Celebrating Sweeping Changes in Decade of Disability Rights Convention, Speakers Tell General Assembly More Needed to Eradicate Discrimination

Do What Is Right, Just for All, Messenger of Peace Stevie Wonder Urges States, Warning against Negative, Divisive Labels

While the world had seen sweeping changes in the decade since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - one of the most widely-ratified human rights instruments in history - speakers today told the General Assembly that more remained to be done to eradicate discrimination around the globe and even the playing field for persons with disabilities.

Commemorating the Convention's tenth anniversary, a wide range of national delegates, civil society representatives and other advocates pointed to a "paradigm shift" in the way many countries viewed and addressed disability. Speakers also shared personal experiences and described challenges relating to employment, education, accessibility and participation in social life.

Still others stressed the need to view the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which pledged to "leave no one behind". Providing national perspectives on the cross-cutting nature of disability, delegates called for renewed efforts to turn commitments into tangible action.

"In the past decade we have seen much progress, but persons with disabilities continue to face grave disadvantages," Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, noting that the 2006 Convention had brought the rights and advancement of persons with disabilities to the centre of development efforts. Nevertheless the 2030 Agenda required ending discrimination and removing barriers, he emphasized, adding that children with disabilities were less likely to start or complete school and adults with disabilities were less likely to be employed.

General Assembly President Peter Thomson (Fiji), while underscoring how the Convention reflected the global commitment to enable persons with disabilities to live lives of dignity, opportunity and respect, pointed out that more than 80 per cent of such people still lived in poverty and many still faced significant obstacles to social, economic and political participation. It was critical that as Governments mainstreamed the Sustainable Development Goals into national planning and budgeting, they include a disability-sensitive perspective that also took into account the compounding effects of gender and age-discrimination.

Stevie Wonder, the internationally renowned musician and United Nations Messenger of Peace, emphasized that the Convention stood as a reminder that persons with disabilities were not objects of charity but full members of society. "I am just one example of someone who is abled differently, and yet I beat the odds," he stressed, adding that the world would be a much better place if all persons with disabilities were given such a chance. Forward thinking over the last decade had brought much progress. However, some political leaders were bringing society backward to a time when "we are once again handicapped by negative and divisive labels" he said. Warning against such hatred and bigotry, he urged Member States to find ways to accomplish "what is right and just for all".

The Assembly also held a high-level panel discussion on the occasion of the Convention's anniversary. Panellist Fatoumata Ndaiye, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) acknowledged that the United Nations system had done far too little for far too long to realize the rights of persons with disabilities. "Today must be a day when we commit to narrowing the gap between our words and our actions," she said, highlighting the opportunity presented by the anniversary commemoration.

"Ten years ago we were not a part of the conversation," said Vladimir Cuk, Executive Director of International Disability Alliance, noting that persons with disabilities were now enjoying the same rights as other groups. However, as did other speakers, he emphasized the continued prevalence of discrimination and called on Member States to disaggregate data to ensure the implementation of the 2030 Agenda remained inclusive.

Moderator Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, emphasized the importance of freedom of expression for persons with disabilities - in particular those who were deaf or blind. Recognizing sign language as an official language of the United Nations would be essential in that regard, she said, adding that persons with disabilities must also enjoy full voting rights and have access to quality education and reproductive health.

During the ensuing interactive segment, speakers shared national experiences in addressing the challenges still faced by persons with disabilities. Among measures spotlighted was a tax incentive policy aimed at those caring for persons with disabilities, bolstered national data collection programmes and inclusive risk reduction strategies that focused explicitly on persons with disabilities.

The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. Monday, 5 December, to take up draft resolutions forwarded to it by the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security).

Opening remarks

PETER THOMSON (Fiji), President of the General Assembly said that the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ten years ago had been a milestone in efforts to promote and protect the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disabilities. As one of the most quickly and widely ratified treaties in history, the Convention reflected the global commitment to ensure and enable such persons to live lives of dignity, opportunity and respect. Important gains had been made over the past decade, including combating discrimination and changing social attitudes. Last year's adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provided humanity with a universal masterplan to transform the world through a people-centred approach.

In a world where more than 80 per cent of people with disabilities lived in poverty, many of them face significant barriers to social, economic and political participation, he stated. They also faced obstacles to quality education, accessible transport systems, and productive employment. Implementing the 2030 Agenda would serve to empower people with disabilities by promoting their rights. As Governments mainstreamed the Sustainable Development Goals into national planning and budgeting, they must ensure that a disability-sensitive perspective be included in the process, one that also took into account the compounding effects of gender and age-discrimination.

As well, adopted target strategies must ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities, he continued, adding that all stakeholders, including Governments, United Nations agencies, civil society and the private sector, should develop strengthened partnerships that ramp up disability-sensitive target implementation. They must focus on mobilizing resources, driving innovation and improving data collection. It was critical to "achieve a world in which persons with disabilities are fully respected, their abilities are recognized and in which they are able to reach their full potential", he said.

BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that, at its tenth anniversary, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with 169 Parties, was now one of the mostly widely ratified international human rights instruments. Along with its Optional Protocol, it had promoted the rights and advancement of persons with disabilities, bringing them to the centre of development efforts. However, to achieve the ambitious new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, discrimination must end, barriers must be removed and the equal participation of all persons with disabilities must be ensured.

"In the past decade we have seen much progress, but persons with disabilities continue to face grave disadvantages," he continued, noting that they were still commonly denied fundamental rights and more likely to live in poverty. Children with disabilities were less likely than their non-disabled peers to start school or complete a full education, and adults with disabilities were less likely to be employed. Inaccessible workplaces, discrimination and negative attitudes were a major barrier. The Sustainable Development Goals - designed to reduce inequality and promote social, economic and political inclusion - promised to leave no one behind. The Goals' implementation must secure the full inclusion and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society and development.

Recalling that disability was also featured at the United Nations Humanitarian Summit in May, leading to the Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, he stressed that "our duty now is to turn these commitments into action". He called on national and local Governments, businesses and all actors in society to intensify efforts to end discrimination and remove the environmental and attitudinal obstacles that prevented persons with disabilities from enjoying their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Keynote Address

STEVIE WONDER, United Nations Messenger of Peace, said the Convention's importance could not be overemphasized. It stood as a reminder that persons with disabilities were not objects of charity but full members of society. While they still faced discrimination and even horrendous human rights violations, it was remarkable what had been accomplished in the short time since the Convention's adoption. "I am just one example of someone who is abled differently, and yet I beat the odds," he stressed, underscoring that the world would be a much better place if all persons with disabilities were given such a chance.

Referring to the 2013 adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, he said less than 5 per cent of the millions of publications released every year were made accessible to persons with disabilities. The Treaty, which sought to change that, had already been ratified by 25 States. However, more were needed. "This is truly a life-changing opportunity as it opens the door of knowledge for persons with disabilities," he said.

The Marrakesh Treaty was just one way in which countries could live up to their obligations under the Convention, he continued. The implementation of article 24 of the Convention on the provision of inclusive education at all levels was critical. "We are here today to remind ourselves of this duty," he said, urging all States that had not yet done so to strongly consider signing and ratifying the Convention and the Optional Protocol as soon as possible.

Over time and with the best of intentions, society had made progress, he noted, recalling that not so long ago persons with disabilities had been referred to as "handicapped". With forward thinking, that term had been pivoted to a much more positive reference. Today, however, some political leaders were bringing society backward to a time when "we are once again handicapped by negative and divisive labels", contrary to what the United Nations stood for. "Leaders must lead and citizens must act to eradicate hatred and bigotry of all kinds," he stressed, calling on Member States to find ways to accomplish "what is right and just for all".

Panel Discussion

Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities moderated a panel discussion to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The panel consisted of: Fatoumata Ndiaye, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); Mercedes Juan Lopez, Director General of the National Council for the Development and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities (Mexico); Lenni Montel, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development; Andrew Gilmore, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and Vladimir Cuk, Executive Director of the International Disability Alliance.

Ms. CISTERNAS REYES described a number of positive achievements made since the Convention's adoption, including the adoption of 15 General Assembly resolutions relating to persons with disabilities and the designation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Persons with Disabilities.

FATOUMATA NDAIYE, echoing that sentiment, said the world had seen wonderful progress made in recognizing - and, more importantly acting on - the rights of persons with disabilities. But more than simply commemorating the Convention's tenth anniversary, she stressed that "today must be a day when we commit to narrowing the gap between our words and our actions". Indeed, the world could not proclaim equality when children with disabilities still faced resistance to the realization of their rights and suffered from a lack of opportunities.

"For far too long, the United Nations, including UNICEF, did far too little to make these rights real," she said. However, the Fund was now working hard in that respect, having established a disability section. As well, it was focusing on children with disabilities in its next strategic plan, particularly with inclusive education, as children with disabilities represented a third of out-of-school children around the world. Among other things, UNICEF was also helping countries review national plans to support children with disabilities, including in post-conflict situations and humanitarian emergencies.

MERCEDES JUAN LOPEZ emphasized that the commemoration should give the international community special impetus to redoubled efforts towards the Convention's implementation, expressing hope that countries that had not yet done so would ratify the instrument without delay. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that 15 per cent of the world's population lived with a disability and that 80 per cent of those people lived in poverty. In Mexico, it was estimated that 6 per cent of the population had a disability and 45 per cent of those lived in poverty.

