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United Nations / Nations Unies
Special Rapporteur of the Commission for Social Development on Disability
Read the Standard Rules
Implementation of the Standard Rules as seen by:
Governments | ILSMH | RI | WBU | WFD
UN Commission on Human Rights, 54th session
agenda item 15
March /April 1998
Statement by Mr. Bengt Lindqvist, Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission for Social Development
It is a great honour for me as UN Special Rapporteur, monitoring the Standard Rules, to have the opportunity to speak before this Commission. May I begin with a quotation, which is a contribution by the disability community to the ongoing debate concerning the concept of equality.
"The principle of equal rights for the disabled and non-disabled implies that the needs of each and every individual are of equal importance, that these needs must be made the basis for the planning of societies, and that resources must be employed in such a way as to ensure, for every individual, equal opportunities for participation."
You find this statement both in the World Programme of Action (adopted in 1982) and in the Standard Rules (adopted in 1993). When we relate this statement to the situation of disabled people around the world, it becomes extremely relevant. The needs of disabled people are not taken into account in the "planning of societies" and the resources are not employed to ensure "equal opportunities for participation".
If I, after thirty years of work in the international disability field, were to choose one word to describe the situation of disabled people, I would without any hesitation say "exclusion". By international standards of classification there are at least 500 million disabled people in the world. Due to several factors, the number is expected to rise. Millions and millions of disabled people in developing countries lack access to education, have poor health conditions, are poverty stricken and socially isolated. It is a well-known fact that there is a close link between disability and poverty. Disability leads to poverty; poverty leads to disability.
What is being done is often achieved by voluntary organizations, while Governments in many cases fail to assume their responsibilities. Concerning countries in transition the situation is similar. One great problem in many of these countries is that it has been an accepted public policy throughout the years to put disabled people - children and adults - in institutions, where they spend their whole lives. Of course, there is a link between the general economic situation of the country and the living conditions of disabled people. Exclusion also seriously limits progress and development.
Even though the situation of persons with disabilities in industrialized countries is much better, the goal of full participation will not be possible to attain without a considerable improvement of the situation. Especially, I would like to point to the area of employment, where the employment rates for the different groups of disabled people are dramatically lower than for those of the general population. In most industrialized countries, access to programmes, services and activities, generally available to non- disabled people, is still limited.
The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993. They were elaborated on the basis of the World Programme of Action and the experiences gained during the UN Decade of disabled persons (1983-1992). The purpose of the Rules is to provide guidance for Member States in their efforts to work towards full participation and equal opportunities for persons with disabilities. To illustrate the core message of the Standard Rules, let me quote the following two sentences from the Introduction:
"In all societies of the world there are still obstacles preventing persons with disabilities from exercising their rights and freedoms and making it difficult for them to participate fully in the activities of their societies. It is the responsibility of States to take appropriate action to remove such obstacles."
As is made clear in this statement, the Standard Rules apply a human rights perspective as a basis for its recommendations. In addition, the Standard Rules document could be described both as a code of conduct for Governments and as an implementation tool.
The Standard Rules document contains a rather detailed description of the monitoring mechanism. The purpose of the monitoring is to "further the effective implementation of the Standard Rules". There are three actors within the monitoring mechanism. The results of the monitoring shall be reported to the UN Commission for Social Development. A Special Rapporteur has the responsibility for the actual monitoring. A panel of experts serves in a consultative capacity. This panel has been formed by Six international organizations, representing the interests of disabled people, having a powerful network of national affiliates in more than 160 States.
I have reported twice to the Commission for Social Development. Both my reports have been circulated as documents before the General Assembly (A/50/374 and A152/56). Our collection of information has been done by extensive traveling and through two global surveys which have been reported. In a highly condensed form I should here like to summarize our findings.
The adoption of the Standard Rules and the activities within the monitoring mechanism have created a momentum, which is very important to keep alive. In our second survey 85% of the responding Governments stated that the Rules have led to rethinking or strengthening of their disability policies. A considerable number of Governments have adopted new legislation, made plans of action or otherwise initiated a further development of their policies, based on the Standard Rules. There are good examples of such initiatives in all regions of the world. The Economic and Social Council of the Asian and Pacific Region (ESCAP) has formed an "Agenda for Action" for a second decade (1993-2002), which in spirit comes very close to the Standard Rules. All the UN agencies with key-roles for disability policy have taken new and interesting initiatives during the 1990's. There is an obvious need for more effective co-ordination and co-operation between these agencies and the UN secretariat. I have suggested that the previously used inter-agency mechanism should be re-established to meet this need.
To approach the goal of full participation, nations must learn how to integrate disability measures into all kinds of development and to do this at an early stage. One obvious area, where we up to now have failed to do this, concerns development cooperation. Unfortunately, we in this way waste a lot of opportunities to include the needs of disabled people in programmes and services, which would have a decisive effect on the living conditions of disabled people. This neglect or omission is not in harmony with the Standard Rules and in serious cases must be considered as discrimination. We should give top priority in future to finding effective ways to eliminate this discriminatory behaviour.
Several studies show that education is an area where the exclusion of disabled girls and boys in general school programmes is a very serious problem. Still a lot of large development programmes in the education field, supported by both national and international funding agencies, are run without paying any attention to the needs of disabled children. Like many others we found that employment is another problematic area. Without considerable improvement in the field of employment and other forms of income-earning activities it is impossible to approach the goal of full participation.
