Delegates, Civil Society Representatives Take Part in Interactive Dialog
Representatives of United Nations agencies, programs and offices shed light today on their respective strategies and action plans to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as the Conference of States Parties to the treaty concluded its second session.
Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) New York Office, said the Convention represented a real paradigm shift, treating disability as a rights issue. It expressed in good terms power instead of pity, rights instead of charity, and accountability under the law, while giving rise to new and important challenges for States parties, he added.
To help Governments meet their treaty obligations, OHCHR - which acted as the secretariat for the Committee on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities - was developing several tools, he said. For example, it had conducted a study to provide guidance on how to initially give effect to the Convention in national systems, providing counsel on such substantive legal issues as non-discrimination, accessibility, legal capacity, liberty and security, independent living, education and employment. The study also looked at core features of national and international monitoring systems, offering conclusions and recommendations.
He said OHCHR was also trying to integrate the work of the Convention and the Committee into other treaty bodies and special procedures. It was reviewing the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, as well as the comments of other treaty bodies to see if they were consistent with the Disability Convention. For example, general comment 8 of the Human Rights Council would explicitly allow unlawful detention in cases of mental illness, which would appear to be inconsistent with the Disability Convention. OHCHR was also looking at the right to equal recognition before the law and had published a handbook on exclusion. Staff in the more than 50 United Nations human rights field offices were supporting national compliance reviews and assisting with legal reform in States around the world.
Diane Alarcon, Senior Policy Adviser and Cluster Leader for Inclusive Development of the Poverty Group in the Bureau for Policy Development, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), noted that people with disabilities were subjected to multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination and were among the world's most marginalized populations. They remained mired in poverty and excluded from the benefits of development, such as education and access to gainful, productive employment, appropriate health care and accessible social services. The 2008-2011 UNDP Strategic Plan aimed to address that by recognizing disability as a critical human rights issue that must be rectified through inclusive development.
She said the UNDP Task Force on Disability was overseeing, in collaboration with the International Disability and Development Consortium, the production of guidelines for including people with disabilities in UNDP programs. More than 50 UNDP offices were implementing, or had recently completed, over 100 capacity-building and empowering programs and projects. For example, the Program had a strong awareness-raising project in Uzbekistan, and was expanding the capacity of the Deaf & Blind Society in Turkmenistan. In Croatia, persons with disabilities were the key beneficiaries of UNDP's social inclusion program.
Taking up the rights of children with disabilities, Elizabeth Gibbons, Deputy Director of Policy and Practice with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said that, in coordination with the International Disability Caucus, UNICEF had advocated effectively for specific attention in the Convention to their needs. Its work on disability was guided by a rights-based approach and a focus on the most marginalized and poorest children and families, with particular attention on girls. In 2007, the Fund had begun issuing new program guidance on children with disabilities to its country offices and their partners. At present, 55 of those offices had instituted relevant strategies. Disability programming was also moving from a project-based approach to a more systematic one, including policy advocacy and legislative reform.
UNICEF was actively involved in spreading awareness of the Convention and its provisions, she continued, pointing out that the Fund's "It's About Ability" - a child-friendly version of the Convention - aimed to empower children to speak out, challenge discrimination and promote the treaty's principles. UNICEF's "Learning Guide" on the Convention was used by youth leaders, peer educators, teachers and community workers.
She said the agency was also supporting child care system reform to reduce the use of institutional care for vulnerable children, especially those with disabilities. It had conduced studies and surveys on disability in nine countries and promoted viable alternatives to institutional care in some 30 countries. Alarmed that in some countries only 5 per cent of children with disabilities attended school, UNICEF was providing technical resources for improved infrastructure, making classrooms, latrines, school canteens and doorways accessible to children with disabilities.
Thomas Stelzer, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said the Department worked closely with Governments, civil society and organizations representing people with disabilities, as well as academic institutions and United Nations system partners, particularly OHCHR, to implement the Convention. It provided technical advice and assistance to Member States on designing national disability strategies, policies and programs. It also supported international policy dialog on disability in intergovernmental bodies, and helped generate and share knowledge to advance implementation of the Convention, the World Program of Action concerning Disabled Persons and the Standard Rules of Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.
Two reports of the Secretary-General prepared by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs - on the status of the Convention and its Optional Protocol, and on achieving the Millennium Development Goals for persons with disabilities by implementing the World Program of Action - would be reviewed during the forthcoming General Assembly session. In August, the Secretary-General had appointed Shuaib Chalklen, a global disability rights leader from South Africa, as the new Special Rapporteur on disability in the Commission on Social Development, which monitored implementation of the Standard Rules.
In April, he continued, the Department had, in close collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), civil society and academic institutions, organized an expert meeting on mainstreaming disability into Millennium Development Goals processes. And in March, as part of the Inter-Agency Support Group on the Convention, the Department had worked to hammer out a draft strategy and plan of action on mainstreaming the Convention throughout the United Nations system.
Amina Ali al-Suweidi, a consultant for People with Disabilities Management and a member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, stressed the Convention's important role as both an implementation and a monitoring mechanism. Regular submission of reports by States Parties on implementing the Convention and its Optional Protocol was critical, as was international cooperation with States. The treaty also envisaged and clearly spelled out a major role for civil society, particularly non-governmental organizations representing people with disabilities, as well as human rights institutions, to implement the Convention at the national level.
