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RIGHTS: Disability Treaty Waits for Legal Teeth

Alexandra Stahl

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 21 2007 (IPS) - Disabled rights groups and U.N. officials hope that the first core human rights treaty of the 21st century, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, could finally assume legal force when world leaders gather here for the 62nd session of the General Assembly next week.

With 10 percent of the global population living with disabilities, the convention applies to the world’s largest minority – about 650 million people.

And this number is constantly increasing through population growth, medical advances and the aging process, says the World Health Organisation (WHO), which makes bringing the convention into force even more important.

This will require at least 20 signatory countries to present the convention to their national legislatures for adoption, often a lengthy and complex process. Only six countries have ratified it so far – Croatia, Cuba, Hungary, Jamaica, Panama and Namibia.

“The U.N. Treaty Event [to encourage further signatures and ratification on Sep. 25] is a great opportunity for countries to express their commitment to the convention and the persons with disabilities. It’s a convention whose time has come and I expect a great deal of support for it,” Thomas Schindlmayr, U.N. disability expert at the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, told IPS.

So far 102 countries have signed the text that clarifies how all categories of human rights specifically apply to the disabled and identifies areas where protection of these rights must be reinforced.


Fifty-nine states have also signed the Optional Protocol, which allows individuals to petition the new 18-member Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding violations of the convention once all domestic forms of recourse have been exhausted. It requires 10 ratifications to enter into force.

“Members of the disability community played a significant role in drafting this convention,” noted Shantha Rau of Rehabilitation International (RI), a global disability network that worked closely with other disabled people’s organisations and NGOs in providing input on the convention text.

This could set a new standard for the cooperation among governments, the U.N. and civil society in furthering such processes, she told IPS.

“It was an unprecedented negotiation process, as never before had so many NGOs been able to participate and give their comments and opinions,” agreed Vittoria Beria of the U.N. Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Jorge Ballestero, vice chair of the Ad Hoc Committee that spent four years drafting the convention before it was adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 13, 2006, said the treaty has helped change the way people view disabilities.

“Before this convention, disability was often regarded as a disease or illness, but now we have realised that disability is an interaction between a certain condition and society,” he said. “Society must help to eliminate disabilities through accessibility, non-discrimination and protecting and enforcing the same rights to everyone.”

The eight guiding principles of the convention focus on dignity, individual autonomy, non-discrimination, full and effective participation and inclusion in society, equality of opportunity, accessibility, equality between men and women, and respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities.

Tina Minkowitz, co-chair of the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, which played a leading role in drafting the convention, regards Article 12 as one of the key aspects of the text as it deals with the legal rights of people with disabilities.

“People that are put under guardianship compare this to a civil death, as they can’t make basic decisions on their own. They can’t vote or marry or simply sign contracts. Governments have to recognise that people with disabilities have legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life,” she told IPS.

Minkowitz acknowledged that countries will face challenges in implementing this article, and hopes to see some pioneer the legal innovations required to ensure the full rights to self-determination for people with disabilities.

To monitor this process, a Conference of State Parties will meet every two years in New York. It will elect the members of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that will be assisted by the Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

For disability organisations like Rehabilitation International, the ongoing process of signature and ratification is a promising start, but there’s a lot more to do.

“While the focus now is on signature and ratification, RI and other members of the disability community are beginning to consider how to actually implement the goals of the convention by focusing on how to make communities accessible, how to make schools inclusive and how to establish concrete programmes, national action plans, and effective policies,” Rau told IPS.

 
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