DESA News Vol. 13, No. 08 August 2009


Disability pact provides road map to improve lives of millionsDisability pact provides road map to improve lives of millions

People with disabilities suffer some of the worst violations of their human rights, but a groundbreaking United Nations treaty that entered into force last year provides a road map to improve this situation.

The UN treaty, which entered into force May last year, is the culmination of years of global efforts to ensure that the rights of the world’s estimated 650 million persons with disabilities are guaranteed and protected. It asserts the rights to education, health, work, adequate living conditions, freedom of movement, freedom from exploitation and equal recognition before the law for persons with disabilities.

The treaty also addresses the need for persons with disabilities to have access to public transport, buildings and other facilities and recognizes their capacity to make decisions for themselves. In addition, the Convention’s Optional Protocol allows individuals to petition an international expert body with grievances.

Eighty per cent of persons with disabilities – more than 400 million people – live in poor countries, the least equipped to address their needs. All over the world, persons with disabilities continue to face barriers to their participation in society and are more likely to have lower standards of living.

When immediate family members are included, the number of people affected by disabilities exceeds one billion. This is particularly important, as disabilities are a contributing factor for poverty, reduced access to education and health, exclusion and discrimination for both persons with disabilities and their families.

Ratification of the Convention

States that ratify the Convention are legally bound to treat persons with disabilities not just as victims or members of a minority, but as subjects of the law with clearly defined rights. They will have to adapt their domestic legislation to the standards set forth in the treaty.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol entered into force on 3 May 2008. Since then, 62 Governments have ratified and 142 have signed the Convention, while the Optional Protocol to the Convention has been signed by 85 countries and ratified by 40.

Article 33 of the convention explains that States must set up national focal points within governments in order to monitor implementation of the Convention. States must also set up some sort of independent monitoring mechanisms – which usually takes the form of an independent national human rights institution.

The full participation of civil society, in particular persons with disabilities and their representative organizations is essential in the national monitoring and implementation process. International monitoring is achieved via the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Conference of States Parties.

Conference of States Parties

States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gathered for the first time on 31 October and 3 November 2008 in New York.

At this first meeting States Parties formally established the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and elected its members. The Conference also considered matters related to the Convention, and held a panel discussion on “The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a human rights instrument and a tool for achieving the Millennium Development Goals”. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities membership comprises of 12 independent experts tasked to monitor the implementation of the Convention.

The States Parties to the Convention will convene their second conference at United Nations Headquarters from 2-4 September 2009. The participants in the Conference will discuss legislative measures to implement the Convention and will also include a high level segment, as well as interactive dialogues on the on-going work of the United Nations system for the implementation of the Convention. Non-governmental organizations will participate along with Governments in an informal session on emerging issues related to the global economic crisis, poverty and the implementation of the Convention.

Disability is a socially created problem

The Convention moves beyond the question of access to the physical environment, to broader issues of equality and elimination of legal and social barriers to participation, social opportunities, health, education, employment and personal development.

The treaty views disability as a result of the interaction between an inaccessible environment and a person, rather than an inherent attribute of an individual. It replaces the old “medical model” of disability by a social and human rights model based on the fact that it is society that “disables" persons with disabilities from participating fully in society and exercising their human rights as citizens.

This approach reflects the social perspective taken by the International Classification of Functioning of WHO, which sees disability as a universal human experience and not a concern of a minority as every human being can suffer from a health loss and experience some disability during their lifespan.

The Convention sets global standards on disability rights

The global population of persons with disabilities is increasing, says WHO. Population growth, medical advances and the ageing of the world population all contribute to this increase. In countries with life expectancies over 70 years, individuals spend on average about 8 years, or 11.5 per cent of their life span, living with disabilities.

Many countries still do not have laws on disability. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only one third of countries have anti-discrimination and other disability-specific laws. The Convention will prompt governments to create legislation or improve current laws to bring them up to the standards it sets.

