A miracle convention for the disabled?

Fine words without actions are meaningless but actions usually only come about after fine words have

Last month the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force. It may not be a snappy title but it marks an important development in disabled people's pursuit of equality. Sixty years after the original UN Declaration on Human Rights was launched, disabled people have finally gained their own charter and full recognition that they too have human rights.

Disabled people are one of the last "vulnerable" social groups to be given the protection of a specific human rights convention. While women, ethnic minorities, children and migrant workers all received one years ago, disabled people have had to wait until the 21st century for this moment.

In a way, this isn't surprising. No international treaty has ever come about without a long and hard campaign. But in order to campaign, people need to be able to take part in demonstrations, attend meetings, sign petitions, write letters and lobby politicians. You can only do these things if you have a reasonable level of education, access to transport and the ability to make your voice heard. Sadly, the vast majority of disabled people in the world are denied such luxuries.

Imagine for a moment that you are a paralysed person living in a slum somewhere in Africa. Without a welfare state, you can't afford a wheelchair so you are stuck indoors much of the time, only able to travel as far as anyone is prepared to carry you. Your chances of finding employment are virtually non-existent, so you don't have any income of your own. You can't afford to pay carers so you are totally reliant on your family and friends for support. Somebody in this situation is hardly in a position to be able to campaign for a human rights treaty.

But I believe there is another reason why we have had to wait so long for this new convention. Disabled people's rights are different from other kinds of rights. Ending discrimination against women, for example, involves changing attitudes (a major challenge in itself) but there are relatively few cost implications. In contrast, eliminating discrimination against disabled people means not only combating prejudice but also adapting buildings, redesigning public transport and investing in social care. All this requires resources which developing countries simply do not have. Any cash-strapped government is unlikely to actively push for a treaty which would require them to spend money, especially when they have so many other demands on their tight budgets.

It's therefore something of a miracle that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the end only took four years to negotiate. Four years might sound a long time but that makes it the fastest negotiated human rights treaty in history. And on the opening day for signing the convention, 81 countries put their names to it - a record at the opening for any UN treaty. At the time of writing, 129 countries have signed it.

However, before we start popping the champagne corks, it's worth noting that only 27 countries have so far ratified the convention. As with any UN treaty, once it's been signed, the next step is to ratify it. Ratification is essential for the convention to be effective because it is ratification that makes the initial pledge binding and enforceable under national law. Yet many significant countries have still not ratified it including the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, USA, Australia and Canada. I find it rather amusing that Ecuador, Namibia and San Marino have ratified it but none of the UN Security Council have done so.

And how much difference will the new convention actually make to the reality of disabled people's lives? You could easily argue that it's just the latest in a long line of international initiatives regarding disability. In 1981 we had the "World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons". This was followed in 1993 by the "Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities". And then in 1995 they unveiled the "Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons". Despite these worthy ventures, millions of disabled people worldwide still face discrimination in education, employment, health care and decision-making.

Cynics might also point out that, 27 years after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women came into force, women's rights are still violated all over the world. Every day, countless women are subjected to rape, trafficking, forced marriage, restrictions on their movements, female genital mutilation and laws weighted against women. (In Algeria, the police still consider it acceptable for a husband to forbid his wife to travel and in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to vote or drive cars.). If there are disabled people out there who have doubts about the value of the new convention, then they do seem to have some justification for their scepticism.

Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that the convention has the potential to be a highly useful tool in the struggle to improve disabled people's lives. It's the first legally binding treaty to clearly set out the obligations on states to avoid discrimination against disabled people in all its forms, and to create a society in which disabled people can fully participate. For example, the convention requires states to take measures to ensure personal mobility, access to work, justice, the physical environment, and information technology.

It’s difficult to overestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. Global disability statistics make bleak reading. According to the World Health Organisation there are 650 million people with disabilities worldwide. Eighty per cent are estimated to live in developing countries, yet 90 per cent of rehabilitation measures take place in industrialised countries. Only two per cent of disabled children in developing countries receive an education and a recent World Bank study indicated that disability is a bigger barrier to school participation than gender and household economic status. In many countries - including India, Thailand and Vietnam - more than three-quarters of disabled adults are out of work. Research commissioned for the UN World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled People suggests that 350 million people with disabilities live in areas where essential services needed to help them are not available. Achieving change will require a Herculean effort.

The UN is right to describe the new convention as "a major milestone in the effort to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity". Yes, fine words without actions are meaningless but actions usually only come about after fine words have been written. I know I would rather live in a world with the convention than one without it.

PS: Here's a quiz question for you. Which country was the first to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? Answer: Jamaica. I'm sure you're as surprised by that information as I was.. .

Victoria Brignell
June 2008