TWN Info Service on Health Issues (December 06/11)

19 December 2006

UN Treaty shines light on disabled inequality

People with disabilities are discriminated against in many walks of life including employment, education and health care. This is about to change when the treaty to protect the rights of people living with disabilities comes up for signing and ratification next March. The article below highlights the issue and the rights of the disabled and is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 6163, 15 December 2006.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

United Nations: Treaty shines light on disabled inequality

By Haider Rizvi, IPS, New York, 13 December 2006

After five years of negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly has finally endorsed an international treaty to protect the rights of people living with disabilities.

The convention, which was unanimously adopted on Wednesday, will be open to the United Nations' 192 member states for signing and ratification next year in March, UN officials said.

Currently, about 10% of the world's population, or 650 million people, live with a disability.

"The disabled do not see themselves as being limited in life by their circumstance, so neither should we," Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain, president of the General Assembly, told diplomats before the adoption of the treaty.

"Going forward then, we must respect people with disabilities as equals, exercising the same fundamental rights under the law," she said.

Diplomats from a number of countries described the treaty as an historic achievement for the rights of disabled peoples and hoped that after the treaty comes into force, the rights of people with disabilities would no longer be ignored or denied anywhere in the world.

International civil society advocates who have been pushing for the adoption of the treaty for years also welcomed the unanimous vote.

"The effective cooperation between states and civil society in drafting this strong text should serve as an example for any human rights standards-setting exercise," said Yvonne Terlingen of the London-based Amnesty International.

Terlingen urged member states to ratify the new convention as soon as possible so that the rights enshrined in it will soon become a reality for all persons with disabilities throughout the world.

Proponents of the treaty have maintained that even though people with disabilities are technically endowed with the same rights as every one else, in practice they are discriminated against in various walks of life, including employment, education and health care.

While the convention does not require countries to implement steps they cannot afford, it does require governments to progressively adopt measures that allow persons with disabilities better access to transportation, education, employment and recreation.

Countries that ratify the treaty agree to enact laws and other measures to improve disability rights, and also to abolish discriminatory legislation, customs and practices. Currently, only 45 countries have adopted laws that deal with disability rights, according to UN officials.

In addition to the treaty, the General Assembly also adopted an 18-article Optional Protocol on Communications, which allows individuals and groups to petition the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities once all national recourse procedures have been exhausted.

UN officials said the committee of independent experts, to be established after the treaty enters into force, will receive periodic reports from state parties on progress made in implementing their treaty obligations.

"What the convention endeavors to do," said New Zealand envoy Don Mackay, chairman of the committee that negotiated the treaty, "is to elaborate in detail the rights of persons with disabilities and set out a code of implementation."

The convention states that countries are to "guarantee that persons with disabilities enjoy their inherent right to life on an equal basis with others, ensure the equal rights and advancement of women and girls with disabilities and protect children with disabilities."

Signatories will also be obliged to "recognise that all persons are equal before the law, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee equal legal protection."

The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world's poorest people are disabled, and tend to be regarded in their communities as the most disadvantaged. Among them, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

UNICEF estimates that 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not go to school. Mortality for children may be as high as 80% in countries where average under-five mortality has fallen to below 20%.

A 2004 survey in Orissa, India found that virtually all of the women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25% of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and six percent were forcibly sterilised.

And, according to UN 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.

The treaty states that laws and administrative measures must "guarantee freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse", adding that in case of abuse, states must promote the "recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration of the victims" and investigate the abuse. The treaty will enter into force when ratified by at least 20 countries.