Saturday, August 26, 2006

UN agrees on disability treaty text

UN agrees on disability treaty text

By Geoff Adams-Spink

An international treaty that will give greater rights and freedoms to
disabled people around the world has been agreed at the United Nations.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted
in New York.

This is the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century, and the UN
hopes it will mark a significant improvement in the treatment of
disabled people.

The world's disabled population is estimated to be 650 million.

Negotiations went past the deadline set by the chairman of the ad-hoc
committee, ambassador Don MacKay of New Zealand.

Welcoming the agreement, he said "I want to thank colleagues from the
disability community for starting off the process and staying with it
all along the way."

"As disabled colleagues say, nothing about us without us."

''It [the convention] will force states to develop a different way of
thinking about disability issues" he said.

"Once you get the paradigm shift... and people adopt a 'can do' rather
than a 'can't do' approach, a whole lot of other things flow from

New rights and freedoms

The treaty is expected to be adopted by the UN General Assembly during
its next session, which starts in September.

Those countries that sign up to it will have to enact laws and other
measures to improve disability rights and also agree to get rid of
legislation, customs and practices that discriminate against disabled

The thinking behind the convention is that welfare and charity should be
replaced by new rights and freedoms.

Currently only 45 countries have specific legislation that protects
disabled people.

The convention recognises that a change of attitude is vital if disabled
people are to achieve equal status - countries that ratify it will be
obliged to combat negative stereotypes and prejudices and to promote an
awareness of people's abilities and contribution to society.

Countries will also have to guarantee that disabled people will have a
right to life on an equal basis with others.

Access to public spaces and buildings as well as transport, information
and communications will also have to be improved.

US abstention

Most notable among the countries that will not be signing the convention
is the United States.

It says that it already has comprehensive laws on disability rights.

But this is not something that concerns Maria Raina, co-ordinator of the
international disability caucus which has been part of the negotiations.

"I think the USA is going to sign the convention as it did with other
conventions," she told the BBC News website.

"When you sign the convention you are agreeing to the principles even if
you don't have the obligation to apply them."

'Welcome step'

The treaty has been welcomed by the UK's statutory body, the Disability
Rights Commission (DRC).

"The greatest significance will be a 'levelling up' of provision across
the world, and the creation of civil and human rights for disabled
people," said DRC chairman Bert Massie.

"Not every country has that now. Following the convention and when it's
ratified by the UN, we will have approval for this enhancement of the
rights of disabled people across the world."

Although current estimates are that about 10% of the world's population
has a disability, the World Health Organization estimates that this is
likely to increase as a result of medical advances and the ageing

Negotiations had been delayed because of two issues: the situation of
disabled people in situations of risk, and access to sexual and
reproductive health services.

Although the treaty refers to "situations of risk", these were not
specified; the wording had been taken to refer to war zones and natural
disasters but some people wanted this to include occupation by a foreign
power - a clear reference to the situation in the Middle East.

Cultural differences on matters like abortion, contraception, aids
prevention and sex education mean that reaching an agreed position was
particularly difficult.

Given the economic, social and cultural differences across the world, it
will be some years before the minimum standards set out in the
convention will be universally applied.

But for campaigners who say that for too long the world's largest
minority has been pushed to the margins of society, it will certainly be
seen as a welcome first step.
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