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Opening remarks by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities at the fourteenth conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

New York, 15 June 2021

Distinguished delegates and participants,

I wish to thank the Bureau for the invitation to participate in the opening of the [14th session of the] Conference of States Parties [to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities].

Colleagues: let us be frank – ‘Building back better’ implies that what was built in the past was not fit for purpose. 

Baked into structures, services and indeed laws and policies - was exclusion and segregation. We thought we had banned ‘separate but equal’ in race - only to see that pernicious doctrine live on in the field of disability. 

COVID-19 – or more accurately, the initial policy reactions to the disease – revealed deep-seated and structural inequalities.

If we have learned anything, it is that ‘building back better’ must mean confronting segregation, exclusion and invisibility. 

Of a special importance will be to ensure that the massive amounts of public monies that are now being dedicated to recovery are not used to refurbish old policy solutions that effectively segregated persons with disabilities. For example, not one dime should go to institutionalisation.

Tragic mistakes were made last year. I cannot help but think that if the obligation of active consultation were taken more seriously, then many of these mistakes could have been avoided. ‘Building back better’ cannot be done without consulting the architects of change – persons with disabilities themselves. Otherwise, the house we build will be structurally flawed.

This year, I especially welcome the intention to focus on the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in armed conflicts. 

Let me suggest that we need to open up the continuum from the conduct of armed conflicts, to humanitarian assistance, to reconciliation and, crucially, to peacebuilding processes. ‘Building back better’ after conflicts must mean honouring the role of persons with disabilities in peace-keeping and creating much more intentional space for it in the future. 

We all have a stake in making sure the historic Resolution of the UN Security Council two years ago on armed conflicts and disability - which similarly adopts a broad framing - is fully operationalised. Coincidentally, my first thematic report will be on this topic.

I also especially welcome the focus of sub-theme 2, “living independently and being included in the community”. ‘Building back better’ has to mean directly confronting the culture of segregation. And the worst form of segregation is institutionalisation. 

Interesting and innovative things are beginning to happen here. Among them are the move toward devolved budgets placed in the hands of the person, the move toward genuinely personalised services, and the migration toward platform-based services. I am delighted to see one side event this year focus exactly on the promise (and risks) of platform-based services. Artificial Intelligence can help drive these innovations – but we have to be mindful of the risks also.

By the way, this re-imagining of services in the future is also key to the evolution of non-coercion based mental health policies. It probably even calls for a whole new vocabulary to replace that of services.

I look forward to your deliberations and, as always, look forward to the rich debates that typically characterise the main sessions of the Conference of States Parties [to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities]. 

As always, we can expect many creative ideas from the diversity of side-panels that always sparkle and motivate us all to make ‘build back better’ much more than a slogan.

I thank you.