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Statement by Mr. Thomas Schindlmayr, of the United Nations Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the early part of the last century, the concept of eugenics underlined numerous social policies in the Western world. The idea that certain individuals were inferior to others had gripped the imagination of numerous academics, politicians and medical professionals, and that to improve society it was essential to weed out undesirable traits and conditions.

No other country has so systematically implemented eugenic policies as Nazi Germany, and persons with disabilities were their first target. They were referred to by some as ‘useless eaters’ due to their perceived inability to contribute to society while consuming valuable resources, and as having ‘lives not worth living’.

They were deemed incapable of making their own decisions and assuming the responsibilities that abled-bodied individuals ordinarily bore. So they were stripped of any legal protection and denied control over their own lives and bodies. In one of its first moves, the Nazi regime introduced forced sterilizations of persons with disabilities in 1934. These measures were later extended, when on the eve of war Hitler announced the ‘Aktion T4’ initiative, whereby individuals were to be murdered in specially built facilities disguised as hospitals. Many of the methods first used on persons with disabilities were later employed in the extermination of other population groups.

The German example is a stark illustration of denigration and dehumanization—when some people determine that other people are not people at all. And although we think we have learned from history, there is still significant evidence that we might not have learned as much as we need.

Although the term eugenics may not be heard very often nowadays, the notion that persons with disabilities are some how inferior to others is still very much prevalent. Why is it that persons with disabilities still live at the margins of society in so many countries? Why do so many live in extreme poverty? Why do so few children with disabilities go to school in so many places?

Only some 45 countries have a disability anti-discrimination legislation. Most are denied basic amenities that others just simply take for granted. Discrimination can still be seen everywhere, and, although, in theory persons with disabilities have the same human rights as everyone, in reality they continue to have their rights circumscribed.

In December 2006, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - the first human rights treaty of the 21st century. It emphasizes a major shift in the way we look at people--from seeing persons with disabilities as objects of pity and charity to individuals with expressed human rights. Several articles in the Convention address many of the more extreme human rights violations occurring in Nazi Germany, including the prohibition of medical experiments, torture, and discrimination on the grounds of disability; as well as offering protection from violence and abuse; a reaffirmation that every human being has the inherent right to life, and ensuring the respect of their physical and mental integrity.

Legal protection alone, however, will not end discrimination against persons with disabilities. To make sure that the events of Nazi Germany never happen again we need to combat the negative stereotypes and prejudices that still exist and replace them with an awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities. When societies realize that persons with disabilities are not ‘useless eaters’, rather individuals that can contribute as much as everyone else we will all benefit. Persons with disabilities are humans like everyone else and they should never again have their rights so systematically denied. The newly adopted Convention makes a considerable step forward to ensuring that the human rights of the 650 million persons with disabilities are finally acknowledged, and, ladies and gentlemen, unlike the views of the Nazis it recognizes that our lives are indeed worth living.

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