The Convention has many other advantages. It provides accepted global legal standards on disability rights; clarifies the content of human rights principles and their application to the situation of persons with disabilities; provides an authoritative and global reference point for domestic laws and policies; provides effective mechanisms for monitoring, including supervision by a body of experts and reporting on implementation by governments and NGOs; provides a standard of assessment and achievement; and establishes a framework for international cooperation. It also helps to educate public opinion as countries consider ratification.

The treaty recognizes reproductive health rights and is the first universal human rights treaty that mentions sexual and reproductive health. Studies show that persons with disabilities are up to three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse, and are at greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Organizations of persons with disabilities fully participated in the negotiations and had a significant impact on the drafting of the Convention. The treaty provides for the creation of national independent structures responsible for its implementation and monitoring. Persons with disabilities and representatives of disability organizations are to be members of such bodies.

Persons with disabilities are empowered

For countries ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention, a body of experts will be able to consider complaints from individuals or groups on inadequate implementation of the treaty, once all national recourse procedures have been exhausted.

The Convention gives persons with disabilities a powerful tool. “The mere existence of the Convention gives persons with disabilities and their organizations the ability to say to their governments, ‘You have accepted these obligations’, and insist that they be met;” said Don MacKay, the Chairman of the committee that drafted the treaty.

But to realize the rights enshrined in the Convention, a fundamental change of attitude is necessary. “Disability,” says the Convention, “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society.” Changing attitudes towards persons with disabilities will be necessary to make the objectives of the Convention a reality.

“It is all a matter of breaking down negative perceptions,” said Chris Sullivan, a Merrill Lynch Vice-President who was born hearing-impaired. “You have to look at the person and not at the disability. That requires a tremendous change of perception in everyone.”

Source: UN News Center, Press Releases, Backgrounder

For more information:

Countries to boost efforts to meet aid commitmentsCountries to boost efforts to meet aid commitments

More than halfway to the 2015 deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), major advances in the fight against poverty and hunger have begun to slow or even reverse as a result of the global economic and food crises, says the MDG Report 2009, launched by the Secretary-General in Geneva on 6 July.

“This year’s MDG Report delivers a message that should not surprise us but which we must take to heart: the current economic environment makes achieving the goals even more difficult,” Mr. Ban told the high-level segment of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The Secretary-General noted that higher food prices in 2008 have reversed the nearly two-decade trend in reducing the proportion of people who suffer from hunger in the developing world. In addition, momentum to reduce overall poverty in the developing world is slowing; tens of millions of people have been pushed into joblessness and greater vulnerability; and some countries stand to miss their poverty reduction goals.

Further, the target for eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 has already been missed. Meanwhile, 1.4 billion people must gain access to improved sanitation by 2015 in order to achieve the sanitation target.

Major gains in the fight against extreme poverty are likely to stall, indicators show, although data are not yet available to reveal the full impact of the recent economic downturn. In 2009, an estimated 55 million to 90 million more people will be living in extreme poverty than anticipated before the crisis.

At the same time, the report does show some progress. Fewer people today are dying of AIDS and many countries are implementing proven strategies to combat malaria and measles, two major killers of children.

Comprehensiveness of report

The MDG report, which presents the yearly assessment of global progress towards the MDGs, is prepared by the Statistics Division of DESA. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Sha Zukang, described the report as the most comprehensive global MDG assessment to date.

It is based, he said, on a set of data prepared by over 20 organizations both within and outside the United Nations system, including the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Globally, the picture is mixed

Gains in the eradication of hunger since the early 1990s—when the proportion of hungry people decreased from 20 per cent in 1990-92 to 16 per cent in 2004-06—were reversed in 2008, largely due to higher food prices. A decrease in international food prices in the second half of 2008 has since failed to translate into more affordable food for most people around the world.

