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UN leads the way on disability rights

24 September 2012

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) codifies a paradigm shift in the way that we view persons with disabilities – from an approach based on charity or welfare to one that is firmly rooted in human rights. The Convention, which was adopted in 2006 and entered into force in 2008, has to date 119 parties.

The fifth Conference of States parties to the Convention was held from 12 to 14 September at the UN headquarters in New York. In addition to electing nine new members to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that monitors the implementation of the Convention, the Conference discussed various thematic issues relating to the rights of persons with disabilities. They included access to justice, involuntary sterilization, political participation, and the right to earn a living.

Because persons with disabilities are adversely affected in all spheres of life, participants agreed, CRPD implementation requires not only proactive measures by States parties, but also public and private initiatives. Among others, businesses can ensure economic independence through equitable employment and they can engage in activities that provide greater accessibility.

“While creating an enabling legislative environment is obviously essential if we are to succeed in seeing persons with disabilities take up their rightful place, by itself it is still insufficient,” said Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, the Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations. “It must be complemented with policies that fan an ever-expanding awareness throughout [countries], as well as capacity building for those implementing the relevant policies.”

Craig Mokhiber, Chief of Development and Economic and Social Issues Branch at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded that persons with disabilities, although protected under other human rights treaties, “have often been rendered ‘invisible’ in their societies – excluded from the life of their communities, hidden behind a curtain of stigma or shame, locked out by physical obstruction, and disregarded by decision-makers.” The adoption of the CRPD was a reaction against this invisibility and neglect – and the violation of rights that they represent. He pointed to the persistent violence and discrimination experienced by women and girls, older persons, and children with disabilities as a “result of multiple factors, including ignorance and entrenched cultural norms, which in turn can lead to stigma, social exclusion and, ultimately, poverty.” In turn, these persons are denied “the opportunity to participate in their societies and to enjoy their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights on an equal basis with others.”

He further recalled that during the negotiations of the CRPD, organizations of persons with disabilities adopted the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ to reinforce their legitimate call to contribute to the drafting of the new human rights treaty. That slogan should now, he underlined, continue to guide us in implementing the Convention. Indeed, the Convention requires as a matter of law that States involve and consult with persons with disabilities and their representative organizations in the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the Convention, and more generally in all decision-making processes affecting their lives.

The International Disability Alliance (IDA) spoke of its current “most important advocacy objective, which is to include persons with disabilities in the post-Millennium Development Goals process. IDA mentioned how not referring to persons with disabilities in the Millennium Declaration had “led to their invisibility and large exclusion from the MDGs.”

“One often loses sight of what should be self-evident. This also applies to progress in areas, which we consider normal today and which still seemed doubtful thirty years ago,” said Richard Fischels of the German Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. As an example of such an achievement he mentioned that more and more children with disabilities are today living with their families instead of in institutions.

Notwithstanding positive developments, much remains to be done to make sure that persons with disabilities enjoy their human rights on an equal basis with others. No doubt, collaboration between States parties, civil society and the United Nations continues to play a key role in efforts to this end.

24 September 2012