Skip navigation links Sitemap | About us | FAQs

UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality


Documents and contributions
Online discussion
NGO Participation



New York, 16 to 27 June 2003

Mr. Stefano Sensi
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Thank you Mr./Madame Chair.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) would like to draw upon the statement we delivered on Wednesday.

In that statement, we informed participants that our office - following a specific request of the Commission on Human Rights aimed at exploring the human rights dimension of the issue of disability - has published in November last year a comprehensive study entitled Human Rights and Disability: The Current Use and Future Potential of United Nations Human Rights Instruments in the Context of Disability [1].

In this intervention, we would like to highlight some of the contributions made by the human rights treaty bodies to the protection and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities on the basis of existing human rights conventions. These examples provide evidence of the way in which treaty bodies are attempting to tailor general human rights norms to the specific situation of persons with disabilities.

Mr./Madame Chair,

It has become an increasingly common practice for the treaty monitoring bodies to issue "general comments" or "recommendations", which purport to be authoritative - although not legally binding - interpretations of the treaties. I would like to attract your attention on two of such comments, which focus specifically on the rights of persons with disabilities, noting that several other general comments or recommendations may be of relevance to clarify the content of general human rights norms in the context of disability [2].

General Comment No. 5 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) - which has often been referred to in this conference room - spells out the relevance of economic, social and cultural rights in the context of disability. It provides valuable guidance for tailoring general human rights provisions to the specific situation and needs of persons with disabilities. The General Comment is available in this room, and may also be downloaded from our web page on human rights and disability [3].

Let me draw your attention on three elements of the Comment. First, the Committee provides a comprehensive definition of "disability-based discrimination", which includes - I quote - "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference, or denial of reasonable accommodation based on disability which has the effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of economic, social or cultural rights." It is worth stressing that the denial of reasonable accommodation is constructed by the Committee as a specific form of discrimination on the ground of disability.

Second, The General Comment defines the United Nations Standard Rules as a "valuable reference guide" for the interpretation of the relevant obligations of States parties under the Covenant.

Third, the Committee notes that the obligation of States parties to promote the realisation of the human rights of persons with disabilities requires Governments - I quote - "to do much more than merely abstain from taking measures which might have a negative impact on persons with disabilities", and encourage States to take positive action to reduce structural disadvantages and to give appropriate preferential treatment to this group of individuals with a view to achieving the objectives of full participation and equality within society.

CEDAW General Recommendation No. 18, which focuses on the rights of disabled women, should also be taken into account in discussions concerning the proposed new convention [4]. This Recommendation highlights the need to take measures - including temporary special measures - to ensure that women with disabilities have equal access to education, employment, health services and social security, and urges States parties to provide information on the situation of women with disabilities in their reports.

Mr./Madame Chair,

Four of the core human rights treaties (ICCPR, CAT, CERD, CEDAW) establish procedures which allow individuals to submit complaints to the treaty monitoring bodies. Regrettably, only few complaints relating to disability issues have been received to date, and even fewer have passed the admissibility stage. However, these cases demonstrate the potential of the individual complaint mechanism in promoting and protecting the human rights of persons with disabilities and facilitating the tailoring of general human rights norms to the specific situation and needs of persons with disabilities.

In some of these cases, the Human Rights Committee recognised that the failure on the part of the State to attend properly to the author's deteriorating mental health and to take the steps necessary to ameliorate his psychiatric illness constituted a violation of the victim's rights under article 7 and 10 (1) of the Covenant, which protect individuals from inhuman or degrading treatment and lack of respect for human dignity. In another case, the failure by prison authorities to take the detainee's disability into account and make proper arrangement for him was recognised by the Committee as a violation of the same rights.

This last case provides a valuable example on how a general norm of human rights law - in this case, the prohibition of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment - may be tailored to the specific circumstances of disability. In its reasoning, in fact, the Committee stressed that human rights law imposes positive obligations on States parties to the Covenant, and in particular requires the adoption of those measures as may be reasonably needed to accommodate the specific needs of persons with disabilities.

Mr./Madame Chair,

Finally, let me draw your attention to the day of general discussion organised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1997, which was dedicated to "The rights of children with disabilities". This event greatly contributed to enhance understanding of the content and implications of the provisions of the Convention with regard to children with disabilities.

The CRC adopted several recommendations on the basis of the discussion. A working group on the rights of children with disabilities was established in follow-up to the day of general discussion, with the aim of developing a strategy for the implementation of the recommendations of the CRC. This led to the establishment in 2000 of an NGO called "Rights of Disabled Children", which provides regularly country-based information to the CRC on the situation of children with disabilities.

I thank you, Mr./Madame Chair.

20 June 2003


1. G. Quinn and T. Degener, Human Rights and Disability: the Current Use and Future Potential of United Nations Human Rights Instruments in the Context of Disability, HR/PUB/02/1, United Nations, New York and Geneva, 2002.

2. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 5 (Persons with disabilities), 9 December 1994.


4. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 18 (Disabled women), 4 January 1991.

Return to top

Home | Sitemap | About us | News | FAQs | Contact us

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