UN Expert Decries Disability Rights Progress on Convention’s 10-year Anniversary

UN Radio interviews Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities
Credit: UN Photo / Jean-Marc FerrŽé

December 13, 2016 marked 10 years since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but according to one United Nations expert, States have yet to take adequate steps to realize the rights of persons with disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release: Lagging] Catalina Devandas Aguilar, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, described the progress made in the last decade as “only peripheral” and criticized States for failing to ensure practical implementation of the legal commitments they made to support persons with disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release: Lagging] Devandas Aguilar attributes some of these inadequacies to States’ lack of understanding of the Convention, saying “they may have decided in principle to act, but still struggle with issues as basic as inclusion, non-discrimination, reasonable accommodation and support services.” [OHCHR Press Release: Lagging] The Special Rapporteur strongly urges States to take additional action to ensure that the spirit of the Convention “translates into significant improvements and tangible changes” in the lives of persons with disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release: Lagging] Despite overall shortcomings, Devandas Aguilar praised the positive steps taken by some States, including the implementation of new laws, policies, and programs, as well as the explicit prioritization of disability rights. [OHCHR Press Release: Lagging]

Implementation of Persons with Disabilities’ Human Rights

Devandas Aguilar, who assumed the newly-created mandate of Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities two years ago, has been an active and vocal proponent of increased global attention on the rights of persons with disabilities. In her “strongly-worded statement” on the occasion of the Convention’s 10-year anniversary, Devandas Aguilar called States’ attention to the nearly 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, and criticized States parties’ implementation of the Convention as “slow” and failing to improve the lives of millions. [OHCHR Press Release: Statement] In particular, she highlighted institutionalization and the lack of community assistance as two key concerns, urging governments to focus on inclusion of persons with disabilities in society.

For its part, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has similarly focused on inclusion and independence in its commemoration of the Convention’s 10-year anniversary.

The Special Rapporteur and CRPD are the two principal entities monitoring the rights of persons with disabilities at the global level. While the Special Rapporteur is tasked with carrying out country visits and broadly reporting on persons with disabilities’ enjoyment of human rights, the CRPD is specifically responsible for evaluating States parties’ adherence to the Convention. Each may respond to specific alleged violations of the rights of persons with disabilities in some circumstances, through different processes.

Canada’s Planned Accession to the Convention’s Optional Protocol

Developments in 2016 include Canada’s planned acceptance of additional protections intended to ensure accountability for violations of the Convention. On December 1, 2016, Canadian officials announced that the nation had begun a “consultation process” regarding its planned accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention, which authorizes the CRPD to receive individual complaints and investigate systemic violations of the Convention. The consultation process includes the input from provinces and territories, indigenous governments and organizations, and civil society. [Government of Canada Press Release]

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Carla Qualtrough, have expressed support for this initiative, reiterating Canada’s commitment to achieving widespread inclusiveness and equality. [Government of Canada Press Release]

The Optional Protocol offers two additional avenues of enforcement for the Convention: (1) an individual complaints procedure that allows individuals and groups to petition the CRPD for review of specific claims under the Convention and (2) a process that allows the CRPD to investigate a State party for severe or systematic violations of the Convention.

Canada ratified the Convention in 2010, submitted its initial report to the CRPD in 2014, and will go before the CRPD for the interactive dialogue portion of its review in early 2017. [Government of Canada Press Release]

Germany’s Passage of Comprehensive Disability Rights Legislation, Implementing the Convention

On December 1, 2016, Germany adopted legislation to expand the rights of persons with disabilities in an effort to implement the Convention and in response to concluding observations from the CRPD. In particular, the Committee noted that the education system and labor market were inaccessible to persons with disabilities, who make up over 10 percent of the population. [The Local; Deutsche Welle]