Mexico had established a national system for inclusion of persons with disabilities and made efforts to adapt its legislation to the commitments enshrined in the Convention, she continued. It had made strides in areas including educational inclusion, with more than 200,000 students having already seen such benefits as books in braille and technical assistance. A programme had been implemented as well to make public places accessible and a national registry system had been developed for persons with disabilities. "In ten years, we have made progress and changed the paradigm of disability," she said, noting nevertheless that many challenges still existed and much more remained to be done.

LENNI MONTIEL said the Convention's adoption was a "hallmark international treaty" bringing hope to millions of persons with disabilities worldwide. The results of its adoption had been undeniable. Disability was now more clearly understood, and was seen as much as a social phenomenon as an issue of health or impairment. "We have seen an acceleration of the global commitment to realize the role of persons with disabilities in development," he said, noting that a more holistic and integrated approach to the rights of persons with disabilities was now in place. He also noted that the new global development framework, with its explicit accounting for persons with disabilities, stood in stark contrast to previous strategies, adding that the Sustainable Development Goals called in particular for data to be disaggregated by disability.

Over the next 15 years of implementation, countries would hold each other accountable in addressing disparities, he continued. They would ensure that schools were equipped with adapted infrastructure and materials for children with disabilities, and they would monitor access to public open spaces and public transport. In addition, they would develop a clearer picture of discrimination and harassment faced by persons with disabilities and make efforts to end them. "The commitments have been made, expectations are high, and now we must deliver," he concluded.

ANDREW GILMOUR said the Convention had brought a fundamental change not only in the way people saw disability, but the way Governments approached the issue. While marking a break with some of the old medical approaches of the past, it also left behind the idea that disability policy was somehow a charitable project and instead instituted a human rights-based approach. That paradigm shift reflected that negative attitudes were being challenged. Moving forward, the Convention would help guide the implementation of the 2030 Agenda to ensure that no persons with disabilities be left behind. As well, the human rights of persons with disability needed to be mainstreamed into all resolutions beyond those that were disability-specific.

Though progress had been made, there was much more work to be done to implement such human rights, he said, highlighting the importance of active collaboration between the different stakeholders. The State Parties to the Convention were, of course, the main duty bearers, but the private sector, media and academia often had a role to play as well. He said he would count on civil society actors to "let us all know how to do better". The 2016 Social Forum of the Human Rights Council focused on persons with disabilities and included recommendations from civil society to all relevant stakeholders in a strong call for action. That included promoting better portrayals and involvements of persons with disabilities in media, and using public procurement to encourage the private sector to increase globally the availability of goods and services.

CATALINA DEVANDAS AGUILAR, via video message, said the Convention marked an important international milestone of recognizing the need to move toward diversity. She had been working for two years with other organizations to bring about real change in the lives of persons with disabilities. The Convention isolated momentum and influenced the 2030 Agenda through which Member States made a historic commitment to eradicate poverty and achieve peace and prosperity enjoyed by all. That reflected an opportunity to implement disability-centred policies. Immediate action was critical to help move forward disability-inclusive policies, including social protection systems and national and international development frameworks.

Addressing discrimination was critical, she continued, spotlighting various ways prejudice had held back persons with disabilities. That not only harmed the people it targeted but also society as a whole. Persons with disabilities had a right to live a full life free of discrimination, prejudice and stigma. Much more remained to be done to build a United Nations system wide action plan that better responded to persons with disabilities and ensured that they not be left behind.

VLADIMIR CUK said ten years ago "we had no idea that we could achieve so much" with the Convention. To truly implement the 2030 Agenda meant completely implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. "Ten years ago we were not a part of the conversation," he emphasized. Now persons with disabilities were enjoying the same rights as other groups, including in disaster risk reduction development during the Habitat III [United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development] conference, and in humanitarian work.

"We worked hand-in-hand and we did a lot," he said. However, discrimination was still very present, and both the global North and South had work to do to increase the capacity of persons with disabilities and invest in the capacities of Member States to disaggregate data to ensure implementation of the 2030 Agenda remained inclusive. All people with disabilities must be included - those suffering from psychosocial issues, the indigenous, children, the aging, and youth. It was important to address issues of mental health as well. Looking ahead, it would be crucial to implement the heart of the Convention. Civil society had an important role to play in doing that. "Our voice is not a choice; it is a necessity," he said, stressing the need to work together to ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities be fully implemented and that "no one be left behind".

Ms. REYES, speaking on behalf of the Committee on Persons with Disabilities, said that the Committee had not hesitated to push the rights of persons with disabilities. In the framework of civil rights, it was critical for persons with disabilities, particularly those who were deaf or blind, to exercise their right to freedom of expression. Recognizing sign language as an official language of the United Nations would be essential in that endeavour. Persons with disabilities must also enjoy full voting rights and full rights in public life. They must have access to quality education and reproductive health. The Committee had defined some priorities for Member States seeking guidelines on those issues.

