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Statement by Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities at the Side event in the context of the 28th session of the Human Rights Council "Building climate resilience: the rights of groups in focus"

18 March 2015 | 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. | Room XXVII | Palais des Nations


Excellencies, fellow panellists, ladies and gentlemen: good afternoon. I am very happy to be here today and bring the perspective of persons with disabilities to the discussions on such an important topic as climate change and resilience and its impact on the population which I represent.

(As we have heard by those who have spoken before me,) Climate change is having the largest impact on the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Within this group, the World Report on Disability estimates that at least 20% of the poorest people worldwide are persons with disabilities, and that 82% of persons with disabilities in developing countries live below the poverty line.

Persons with disabilities are often more disadvantaged than their peers without disabilities, due to socio-economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, lack of education and negative social perceptions related to disability, or doubly discriminating personal characteristics such as disability in combination with gender, age, displacement, indigenous origin or minority status, just to name a few.

While some attention has been given to the impact of climate change on the world's most vulnerable groups of people, there is little literature that discusses the vulnerability of persons with disabilities within these groups. Few existing climate related efforts identify persons with disabilities as requiring particular inclusion measures in adapting to their changing environment.

This reflects the invisibility that persons with disabilities have traditionally experienced in many contexts of global dialogue and policy development. Luckily, we are seeing a shift towards the positive: for instance in the current negotiations of a strategy on disaster reduction beyond 2015 in Sendai, Japan, efforts were made to make the Conference accessible to persons with disabilities and we are hopeful to see a positive outcome now at the end of the Conference related to ensuring disability-inclusive approach to disaster risk reduction.

How does climate change affect persons with disabilities?

It is anticipated that climate change will cause increasing hardship and deterioration of conditions for life for persons with disabilities. For them and their families just like for everyone else, climate change and the consequential changing environments is about increasing challenges related to basic necessities for survival such as food, water, shelter and security. It is about their right to access health, education and livelihood opportunities.

Persons with disabilities face a broad range of barriers in the way that disaster responses are currently designed and implemented. Emergency responses are neither accessible nor inclusive, and they do not take into account the specific needs of persons with disabilities. In a majority of cases, there is no practice in place to inform persons with disabilities of a potential emergency risk – for instance, notifications about an emerging disaster are not accessible to deaf people –, nor have special evacuation measures been established for those who have impairments related to mobility or orientation, such as persons who are blind. Further, the measures undertaken in societies to adapt to constant changes brought by climate change do not either take into account the needs of persons with disabilities in terms of accessing to basic services or participating actively in societal life.

Among the key issues that have been identified as impacting on the quality of life and well-being of persons with disabilities as a result of climate change include: decreasing food security and resulting malnutrition; decreasing access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); increasing emergencies due to extreme weather events; reducing access to infrastructure, shelter and basic services; increasing displacement and/or migration or situations in which necessary migration is not possible due to disability; increasing human security and protection issues, including due to conflicts resulting from climate change, and reduced accessibility and participation.

What does the CRPD say?

The CRPD includes provisions that are key for the building of climate resilience.

As the highest agreed international standard on disability, the CRPD covers the full range of human rights and should be the guiding framework for all actions related to persons with disabilities, including when building inclusive climate change responses and resilience and all the elements of life at stake when a disaster occurs. The Convention lays out a set of general principles which set a course of action from a human rights based approach. In the context of climate resilience, I believe that the most important ones are non-discrimination; full and effective participation and inclusion in society – also in a changing society –; equality of opportunity; accessibility; and equality between men and women.

More specifically, article 11 of the Convention on situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies creates an obligation on States parties to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including in the occurrence of natural disasters. This provision is key to making sure that the process of developing programmes and policies related to climate change, and the entire cycle from prevention and planning to response, are inclusive and fully consider the rights of persons with disabilities. Article 11 of the CRPD is an entry point to humanitarian responses based on human rights norms and principles, and should be promoted as a unifying benchmark across the areas of human rights, humanitarian efforts and development.

The CRPD further establishes the general obligation on States parties to closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities in all decision-making concerning their lives, including climate change, and opens hence the door for societal participation and inclusion.

Finally, I believe it is important to remember that the CRPD perceives disability as a result of the interaction between persons with impairments and the various physical, social and cultural barriers that they face in their societies. When no or few barriers exist, the interaction is positive and leads to a high level of participation. However, as is the case of most societies today, the barriers to participation are many. The challenge of changing environments, as those brought about by climate change, can be overcome by planning for accessible solutions from the start. If not, persons with disabilities will end up in a cycle of exclusion as one inaccessible societal model is replaced by another.

How can we build inclusive resilience and response?

In order to move away from exclusion and high risk of vulnerability of persons with disabilities in a changing environment, we need multi-layered and multi-sectoral responses to address all the risks, concerns, and needs that persons with disabilities and other population groups may face and identify. While I will not attempt to lay out a full picture of how to do this, I would like to conclude with a few key considerations:

First, achieving a high standard of protection and resilience is only possible if we adopt an inclusive and participatory approach. Persons with disabilities need to be included in resilience initiatives and policy planning, at the centre of seeking to create awareness, understanding and solutions to climate change. The inclusion of persons with disabilities in policy formulation and consultation processes is key to developing and implementing appropriate solutions to the problems that they face. Consultation and participation through all phases of crises is essential, being mindful to the fact that the needs of different people with different kinds of impairments may vary considerably from each other and all voices need to be taken into account. We should also make sure that persons with disabilities are able to apply their skills and capacities to benefit themselves, their families and their communities, to ensure that their strengths and vulnerabilities are represented in all key international, national and local forums, strategies and research on climate change and resilience.

Second, accessible and inclusive environments are more likely to be resilient in the face of disaster. It is essential that universal and durable accessibility standards are applied in the planning phases and reconstruction efforts following severe weather and other emergencies. This is important for all public buildings and spaces, water and sanitation points and for the homes where persons with disabilities live, be they temporary or permanent solutions. It is also important to secure accessibility of information and communication, including accessible information and communication technologies (ICTs), as these may play a crucial role both in informing about potential crisis and acting as a catalyst for participatory approaches.

Third, we need to work from a rights-based approach ensuring, for persons with disabilities and other potentially vulnerable population groups, equal access to health and education, the inclusion of persons with disabilities and their families into mainstream livelihood, food production, water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) and energy programmes in both rural and urban areas, as an essential step in building resilient societies. The better we have established a holistic rights protection framework, the more resilient will we be when faced with crisis.

Thank you.