The description above may seem negative and pessimistic. The rule of exclusion, however, is a strong force. When viewed through a disability perspective, there is little compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have, however, noticed growing awareness among Governments and there are good initiatives which will be of importance for the future. As is emphasized in the Standard Rules, a prerequisite for development is that disabled people themselves and their organizations have an opportunity to influence the development on the basis of their experience. Governments should develop their co-operation with organizations of disabled people and other organizations in the disability field. One encouraging result of our surveys is that we found a "pattern of co-operation" between Governments and organizations, which is spreading and gaining importance. We found that 74% of the responding Governments have national councils on disability and that in 62% of countries, organizations of disabled people have a legal mandate to influence public disability policy.
As you know, my mandate as Special Rapporteur concerns the promotion and monitoring of policy development in the disability field. My observations are, of course, also relevant for the discussion of the human rights of disabled people. As I said initially, a state of "exclusion" prevails in the disability field. This is expressed either by lack of access to important parts of the community or through sending disabled people away to live in institutions.
In the institutional environment it is, of course, impossible to create opportunities for social integration. We also know that many forms of degrading treatment, sexual abuse and various other forms of violence occur in such secluded places.
The exclusion of disabled people in the open society has its roots in lack of knowledge and attitudinal barriers. It mainly leads to neglect of the needs of disabled people when designing and constructing environment, services and programmes, available to nondisabled people.
In our second survey we included a number of questions concerning legal provisions for participation and access. We also asked about various forms of enforcement mechanisms. Generally, we found that the protection of the rights and freedoms of disabled people is weak in many countries and in many areas. To our surprise we found that there were a number of legal provisions, Government regulations and practical routines, explicitly excluding groups of disabled people from such fundamental rights as access to courts-of-law, political rights, property rights and the right to parenthood and marriage. During the 1990's the international NGOs in the disability field have started to involve more directly in the human rights area. Many of them have established committees on human rights and started to collect information on problems and alleged violations. Their available information to a high degree confirms the findings of our survey.
During the drafting of the World Programme of Action the issue of human rights for disabled people was discussed. A section on human rights was included in the World Programme. On the basis of this analysis, Mr. Leandro Despouy was appointed Special Rapporteur to make a study on human rights and disabled people. His report (Human Rights and Disabled Persons, Study Series No. 6), published at the beginning of the 1990's, has stimulated a series of other activities within the human rights area, which are encouraging. In particular, I should like to mention the General Comment No. 5 from 1994 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the increased attention to the situation of disabled children, given by the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the recently commenced work concerning disabled women by the Commission on the Status of Women, and the resolution 1996/27, adopted by this Commission. Together these initiatives signify important progress.
In addition to the above mentioned formal initiatives, a number of well-known specialists in the human rights area have written papers on various aspects of human rights and disability. I have studied these documents and I notice that human rights specialists have developed a deeper understanding of the problems involved and about how they relate to the protection and monitoring of the human rights.
During the 1990's some countries have adopted anti-discrimination legislation in the disability field. The concept of "reasonable accommodation" is obviously becoming the tool through which the different obstacles to participation for disabled people can be handled. After the presentation of the above mentioned General Comment No 5, I am convinced that more countries will consider taking new legislative initiatives. In my opinion - and I have not consulted with my panel in this - we should accept the concept of "reasonable accommodation" for the time being. It seems to be a politically and economically manageable approach. Let us see how far we can come on the basis of this method. Principally, however, it is important to emphasize that the human rights of disabled people must not, in any case, be compromised.
Our monitoring of the Standard Rules indicates that the two areas of social development and human rights are communicating vessels. The more successful we are in removing structural barriers in social development, the more opportunities for persons with disabilities to enjoy their rights and freedoms. A stronger protection of the rights of disabled persons will also increase the pressure for social change. Let us pursue this dual approach as the best way to meet the challenges of the next century. This means that we have to work both through social development channels and through the human rights entities of the United Nations. Naturally, these two approaches must be coordinated.
Permit me also to comment on the future methods for the protection and monitoring of the human rights of disabled people. As you might know, it was suggested, ten years ago, that a convention on the rights of disabled people should be elaborated. This proposal was turned down by the UN General Assembly. However, this matter might be brought up again. My present position in this is that the further discussion on a special convention should be postponed for the next few years. Let us see how far we can get through already existing channels. What results will the further implementation of the Standard Rules bring? What can we achieve through a strengthened and more elaborate monitoring of the rights of disabled persons via the already existing instruments? My forecast, however, is that the request for a special convention will be brought back to the UN with much more force than ten years ago, if we do not obtain tangible results within the next few years.
To conclude I should like to make a few recommendations, the purpose of which would be to develop awareness, to increase efficiency and to create a closer cooperation between the UN human rights entities, the Standard Rules monitoring mechanism and the NGO's in the disability field.
- A more distinct disability component should be elaborated to be included in all monitoring activities of the UN human rights entities.
- Some of the international organizations of disabled people have collected information on human rights issues. In my second survey I also got some information about discriminatory legislation and practice. I suggest that these various pieces of information should be compiled in a report, which I am sure would increase awareness and knowledge.
- International disability NGO's, to whom the UN monitoring structure in connection with human rights is new, should be invited to participate in the assistance and training, offered by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- More efficient forms for communication and co-operation between the international NGO's in the disability field and the human rights entities should be developed.
- Subject to finding a hosting country and funding, an international conference on human rights and disability should be organized. The purpose should be to stimulate the further development of ideas and methods and promote the exchange of information between human rights experts and representatives of the organizations in the disability field.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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