30 March 2007
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ON SIGNING OF CONVENTION


Praising the enthusiastic response to the disabilities Convention, which opened for signature today at Headquarters, Government officials and disability rights advocates joined High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, at a press conference announcing that more than 80 countries had signed the treaty.


Ms. Arbour, high-level officials from Ecuador, Mexico and New Zealand, ambassadors and a spokesperson for the International Disability Caucus were among those who used the terms “record-setting,” and “unprecedented” in describing the Convention, which aims to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with everyone else.


They noted that one country, Jamaica, had just ratified the instrument and 43 others had signed its Optional Protocol, thereby allowing individuals and groups to present petitions regarding alleged rights violations to an expert committee once all national recourse procedures had been exhausted.  The event also marked first time that the European Community had signed a core United Nations human rights treaty.  “This is an extraordinary event in the history of the development of important human rights instruments in the United Nations,” Ms. Arbour said of the broad and early show of support for the Convention, which needs 20 ratifications to enter into force.  The drive and commitment of the disability community itself had given the greatest impetus to the Convention’s content and to its having received such broad-based recognition.


“This is the first step in empowering a community that now will have a set of national, regional and international instruments for the advancement of their rights, to the great benefit of us all,” the High Commissioner said.  The Convention was also the first human rights instrument of the twenty-first century and it was very appropriate that it targeted a community that had been so marginalized for so long.  It was also significant that the treaty, formally known as the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, spoke a “rights language”, rather than a “needs-based or social welfare language”.


In a passionate statement met with rousing applause, Yannis Vardakastanis of the International Disability Caucus said the Convention represented a drastic paradigm shift in the decades-long war of ideas which had, until now, cast persons with disabilities as charity cases, rather than as rights holders.  “The world’s 650 million disabled persons expect and anticipate that the Convention will change their real living conditions.  They expect that this Convention will take away the discrimination, the exclusion and all the obstacles that people with disabilities were faced with.”


Lenín Moreno, Vice-President of Ecuador, described the Convention as an historic step towards ensuring that disabled persons participated equally in society and exercised fully their fundamental rights.  Ecuador was moving quickly to adopt a legislative framework that would enable persons with disabilities to exercise their education, health and legal rights on an equal footing with other citizens.


Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, Mexico’s Under-Secretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, said the speedy negotiations on the Convention would not have been possible without the dedication and active participation of civil society.  Indeed, the negotiating process had been unprecedented in the history of the United Nations because disability-rights activists and representatives of non-governmental organizations had participated in the talks on a nearly similar footing as Member States.  The treaty contained a monitoring mechanism in line with other global treaties, which would enable all stakeholders to monitor implementation efforts and identify the main challenges to compliance.


Ruth Dyson, Minister for Disabilities Issues of New Zealand, said implementation of the Convention must now prove that the newly-energized partnership between civil society and the United Nations was genuine and ongoing.  “This is a huge cause for celebration for the international community, particularly for disabled people,” she added.


In a question-and-answer exchange with reporters, Ms. Arbour said the level of participation signalled that the momentum to ensure the human rights of disabled persons was “stronger than ever”, and that some who were celebrating today would have to start working “pretty hard”, including those that had signed or ratified the Convention.


Asked about next steps, she said that Governments would have to enact relevant legislation and put in place protection and monitoring systems.  They would then have to report to a committee of experts, who would monitor actual implementation.  “In concrete terms, I think we’re going to see speedy ratification, a speedy entry into force of this Convention and implementation measures that will have to be put in place.”


As for the job ahead for States parties, she noted that most legislation did not necessarily discriminate explicitly, but Governments must be keenly aware of the “discriminatory impact” of laws and programmes that were essentially neutral.  For example, a law giving everyone in a country the right to vote was a fair one, but, in reality, voting processes might have been set up in such a way that reasonable accommodations for the blind or wheelchair-bound had not been provided.  Persons with such disabilities might therefore be excluded from exercising their rights like everyone else.


“The fight against discriminatory impact is at the heart of the combat against discrimination,” she said, stressing the importance of looking deeper than the wording of legislation that might be considered malicious.  Laws were replete with examples of discriminatory impact, and addressing that aspect would be difficult for many countries.  That had also been a problem historically with respect to gender discrimination.  “Provisions that require you to be a certain height to occupy a certain function can have a discriminatory impact on women…so it’s going to be a real challenge for many countries to scrutinize their legislation to ensure that they don’t contain built-in barriers.”


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For information media • not an official record