The first new human rights treaty of the 21st century, agreed last week by the United Nations in New York, seeks to promote the rights of the world’s 650 million disabled adults and children.
Hailed by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as the “beginning of a new era” for disabled people, the convention sets out a code for governments, requiring them to tackle discrimination and protect human rights.
It is based on the premise that the existing human rights system has failed to adequately protect disabled people, who remain among the most marginalised of all populations.
A UN committee had been working on the convention since 2001 and committee chairman ambassador Don Mackay of New Zealand, said the “messy” negotiations had included several last minute amendments.
Even the world of disability could not escape events in the Middle East, with a proposal from Sudan, backed by the Arab League, making particular reference to disabled people “under foreign occupation”.
A number of countries, including the United States, voted against the proposal, suggesting it deliberately politicised the convention, but it won the backing of most and only delayed the eventual signing of the treaty.
The UK government has already “signalled its intention” to ratify the convention.
One lively debate, according to Leonard Cheshire international director Tanya Barron, who was at UN headquarters in New York for much of the discussion, was around the issue of inclusive education.
Scandinavian countries were keen to defend specialist education, particularly for children with visual or hearing impairment, saying it provided the highest possible quality of education.
But the inclusive education lobby won the day, resulting in a strongly-worded clause in its favour.
The convention is expected to be formally adopted by the UN general assembly later this year before being signed by individual countries. By ratifying the treaty countries accept a legal obligation to promote the human rights of disabled people by enacting anti-discriminatory legislation or eliminating laws and practices that discriminate.
Key provisions in the convention
- Ratifying countries must combat stereotypes and promote awareness of the contribution disabled people can make to society.
- Children with disabilities should have equal rights and should not be separated from their parents against their will, except when it is in the child’s best interests. In no case should they be separated from their parents on the basis of a disability of either the child or the parents.
- Disabled people should have equal right to own and inherit property, control financial affairs and have equal access to justice.
- Laws must guarantee freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.
- Countries should eliminate obstacles to transport, public facilities and services and communications.
- Disabled people must have the choice to live independently, to be included in the community and have access to in-home support.
- Disabled people should have an equal opportunity to have sexual and intimate relations, become parents and marry.
- The same range of health services that are provided to other people must be available to those with disabilities.
- States should ensure equal access to education, vocational training and adult education.
- Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport must be promoted.
- About 10 per cent of the world’s population live with a disability.
- 80 per cent of disabled people live in developing countries.
- 20 per cent of the world’s poorest people are disabled.
- 90 per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not go to school.
- Only 45 countries have disability discrimination laws.