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RIGHTS: Disabled Treaty to Reverse Years of Neglect

Juliana Lara Resende and Alberto Cremonesi

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 29 2006 (IPS) - After five years of debate on a draft treaty to protect the rights of the disabled, which will directly affect 650 million people, or 10 percent of the global population, the United Nations has finalised its first ever legally binding treaty on the issue.

The new treaty, unveiled last Friday, would require countries to guarantee freedom from exploitation and abuse for the disabled, while protecting rights they already have, such as ensuring voting rights for blind people and providing wheelchair-accessible buildings. The convention calls for the “progressive realisation” of most of its provisions, in line with the resources of individual countries.

“This convention will call the attention inside each country to a problem of many, many years of invisibility,” the president of the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination in Mexico, Gilberto Rincón, told IPS.

UNICEF estimates that 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not go to school. Mortality for children with disabilities may be as high as 80 percent in countries where average under-five mortality has fallen to below 20 percent, according to Britain’s Department for International Development, which says that in some cases it appears that disabled children are being “weeded out”.

Only about 45 countries currently have legislation dealing with the rights of persons with disabilities.

A 1998 United Nations Development Programme study showed that the global literacy rate for men with disabilities is just three percent, and among women it is even lower – no more than one percent. In some countries, unemployment reaches 80 percent for the disabled.

As the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Convention, New Zealand Ambassador Don MacKay, warned, although some argue that the rights of disabled persons are already guaranteed in other existing human rights agreements, “The reality is that persons with disabilities are often deprived of those rights.”

“The aim of the convention is to generate a shift in the way governments think about disabled people,” he told IPS. “It focuses on including persons with disabilities in the activities of society and, above all, on the removal of existing stereotypes.”

While the convention does not create new rights, it specifically prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in all areas of life. It covers a number of key areas such as accessibility, personal mobility, health, education, employment, participation in political life and equality.

“Take the situation of disabled people under occupation or armed conflicts,” Hiba Hagrass of the Arab Organisation for the Disabled told IPS. “They suffer far greater dangers and they are in need of more attention and care, especially during circumstances of evacuation and moving. Many disabled persons are left in their villages when all others evacuate, or the equipment they need is left behind.”

Indeed, although the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should theoretically protect everybody, they frequently do not. Certain groups of people, such as women, children and refugees, often fall between the cracks.

“The problem has been so far that we are not just more vulnerable,” explained Maria Veronica Reina, coordinator of 70 organisations in the International Disability Caucus. “The problem is that we are completely neglected in situations of risk.”

According to U.N. figures, while violence against children with disabilities occurs at annual rates at least 1.7 times greater than for their non-disabled peers, they are less likely to obtain police intervention, legal protection or preventive care.

Delegates said that many of the articles in the draft text remained controversial up to the very last minute.

For example Article 23, which bars discrimination in marriage, family and personal relations, provoked heated debate. It addresses the right of accessibility to sexual and reproductive health and family planning.

“It comes as no surprise to me that one of the most polemic articles that have been discussed in the context of the convention regards their sexual and reproductive lives,” Simone Lima, a professor of psychology at the University of Brasilia, told IPS.

“The infantilisation of persons with disabilities, the equation of sexuality to normal development, and long-standing ideas of biological determinism and consequently, the ideals of eugenics still at large, albeit in disguised forms, all add up to an orientation towards the denial of reproductive and sexual rights for this part of the population,” she said.

A recent study by Rehabilitation International found that violence against disabled women may be more chronic and severe, and takes some unique forms, such as withholding of essential care, information and medication.

“The more susceptible a person is to abuse, the more he or she should be protected with information and resources from abuse, not shielded from reality,” Lima said.

According to a 2004 survey in Orissa, India, 25 percent of women whose mental development was different in some way had been raped and six percent of women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilised.

The convention will be formally sent to the U.N. General Assembly for adoption at its next session, which begins in September. It will then be open for signing and ratification by all countries.

Ratification is a complex process in which many government institutions may participate – from parliaments and ministries to special committees and cabinets – and seminars or public hearings may be held.

The United States has already signaled it will not ratify the convention, arguing that it already has specific legislation on the matter, according to a BBC news report published on Friday.

“But let’s not think that only because it’s [included] in legislation, it is a solved matter. We have still to make changes in the way of thinking, and that’s what takes longer,” Rincón noted.

In Brazil, for example, a parliamentary candidate, Rafael Silva, who is visually impaired, was reportedly removed from the ballot because he was wearing sunglasses in the picture to be used for voting.

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