Under the new law, social assistance will be available to disabled persons who have up to €25,000 in savings (up from the previous limit of €2,600), and partners’ incomes will no longer be part of the equation. [The Local; Deutsche Welle] Additionally, benefits will be available to individuals irrespective of where they live. Prior to the passage of this law, people with certain disabilities could only receive assistance if they resided in a care home. [Deutsche Welle]

The law is also designed to improve access to the job market and working conditions for persons with disabilities. The law offers employers hiring incentives and requires gender equality officers to oversee employee interactions at specialized workshops that employ people with disabilities; the gender equality officers are intended to protect against workplace violence. [The Local]

The new law, however, has received mixed reviews. Some have hailed the reform as a “milestone,” while others believe it is insufficient to ensure that persons with disabilities are protected against involuntary institutionalization – a current reality for much of Germany’s disabled population. [Deutsche Welle]

First Meeting of the ASEAN Community Task Force, Training on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

On December 5 and 6, 2016, the Task Force on the Mainstreaming of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Community held its first meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. [AICHR Press Release] During the meeting, task force members discussed at length the current situation of persons with disabilities in ASEAN countries, the “gaps in the implementation of regional framework” on disability rights, and other challenges. [AICHR Press Release]

The Task Force’s mandate is to draft a regional instrument that will aid the implementation of ASEAN’s 2025 vision for mainstreaming the rights of persons with disabilities across the three pillars of ASEAN – the political-security, economic, and socio-cultural pillars. In fulfilling its mandate, the Task Force will consult with relevant ASEAN bodies and other stakeholders, including organizations for persons with disabilities. Its second meeting is scheduled for February 2 to 3, 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia. [AICHR Press Release]

Relatedly, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), a regional human rights body, held a training in October 2016 on the rights of persons with disabilities. Also a part of the AICHR’s mainstreaming efforts, participants shared information on the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. [ASEAN Secretariat Press Release] Some have criticized ASEAN’s efforts to mainstream the rights of persons with disabilities as it attempts to fulfill its mission without adequate data. [ASEAN News]

UN Human Rights Council’s 2016 Social Forum

From October 3 to 5, 2016, the UN Human Rights Council hosted its annual Social Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. See OHCHR, 2016 Social Forum. The Social Forum brings together civil society and government actors to engage in dialogue regarding a predetermined theme. This year’s theme – “the promotion and full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities” – was chosen in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. See OHCHR, 2016 Social Forum.

The forum focused on expanding participants’ understanding of the Convention, which has been “one of the most quickly ratified of all the international human rights treaties.” [Pasifik] Every session of the forum was broadcast online and simultaneously interpreted in seven languages, including International Sign Language. See OHCHR, 2016 Social Forum. The forum has been credited with encouraging the ratification of the Convention by two of its newest States parties – Samoa and Micronesia. [Pasifik]

Other Initiatives in 2016

At the first World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, States, civil society organizations, and UN entities supported and endorsed a Charter on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. The charter encourages the consideration of the needs of persons with disabilities when designing and implementing humanitarian responses. [IJRC]

 The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a draft protocol on the rights of persons with disabilities in February 2016. The draft protocol draws from the Convention but also addresses issues of particular significance to the continent, such as albinism. [IJRC]

On December 8 and 9, 2016, the inaugural Harkin International Disability Employment Summit was held in Washington, D.C. The event brought together “high-level representatives and grassroots implementers from around the world­—all working to increase the employment of people with disabilities.” See Harkin Summit, About. Speaking at the summit, former president of Malawi Joyce Banda explained that steps must be taken at both the national and international levels in order to effect change and increase access to employment for people with disabilities. [allAfrica]

Additional Information

There are currently 172 States parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In the words of Devandas Aguilar, the Convention protects “all persons with disabilities regardless of their type of impairments.” [OHCHR Press Release: Statement] The Optional Protocol to the CRPD has 91 States parties.

For information about bodies that monitor the rights of persons with disabilities, such as the African Commission’s Working Group on Rights of Older Persons and People with Disabilities and the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.