In the period 1990 to 2005, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased from 1.8 billion to 1.4 billion (prior to the economic crisis and higher food prices). But major gains in the fight against extreme poverty are likely to stall, indicators show, although data are not yet available to reveal the full impact of the recent economic downturn.

More than one-quarter of children in developing regions are underweight for their age, and the meagre progress on child nutrition from 1990 to 2007 is insufficient to meet the 2015 target. This will likely be eroded further by high food prices and economic turmoil.

Global unemployment in 2009 could reach 6.1 to 7.0 per cent for men and 6.5 to 7.4 per cent for women, many of whom remain trapped in insecure – often unpaid– jobs, holding back progress towards gender equality.

Furthermore, the report suggests that many global gains were due to a dramatic fall in poverty rates in East Asia. Elsewhere, progress has been slower. Sub-Saharan Africa counted 100 million more extremely poor people in 2005 than in 1990, and the poverty rate remained above 50 per cent.

The ability of countries themselves to finance development programmes may also be in jeopardy. Export revenues of developing countries fell in the last quarter of 2008, as the financial meltdown in high-income economies began to trickle down. The debt service to export ratio of developing countries is likely to deteriorate further, especially for those countries that enjoyed increased export revenues for the last several years.

At the 2005 Group of Eight summit at Gleneagles and at the General Assembly World Summit later that year, donors committed to increasing their aid. The majority of these commitments remain in force, but as the global economy contracts in 2009, as anticipated, the absolute amount of such commitments would diminish, since most are expressed as a percentage of national income. For many developing countries, lower levels of aid would not only impede further progress, but could reverse some of the gains already made, says the MDG Report.

Major advances before the economic crisis

The report portrays remarkable advances that many countries and regions had made before the economic landscape changed so radically in 2008. In the developing world, enrolment in primary education reached 88 per cent in 2007, up from 83 per cent in 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, enrolment increased by 15 percentage points and 11 percentage points, respectively, from 2000 to 2007.

Deaths in children under five declined steadily worldwide — to around 9 million in 2007, down from 12.6 million in 1990, despite population growth. Although child mortality rates remain highest in sub-Saharan Africa, there have been remarkable improvements in key interventions, including the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets to reduce the toll of malaria – a major killer of children. As a result of ‘second chance’ immunizations, dramatic progress is also being made in the fight against measles.

Worldwide, the number of people newly infected with HIV peaked in 1996 and has since declined, to 2.7 million in 2007. The estimated number of AIDS deaths also appears to have peaked, in 2005, at 2.2 million, and has since declined to 2 million in 2007, partly due to increased access to antiretroviral drugs in poorer countries. Still, the number of people living with HIV worldwide – estimated at 33 million in 2007 – continues to grow, largely because people infected with the virus are surviving longer.


The report calls on governments and all stakeholders to revitalize efforts to provide productive and decent employment for all, including women and young people. It points out that employment opportunities for women in Southern Asia, Northern Africa and Western Asia remain extremely low.

The target of eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 has already been missed. The report urges governments to intensify efforts to get all children into school, especially those living in rural communities, and eliminate inequalities in education based on gender and ethnicity.

Greater political will must be mustered to reduce maternal mortality, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, according to the report. Rapid acceleration of progress is needed to bring improved sanitation – toilets or latrines – to the 1.4 billion people still lacking, or the 2015 sanitation target will be missed. And slum improvements are barely keeping pace with the rapid growth of developing country cities.

Source: UN News Center, MDG Press Releases

For more information:

Declaration on public health challenges adopted

Declaration on public health challenges adopted

At the end of the four-day High-level Segment of the Economic and Social Council, delegates adopted by consensus a ministerial declaration on 9 July, calling for global cooperation to tackle public health challenges in the face of interrelated food, economic and climate crises, which are stalling efforts to reach development targets. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, called the Declaration a comprehensive text, noting that a follow-up meeting will be held next year to gauge how much of an impact this document has in changing public health systems.

Video: (6 minutes)
Statement: Full coverage:
Conference website: