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RIGHTS: First-Ever Treaty for People with Disabilities Gains Ground

Simon Schneller

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 10 2006 (IPS) - After a three-week marathon session, a United Nations committee has expressed confidence in finalising a new international treaty to protect the disabled by the end of the year.

“I think we can now conclude that our work on the articles is extremely well advanced, and that we are ready to enter the final stages of our work,” Ambassador Don MacKay of New Zealand, the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee overseeing the convention, told the closing session last week.

The draft is the basis for the first-ever treaty outlining the rights of the disabled. It now contains more than 40 articles, which were discussed and analysed by some 400 delegates and disability advocates who attended the seventh session of the Ad Hoc Committee.

Key issues covered by the treaty are equality and non-discrimination, raising awareness regarding disability, accessibility, right to life, equal recognition before the law, access to justice, liberty and security of the person, liberty of movement, personal mobility, living independently and being included in the community.

The U.N. estimates that 600 million people worldwide – about one-tenth of the world’s population – currently live with some form of disability, ranging from blindness and deafness, to immobility and various mental disabilities.

While disabled persons represent around 10 percent of the global populace, their rights have been largely disregarded in the international arena, disability advocacy organisations and other NGOs say.

Sticking points in the draft text that remain open include what type of technical and economic assistance governments should provide, how implementation of the treaty will be monitored, and whether there should be separate articles on women and children with disabilities.

But some representatives of the 22 non-governmental organisations taking part in the meeting have expressed doubts about rushing the process forward. “For me, it’s not important how quick it goes. For me, it’s the quality of the words because they should last for more than a hundred years,” Kicki Nordström, who represented the World Blind Union, told IPS.

“We have waited for this for more than 20 years now, so we don’t need the process to get quick through now,” she said.

Most experts think that the draft will not be ready until January 2007, which would require at least another session.

“We know that many disabled people are waiting for this convention, we know that it needs to be done, but we want to have a ‘quality’, not a ‘quantity’ convention,” Lex Grandia of the International Disability Caucus, which represented 71 disability organisations at the meeting, said at the final press conference.

The committee’s agreement on privacy rights is regarded as a real breakthrough. It would obligate signatories to protect the privacy of persons with disabilities, including information on their health, and prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home, correspondence and communications.

Still, there is discontent over the issue of legal capacity, which included assisted decision-making or substitute decision-making. In the past, key decisions for disabled persons were often taken by someone else.

“I grew up in an institution and I didn’t know what privacy was. There were always people looking at you, making decisions for you and we want to make clear to the delegates, don’t do that anymore, don’t put people in institutions who are able to live their own life,” Grandia said.

He stressed that a person with disabilities should have the right to own property, have a bank account, secure a bank loan, have their own family and be able to marry, get an education and job, and have the right to live where he or she chooses.

“Ninety-six percent of children with disabilities worldwide did not attend school at all,” he said.

According to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), one child in 10 is born with a physical, mental, sensory, intellectual or physiological disability stemming from preventable or congenital diseases, malnutrition, or accidents and injuries, many caused by armed conflict and land mines.

“Theoretically, a lot of what we are dealing with is not required because of course persons with disabilities – just like everyone else – have the same human rights and entitlements through the existing human rights conventions,” MacKay said. “But the reality is that they have not been enjoying the benefits of these rights. This convention is designed to ensure that they do.”

The convention will be the basis for negotiations in the General Assembly, which must adopt the convention before it can be ratified by U.N. member states and then finally come into effect. The conventions of the General Assembly are not binding on member states.

Although NGOs cannot take part in the debate, they can share proposals with the delegates. This time around, civil society – particularly from developing countries – was much more involved in the decision-making process, participants said.

“If you come to the room and see what is going on there, this is not a situation where delegates are sitting down reading prepared statements to each other,” MacKay said. “It was a genuine exchange of views and there is a real buzz to the meeting.”

Grandia pointed out that the negotiations have had “a lot of side effects at the regional and local level”.

For example, until recently in the Arab world, disability “was a kind of a taboo”, he said. Today, there is an Arab Disability Council and an Arab Disability Women’s Forum.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, also notes that the gap between developed and developing countries remains a major problem, as the lack of money “blocks poor countries from providing equal treatment to their citizens with disabilities”.

“International cooperation must play a role in ensuring that progress is made everywhere,” she said.

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