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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality

Expert Group Meeting on
International Norms and Standards
relating to Disability

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The Meeting considered the desirability of elaborating an international instrument to promote and protect the human rights of persons with disabilities. The Meeting noted that a proposal made in the late 1980s for a new convention on the human rights of persons with disabilities had not been proceeded; the international community had instead devoted its efforts to the development of The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. The Meeting considered the possibility and feasibility of a new instrument and noted that the Organisation of American States was presently engaged in drafting a regional instrument on the subject.

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A. Benefits and drawbacks of a new international instrument

It was recognized that there were advantages and disadvantages in formulating a new international instrument specifically addressing the human rights of persons with disabilities. Prior efforts by the international community to address the rights of persons with disabilities have been inadequate or too limiting of rights. Some norms have had the effect of limiting the State's responsibility to integration 'within the limits of the State’s capacity'; while others limit the responsibility of the State based on the 'capacity' of individuals to exercise their rights. Concern was expressed that a new instrument might have the unintended consequence of marginalising persons with disabilities, and that discrimination could be perpetuated by attention to the rights of persons with disabilities in a special instrument. The severe resource constraints, which already limited the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations human rights mechanisms, also needed to be borne in mind.

On the other hand, many of the existing norms, principles, declarations, standards, and guidelines dealing with disability issues are dispersed through various instruments; some are not sufficiently specific, legally binding; others are not overall, they do not ensure widespread and effective legally operative freedom from discrimination on the basis of disability. A new convention would afford the opportunity to revise or discard existing standards or statements of rights which were inconsistent with current thinking about the human rights of persons with disabilities or which were unsatisfactory in other respects. It was observed that group-specific instruments, for example, those guaranteeing the rights of children, women, minorities, and indigenous peoples, have focused attention on issues that would have remained much less visible under the general human rights instruments.

It was further observed that the diversity and dispersal of existing norms, principles and standards does not serve the needs of uniformity or universalization of rights or of a holistic approach to effective implementation of those norms and other standards. A comprehensive international instrument may also be a convenient format for promoting common standards, guiding domestic policy-makers through use of such common standards, legislators and others to make these standards legally obligatory and practically effective. In turn, the use of common international standards renders reporting and monitoring easier and more rational, providing minimum standards that will be applied in all countries while not precluding the adoption of higher national standards in some States.

It was noted that in some countries there is a need for a treaty because other laws do not provide such minimum protections while persons with disabilities in such countries are in need of greater legal protection. In such jurisdictions, a treaty would impact positively on the development of domestic legislation for the promotion and protection of the rights of the persons with disabilities.

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B. Possible form and core content of a new international instrument

The Meeting suggested that such an instrument should include the fundamental human rights principles set out in this report. The Meeting underlined the importance of ensuring that the formulation of any new convention not dilute existing universal human rights guarantees by creating a separate instrument that qualifies the substance of those rights in the case of persons with disabilities. Moreover, the draft of a new international instrument should include appropriate input of persons with disabilities.

The Meeting also noted that the project of developing a new instrument needs to be approached with realism, in view of the existing strains on the United Nations human rights system, such as heavy resource constraints and the burden imposed on States by existing reporting requirements for treaty mechanisms.

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United Nations, 2003-04
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Social Policy and Development