The Committee had also been innovative in its accountability process in regards to the rights of persons with disabilities, she added. The Committee had strengthened the participation of civil society and connected with regional organizations in monitoring human rights. While universal ratification of the Convention would be a realization in the immediate term, she expressed concern for the millions living in countries that had not yet ratified the pact. The interconnection of human rights and sustainable development was powerful and financing for development had to focus on challenges relating to persons with disabilities. She also pointed out that the Committee had achieved diversity in its membership and independence and impartiality in the exercise of its work.

Interactive discussion

In the ensuring discussion, speakers expressed support for the Convention and shared national experiences in addressing the challenges still faced by persons with disabilities.

The representative of New Zealand outlined various ways his country was engaging persons with disabilities and said that despite important progress there were still serious barriers, noting that it was important to translate the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda into actions on the ground.

Ecuador's delegate said his country had developed indicators to measure the effectiveness of its strategies for the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in employment and society. His country remained committed to breaking barriers and opening doors to create a society that includes everyone.

The representative of Bangladesh said the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities was a top priority. Several measures had been taken to ensure the full participation of disabled citizens including through the establishment of mobile therapy services and the construction of rehabilitation centres.

The representative of the United States said that, while each country's situation was unique, themes such as the need for comprehensive non-discrimination laws and support for students with disabilities were common to all nations. For its part, the United States had recently marked the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it continued to aspire to be a model to other countries.

Italy's representative, recalling that his country had served as Vice-Chair of the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities from 2015 to 2016, said his Government had also stepped up its national commitment to persons with disabilities. Among other things, it had dedicated an unprecedented Euros 17 billion to that goal.

The delegate of Bulgaria said his Government was strongly committed to the implementation of the Convention and took a human rights-based approach to such work. As President-elect of the States Parties to the Convention for the period from 2017 to 2018, Bulgaria would continue to promote the full realization of the human rights of persons with disabilities at all levels and to increase the number of States Parties to the Convention.

DANIELA BAS, Director of the Division for Social Policy and Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), addressed speakers' reoccurring concern about how a cross-cutting approach could be promoted. She noted that human rights and social development went hand-in-hand. The Department served many intergovernmental mechanisms, including the Commission for Social Development, and provided advice to countries in developing strong social policy frameworks at the national level.

Also responding, Ms. NDAIYE said UNICEF's disability unit worked to make children with disabilities visible throughout the Fund's programmes. It also had 110 country offices with programmes focusing on children with disabilities, as well as close partnerships with Member States and private sector entities.

CHARLES RADCLIFFE, Chief of the Global Issues Section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said achieving the Convention's universal ratification was the first step to promoting a more cross-cutting approach. Next, its provisions must be embedded into national laws, as had been described by many speakers today. Effective plans also required the collection of disaggregated data "to see how far and how fast we're going".

On the same point, Mr. CUK emphasized the need to create disability focal points in various Government ministries. He also expressed support for a proposal regarding the theme of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' next meeting, adding that the Committee should consider having persons with disabilities chair all of its sessions.

The representative of Morocco pointed out that persons with disabilities had less of a chance to receive quality healthcare due to institutional obstacles, discrimination and exclusion.

The delegate from the Philippines outlined her country's various tax incentives granted to those caring for persons with disabilities. In addition, her country had adopted an inclusive risk reduction mechanism, as vulnerable groups needed special attention before, during and after disasters.

Responding to a question posed by Japan's delegate regarding data, Ms. LOPEZ said that she worked with Mexico's agencies to collect statistical data which was already being applied to beneficiaries.

Ms. NDIAYE stressed that data was critical in making children with disabilities visible and counted. In cases with no reliable data collection, it was very challenging to address the pertinent issues.

Ms. REYES also added that data should be a main focus. Strengthening partnerships with civil society and financing for development presented an opportunity to deal with human rights as well.

The representative of Panama spotlighted a campaign launched in her country that was raising awareness and changing societal views of persons with disabilities. Public spaces, including movie theatres, banks and restaurants, were also involved in changing perceptions.

The representative of China said that as one of the first countries to ratify the Convention, his Government had drawn up plans to continue to improve the lives of the 85 million persons with disabilities in China. Rehabilitation centres had been built around the country and women with disabilities had been elected to various government roles.

The representative of ADD International, a civil society organization that supported disability activists to build strong movements for change in Africa and Asia, urged Member States to keep persons with disabilities "at the forefront" and to mainstream disability in all development programmes. The United Nations should train its staff on disability inclusion and recruit persons with disabilities. Meanwhile, countries could work with national disability movements to identify locally relevant solutions that would support and fulfil the rights of persons with disabilities.

Also speaking today was representatives of Argentina, Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Australia and Brazil. A representative of Rehabilitation International also spoke.

Source: United Nations

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