academy’s report invites us to reflect on the innovative aspects of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and its impact on the understanding of international humanitarian law. 

We are also approaching the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, which established that every State and actor in the world must seek to protect all civilians from the worst effects of war. 

My Office is fully engaged in these topics and stands ready to assist any relevant discussion. 

[I particularly welcome the creation of the Group of Friends to the Charter on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, which is strongly rooted on the Disability Convention.]

I urge all actors to put pressure on the parties to every conflict to comply with their legal obligations to protect civilians, including persons with disabilities. 

To our friends from organizations of persons with disabilities: your concerns are our priority. I look forward to partnering with you to empower persons with disabilities, and to meet the world's promises of leaving no one behind, and reaching the furthest behind first – in conflict situations as in all other circumstances.

I take this opportunity to thank the assembled diplomats for the work they have undertaken in the Human Rights Council, the World Humanitarian Summit and the Security Council. I invite you to increase our collaboration in the future, to bridge the gap between international legal commitments and the reality experienced by persons with disabilities before, during and in the aftermath of conflict.

This must be a priority for all of us. We cannot abandon people to the terrible experiences currently endured in conflict situations by so many women, men and children with disabilities. I very much hope this event will be a stepping stone to a stronger and more focused and principled effort to realise their rights.

Thank you for coming, thank you for sharing our concerns, and I hope you enjoy the exhibition.