Turning to the Organization's efforts to physically accommodate people with disabilities as it conducted a major renovation overhaul of the United Nations complex in New York, Michael Alderstein, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Capital Master Plan, said the Plan aimed to achieve a very high level of accessibility. In its current state, the New York Headquarters complex was quite accessible, with many entrances, exits and ramps opening directly into the buildings and most doorways wide enough for wheelchairs. The new Plan would eliminate any remaining barriers, and its architects would work to ensure that, in addition to meeting local laws, the renovated space would reflect best practices and real-life experiences.
The security-system design in entry areas would enable people with disabilities to enter through wide swing doors as well as accessible turnstiles and magnetometers, he said. Reception counters would have lower, accessible portions and signs would be posted to indicate the availability of assistive listening devices. All signs would be in Braille. Audio amplification technology would eliminate background noise in all conference rooms, improving sound quality for hearing-aid users. The building would have fully accessible toilet facilities.
During the discussion session, several delegates described their respective Governments' efforts to implement the Convention, and posed questions to the United Nations system officials. Delegates from Italy and the United Kingdom requested guidance on how to pass on successful outcomes and good practices in implementing the Convention. Egypt's representative asked them to elaborate on how States parties could coordinate implementation efforts, the root causes of disability, and how to assist disabled people who had been victims of armed conflict.
Argentina's representative said a clear message of peace was needed with respect to disabilities caused by mines, wars and unsafe transport systems. The representatives of Morocco and the Dominican Republic asked that more attention be given to the proposal to set up a fund to help developing countries with limited budgets implement the Convention and help people with disabilities. Thailand's representative said the Convention as well as United Nations websites and information portals should be made available in formats accessible to people with disabilities.
Responding to those interventions, Ms. Alarcon said the Convention's implementation must be transformed into actual action at the national level. That was a great challenge, as there was not enough information for the proper documentation of the scope of that challenge. It was also necessary to integrate disabilities into the Millennium Development Goals and all areas of policy, and to develop coherent responses.
Ms. Gibbons said the system for reporting to the Committee gave States parties the chance to share successes and best practices. The United Nations was committed to working with countries with smaller resources. To start, poorer countries could advance disability rights by shining a light on persons with disabilities in order to showcase them as ambassadors for the disability movement, train teachers to include children with disabilities, and build latrines for disabled school children, among other efforts.
Mr. Mokhiber said the Committee issued general comments and had days of general thematic discussions that looked at the implications of how rights were protected. The Committee would base that guidance on information and experiences shared by members. Regarding coordination, he said mechanisms across the United Nations system dealt with that issue.
Also during the meeting, Regina Maria Melo Atalla, President of the Latin American Network of Non-governmental Organizations of Persons with Disabilities and their Families, presented a summary of the informal segment on emerging issues held on Thursday, titled "The Global Economic Crisis, Poverty and the Implementation of the Convention". She said the global crisis had worsened the poverty in which many people with disabilities lived, and the Convention's entry into force must be seen as an opportunity to combat that situation.
Disabled people were losing their jobs, as they were often the last to be hired and the first to be fired, she said. Funding for education and support programs for the disabled had stopped, and less attention was given to ensuring that new infrastructure projects met accessibility requirements. Poor families were giving their non-disabled children preference in food and other scant household resources over their disabled children. Without specific efforts, people with disabilities would not only be harmed by the economic crisis, they would continue to suffer its consequences after it ended.
Stigma and prejudice against disabled people in society was a root cause of the problem, she said, stressing that policies and programs benefiting people with disabilities must be seen as necessary and not as an expense. More efforts were needed to expand statistical data on the situation of persons with disabilities. Disabled people must be seen as part of all economic stimulus packages, as had been the case with the World Bank's recently established Rapid Response Fund. Employment consistent with human rights values, a positive change in cultural attitudes towards disabled people and greater attention to their enrollment in school and literacy must be addressed.
Echoing those concerns, Stefan Tromel of the International Disabilities Alliance said the Convention should be the superseding instrument in the field of disability, adding that a more systematic approach was required to ensure better implementation of its goals. To avoid falling back into the medical model of disability, all United Nations specialized agencies and programs must contribute to implementing the instrument.
In closing remarks, Mohammed Al-Tarawneh, Committee Chairperson, said that despite progress and the enthusiasm surrounding the Convention's adoption, much work lay ahead to implement the treaty and integrate its goals into the larger international human rights framework. The United Nations system must work together to remove barriers in order to empower and enable the 650 million people with disabilities worldwide. He urged all States to ratify the Convention and its Optional Protocol, and to strengthen the links between global and regional frameworks.
Claude Heller ( Mexico), who co-chaired the meeting, announced that the third session of the Conference of States Parties should be held in the first week of September 2010.
Turning to other business, he noted that the two-year terms of six Committee members - Loft Ben Lallahom ( Tunisia), Gyorgy Konczei ( Hungary), Edah Wangechi Maina ( Kenya), Ronald McCallum ( Australia), German Xavier Torres Correa ( Ecuador) and Cveto Ursic ( Slovenia) - would expire on 31 December 2009. He also asked the Secretariat to provide States parties with a compilation of legislative measures concerning implementation of the Convention.
Jim McLay ( New Zealand), who also co-chaired the meeting, also made a statement, as did Jean-Pierre Gonnot, Chief of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs' Inclusive Development Section.
Also speaking today were the representatives of Mali, Brazil, Jordan, Chile and Kenya.
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