Saturday, June 28, 2008

Human Rights For All

(Part I of a series on disability human rights)

The entry into force on 3 May 2008 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol is a landmark event for the estimated 650 million persons with disabilities (PWD) around the world. Described by UN Enable as signalling a “paradigm shift” in approaches to PWD, the new treaty is also a promising development in the promotion of human rights culture for all.

“We the Peoples of the United Nations”
International human rights instruments are sometimes criticized as top-down rhetorical statements created by diplomatic elites who rarely engage with those most affected. Reflecting a trend toward partnerships among international organizations, states, and civil society, the new disability convention was negotiated and drafted with the significant input of the International Disability Caucus on the Convention (a coalition of disability rights NGOs) as well as governmental representatives.
The process involved the usual political and strategic tensions associated with creating a “universal” instrument. The IDC and the government negotiators had to address the different political, economic, cultural, racial, and gender dynamics among and within states and NGOs. Representatives also contended with the hierarchies and divisions that can exist even among PWD who have different disabilities and different approaches to disability status, accommodations, and even terminology.
Those with intellectual or emotional disabilities are subject to different forms of discrimination than those with physical disabilities. Some who are blind, vision-impaired, deaf, or hearing-impaired may regard themselves as belonging to a different linguistic and social culture in which Braille or American Sign Language is to be considered a language like any other rather than a “special” intervention.
Nevertheless, the disability rights advocates, who used the theme “nothing about us, without us,” developed a collaborative process in which those disability constituencies most directly affected by a specific provision could take the lead in providing input, suggested draft language, and strategy. (See panel discussions on process at an American University Washington College of Law conference in April 2007.)
The report helped set the stage for the convention by outlining the relevance and applicability of international human rights standards to PWD and the need for instruments that more directly addressed their needs.
PWD were among the NGO representatives and state representatives who participated. Ironically, their presence often revealed the degree to which even a venue like the UN headquarters building in New York was not fully accessible—a lesson even the most well-intentioned actors can fail to learn unless they engage directly with those living with disabilities.

A Multidimensional Approach
The treaty emphasizes that all of the previously recognized fundamental human rights in the core human rights treaties fully apply to persons with disabilities. Like race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, class, and migration status, disability is one more aspect of the complex and shifting dimensions that help form our individual identities, but which does not separate us from our common humanity. It was therefore necessary first to make persons with disabilities “visible” to the international community as human beings with the same inherent rights that are recognized for others.

The Convention (CRPWD) sets forth 8 guiding principles:
► Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one's own choices, and independence of persons
► Non-discrimination
► Full and effective participation and inclusion in society
► Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity
► Equality of opportunity
► Accessibility
► Equality between men and women
► Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.
As the guidelines indicate, advocates moved beyond the universals to argue successfully for provisions that focused on the specific human rights issues that affect persons with disabilities, such as accessibility and personal autonomy. The treaty also recognizes the rights and needs linked to specific disability and intersectional status, such as the rights of children with disabilities and the rights of women with disabilities. As in all core human rights treaties, the CRPWD prohibits discrimination, including on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Rapid Recognition
The CRPWD, negotiated between 2002 and 2006, was the most quickly adopted of the major human rights treaties. As a member of a Jamaican-American family, I was also proud to see that Jamaica was the first country to ratify the new treaty on the first day it was opened for signature (see Diane Marie Amann’s post on the treaty’s adoption here).
The CRPWD entered into force only a little more than a year after being opened for signature. According to the UN Enable website,
the main treaty has now been signed by 129 states and ratified by 28. The Optional Protocol, which provides for individual or group complaints, has been signed by 71 countries and ratified by 17. One can only hope that continued activism will lead to equally rapid efforts to implement the treaty’s provisions.

No surprise, the United States, relying on domestic law (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act) refused to sign or ratify the treaty. Nevertheless, U.S. State Department officials cooperated in and contributed to some aspects of the drafting process. (For a Department of State list of web resources click here.)
As Amann reports, the recent favorable federal court decision on accessible currency in American Council of the Blind v. Paulson, may help expand the domestic civil rights of PWD in the U.S.

(Forthcoming in Part II of this series: Disability Human Rights: Only a “First World” Concern?)

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