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NGO Participation


Agenda Item 7
Contributions to proposals for a comprehensive and integral international convention on the protection and promotion of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities

New York, 16 to 27 June 2003

Dr. Jan Scown
New Zealand

Mr Chairman, as we outlined in our statement yesterday, New Zealand actively supports the development of a binding international convention for people with disabilities. This convention should highlight, reaffirm and articulate the human rights and fundamental freedoms of disabled people.

In this statement, Mr Chairman, we outline our views on:

  • an appropriate model on which to base the structure and content of a convention which protects and promotes the rights of disabled people;
  • the elements to be considered for inclusion in the convention; and,
  • an ongoing process for developing the convention.

A model for determining the structure and content of the convention

Mr Chairman, it is apparent that there are differing views and interpretations in the use of terminology surrounding the various models being debated at this meeting. To avoid misunderstanding, we suggest that delegations speak in terms of the content of the convention, using concrete examples, when discussing typology or models.

Mr Chairman, it is clear to us that in defining measures that will deliver human rights and fundamental freedoms we shall, inevitably, require social development and affirmative action.

New Zealand does not view the various models discussed at this meeting as mutually exclusive options. We consider it would be undesirable, and indeed unproductive, to attempt to be overly prescriptive about how States develop and implement these measures in different cultural contexts. Moreover, we see it as essential for this convention to draw upon the mandatory authority of the core human rights treaties, by expanding on the provisions in those conventions in a way that provides explicit recognition of what they actually mean for disabled people.

Mr Chairman, it is neither necessary nor desirable to invent new rights or detract from existing rights provided for all people, including disabled people, in existing treaties. Rather, the convention should clarify for States the measures required to ensure disabled people are able to enjoy their existing rights and fundamental freedoms.

Mr Chairman, this must involve consideration of the social, cultural, economic, civil and political conditions that are required to ensure the full and diverse population of disabled people are able to exercise their rights. This will also entail explicit recognition and understanding of disability in a rights framework rather than a welfare framework, which historically has been the context.

In line with this approach, New Zealand strongly supports the recommendations developed by the Asian and Pacific regional expert committee in Bangkok June 2-4 2003. That meeting proposed a comprehensive convention that restates the rights contained in existing human rights instruments, but goes further than a simple statement of the right to equality and non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Elements to be considered for inclusion in the convention

With respect to the elements to be considered for inclusion in the convention, Mr Chairman, New Zealand again urges delegates at this meeting to offer concrete examples to ensure a common understanding.

It is important to convey in the preamble a statement of principles and objectives. We need to ensure an explicit understanding that impairment can be permanent, temporary, episodic or perceived, and that disablement is something that results from social and environmental factors.

In developing the New Zealand Disability Strategy, there was a clear understanding that disablement is a process that occurs when people, with a diverse range of impairments, are disabled by barriers to their participation and independence in society. To ensure a society that is inclusive and which enables disabled people to exercise their human rights, it is necessary to design and reframe the social and physical environment in a way that accommodates people with minority impairments.

Mr Chairman, it can be helpful, we suggest, to think in terms of majority and minority impairments. The majority of people, for example, cannot easily run up 10 flights of stairs, so we usually have elevators in tall buildings. The majority of people cannot read 2 pt font sizes so we tend to use larger fonts. The majority of people require rest from work so we have weekends and holidays. A minority of people, however, have other impairments, which society does not adequately accommodate and these people are therefore disabled.

With this understanding of disability, Mr Chairman, it is clear that measures to ensure rights of disabled people require affirmative action to change and develop the social infrastructure. We note that these affirmative measures for ensuring the rights of disabled people can be of a significantly different nature to those proposed to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race or gender. The latter aim to equalise opportunities for certain population groups, with the assumption that once this has occurred the measure will no longer be required. Whereas affirmative action for disabled people might be targeted at permanent change in the environment overall or may involve the provision of ongoing and specific support for individuals to ensure they are able to participate and exercise their rights.

Consistent with this rights based and social model for dealing with disability issues, New Zealand believes it is important to retain a primary focus in the convention on supplementing the assertion of human rights contained in the International Bill of Rights and other instruments. We appreciate that this rights approach does not deal with some very important issues such as those relating to public health matters, including prevention of illness and injury. We believe, however, that these matters are more adequately dealt with in other settings.

Mr Chairman, in elaborating a convention, we need to avoid stretching its scope to fit territory wider than that which can comfortably be accommodated within the existing human rights framework. Rather, the convention should include detailed elaborations or specific interpretations of what is required for all disabled people to enjoy their existing human rights.

For example:

  • Communication and linguistic rights for disabled people, the use of sign language for deaf people, or accessible formats of information for people with intellectual disabilities, could be derived from various entitlements such as the right to freedom of expression and the right to political participation and rights related to fair carriage of justice.
  • The right to personal self-determination, dignity and choice in relation to living in the community - including access to services and support in the community which a person lives rather than in closed institutional facilities - could draw upon rights to liberty and security of the person and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
  • Rights to access technology and accommodations required to participate in the workplace can be derived from the right to work.
  • Rights to sexuality and to participation in families for disabled people can be derived from the right to marry and found families.

The measures that States must employ to ensure the rights of disabled people are intimately related to the local social infrastructure and are dependant on the social, political and cultural context. It is therefore not desirable to prescribe the measures but rather to specify the rights related outcomes that would be expected to result from disability specific measures.

Mr Chairman, to ensure that the convention places realistic and achievable obligations on States, there may need to be recognition of those specific rights which are immediately applicable (as already required under existing human rights treaties), and those which are required to be progressively achieved. The latter would acknowledge that structural and social changes to society occur over time with proactive intervention from governments and legal systems.

The process for developing a convention

An important part of the New Zealand approach to ensure that disability issues are adequately understood and addressed, is to develop policy in partnership with disabled people. This principle of partnership is a goal in its own right as well as an important part of a process for achieving other goals for disabled people. New Zealand believes this principle of partnership needs to be reflected in the design of the process to develop the convention. It is essential that states and non-government organisations engage in the process of developing a text for this Committee to consider.

This means that the process needs to be open, consultative and accessible to disabled people. Moreover partnership needs to occur both when States develop their own input to the convention and also in the drafting process itself.

We believe that there should be no loss of momentum in the activity of states between this meeting and our next one. We consider, therefore, that the process for developing a draft text for the convention should involve direct participation by States.

One option, Mr Chairman, that we believe is worth exploring, would be to establish a group of states. It should have representatives from each regional group, together with representatives from non-government organisations of disabled people, selected by NGO's themselves. They could be charged with producing a text that is appropriate for a human rights convention, and that incorporates proposals already made as well as those still to come. They could meet inter-sessionally, within the mandate of this Committee, and submit their conclusions to its next meeting.

Mr Chairman, we ask that you actively explore this option and allow delegations the opportunity to reflect on it.

Thank you Mr Chairman.

18 June 2003

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