Participation in Political Life Forms ‘Bedrock’ for Other Rights, Round Table Chair Tells Conference on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

8 September 2011
HR/5070

Participation in Political Life Forms ‘Bedrock’ for Other Rights, Round Table Chair Tells Conference on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

8 September 2011
General Assembly
HR/5070
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

States Parties to Convention

 on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

3rd Meeting (AM)

Participation in Political Life Forms ‘Bedrock’ for Other Rights, Round Table

Chair Tells Conference on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

 

By raising the voices of persons with disabilities to the highest levels of Government and decision-making, their participation in political and public life — a critical human right in itself — also formed the bedrock for many other rights, participants in the Fourth Conference of States Parties to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said today.

Indeed, political participation was “not just a goal in and of itself”, said Shekou Momodou Touray (Sierra Leone), who chaired today’s round table discussion — the second of the three-day session — titled “Ensuring effective and full participation in political and public life”.  Noting that many countries had made progress in mainstreaming participation, he nevertheless called for a “paradigm shift” in removing “unacceptable” obstacles that stood in its way.

According to Article 29 of the five-year-old Convention, States parties are obligated to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy equal participation in political and public life, including the right to vote, stand for elections and hold office.  Unfortunately, Mr. Touray said, in far too many places around the world, they remained “a long way from enjoying that right on an equal footing” with other citizens.

The panel presentations, by high-ranking Government Ministers, representatives of civil society organizations and an official of the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, were followed by a brief open discussion.

Maria Alejandra Villanueva, a panellist from Peru, said she was speaking on behalf of all people without the right to participate in national political life, describing herself as one of thousands of Peruvians excluded from electoral lists and denied the right to vote.  “I want to fight to change this — for me and other persons with disabilities,” she declared.  “I want to be considered a citizen.”

Many speakers emphasized that it was crucial to mainstream disability issues into institutional frameworks through the creation of special Government ministries and focal points.  Such methods could help repeal discriminatory laws, several speakers said, citing their respective national experiences.  They could also facilitate such important benefits as barrier-free access to public spaces or the legal right to seek redress for discrimination.

Throughout the morning session, a wide range of representatives agreed that such institutional changes were only a first step.  While there were strong frameworks for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in public and political life around the world, many obstacles to full participation remained.

One common barrier was the exclusion of persons with disabilities from political parties, said panellist SteveEstey, representative of a Canadian organization.  Persons with disabilities often had trouble attending campaign events or meetings, he said, noting that political parties were rarely required to adhere to basic accessibility standards.  He proposed, in that respect, the creation of a “tool kit” for political parties in the short term, adding that in the longer term, legislative changes should be considered to mandate accessibility within political parties.

Examining that issue from the perspective of the electoral support community, Andrew Bruce, a panellist representing the Electoral Assistance Division in the Department of Political Affairs, suggested several key actions, including the creation of accessible pre-polling and campaign party materials.  No unreasonable restrictions should ever be placed on candidate registration, he stressed, adding that polling stations should be accessible to persons with disabilities so they could cast their votes “secretly and with dignity”.

During this morning’s general debate, representatives of four signatory States—Israel, Japan, Norway and the United States — said their respective Governments were working towards full ratification of the Convention.  Norway’s representative noted a paradigm shift whereby persons with disabilities were no longer viewed as “objects” of charity, but as “subjects” with rights and capable of making their own decisions about matters affecting them most.

The Conference also heard from the representative of Sierra Leone, the only State party to deliver a statement.

Also taking part in the panel discussion were Monthian Buntan, a Senator from Thailand; Theresia Degener, a member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and Julius Nye Cuffie, a Member of Parliament from Sierra Leone, whose statement was read out by a member of his country’s delegation.

Participating in the discussion following the round table were representatives of Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand.

Background

The Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities continued its fourth session this morning, when delegations were expected to continue the general debate, hearing statements from States parties and signatories to the Convention.  They were also expected to hold an interactive expert round-table discussion titled “Ensuring effective and full participation of persons with disabilities in public life.”

Statements by States Parties

SHEKOU MOMODU TOURAY ( Sierra Leone) said his country had demonstrated its commitment to protecting and promoting the rights of persons with disabilities, having signed and ratified the Convention in July 2009.  Among other concrete measures, it had enacted the Persons with Disabilities Act, which mainstreamed disability issues into institutional frameworks, allowing disabled persons to seek legal redress for discrimination.  It had also enacted a national human rights mechanism, created the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and established a limb-fitting hospital to ensure the rehabilitation of war wounded and amputees.

Nonetheless, he continued, those with disabilities were still more likely to be poor and lack access to good social services, health care, education and other amenities.  They were less able to speak on issues affecting their own lives, and in that respect, the Government was taking active measures such as strengthening the relevant ministry so that it could collaborate with other stakeholders, such as non-governmental organizations; facilitating advocacy and information, education and communication to ensure positive change at all levels; and increasing the delivery of social services to persons with disabilities.  He expressed hope that the current session would take concrete actions aimed at mobilizing resources in support of good practices initiated in some countries and replicated in others.

Statements by Signatories to Convention

AHIYA KAMARA, Commissioner for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities of Israel, said his country’s Law for Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities, passed in 1998, was the first of its kind and focused on equality in employment and accessibility.  However, it had not been until 2005 that the law had mandated non-discrimination and full accessibility in all public places, residential buildings and public services.

Israel stood at the forefront in legislating to promote equality and accessibility for people with disabilities, he said, noting, however, that a number of challenges remained.  The attitudes of Israeli people, who all too often saw people with disabilities as recipients of charity, must change.  Employment opportunities must be increased and all laws must be fully in line with the Convention, he said, expressing hope that Israel would be a fully-fledged State party at next year’s Conference.

TETSUYA KIMURA ( Japan) said his county’s Government, having participated actively in the negotiations during the drafting of the Convention, had signed it in 2007 and was now preparing to ratify it.  In the meantime, Japan had established the Ministerial Board for Disability Policy Reform, which was charged with advancing intensive institutional reforms, including improvements to relevant domestic laws necessary for concluding the Convention.

In response to domestic requests, the Government had felt that it was important to establish a mechanism whereby the voices of persons with disabilities could be heard and reflected in national policies, he said.  To that end, it had convened the Committee for Disability Policy reform, half of whose members were either persons with disabilities or family members of such persons.  In line with the Convention, Japan had been engaged in cooperation on disability matters, he said, noting that it had been promoting barrier-free railway facilities and university campuses.  Japan had also been working to establish rehabilitation and vocational training facilities for persons with disabilities.

HEGE WETLAND, Deputy Director General, Family Affairs and Equality Division, Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion of Norway, said the Convention’s adoption had marked a paradigm shift in attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities.  Disabled persons were no longer viewed as “objects” of charity, but as “subjects” with rights and capable of making their own decisions about the matters affecting them most.  Noting her country’s reputation for supporting the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities, she said it had also been a pioneer in establishing a framework for that support in its development cooperation efforts.

It was first and foremost the responsibility of each State to fulfil the Convention’s requirements, but international cooperation was an important tool in that regard, she continued.  “To develop disability-inclusive policies and programmes is a challenge to us all,” she said, adding that Norway had had a policy of disability-inclusive development cooperation for several years.  In addition, Norwegian support had been “high and stable” in the last decade, most of it being channelled to civil society groups through the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.  In the past year, Norway had hosted two international conferences on disability, respectively on obstacles and solutions to mainstreaming disability in development cooperation, and on identifying ways to reach persons with disabilities in conflicts and emergency situations.

JUDITH HEUMANN, Special Adviser for International Disability Rights of the United States, said that during the past year, President Barack Obama had reiterated his Administration’s respect for the rights of persons with disabilities and the need to eliminate all discrimination against them.  He had also pledged to ratify the Convention and devoted key committees to that end.  In that regard, the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development were collaborating to ensure that Government bodies were promoting the rights of persons with disabilities throughout all agencies and departments.

That effort would ensure the coherence of activities in Washington and in the field while enhancing engagement on a range of issues, including discrimination and independent living, she continued.  In addition, federal agencies were using recruitment retention and reasonable accommodation to increase the number of opportunities for persons with disabilities throughout the Federal Government.  The United States continued to seek the valuable input of civil society groups, and their representatives had consistently taken part in discussions with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior Government officials, she said.

Second Round Table Discussion

Mr. TOURAY (Sierra Leone) chaired the round table on “Ensuring effective and full participation in political and public life”, which featured presentations by SteveEstey of the Canadian non-governmental organization Disabled Peoples’ International; Monthian Buntan, a Senator from Thailand; Andrew Bruce of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs; Theresia Degener, a member of Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Maria Alejandra Villanueva of the Peruvian Down Syndrome Society; and Julius Nye Cuffie, a Member of Parliament from Sierra Leone whose statement was read out by Osman Keh Kamara of that country’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

The Chair kicked off the discussion by emphasizing that participation in public and political life was not a goal in and of itself, but a critical element in helping people with disabilities realize all their other rights.  As enshrined in Article 29 of the Convention, persons with disabilities must have the right to engage in politics and decision-making, as well as to choose their political representatives.  Unfortunately, in many places around the world, persons with disabilities were “a long way from enjoying that right on an equal footing” with other citizens, he noted, calling for a “paradigm shift” away from that “unacceptable situation”, and expressing hope that today’s discussion would highlight concrete measures for achieving those goals.

Mr. ESTEY, the first panellist, said that political and public participation were important starting points for any discussion on the Convention.  “It’s all about participation and engagements,” he added in reference to the many aspects of the Convention.  Disabled Persons International had recently undertaken a two-part grass-roots training workshop on political participation for persons with disabilities in Canada.  In the first part, a Harvard University expert on human rights and disability had spoken to some 50 participants, who had thus been equipped with more specific knowledge of their rights.  Building on that knowledge, the second part of the workshop had welcomed Members of Parliament as well as electoral officials and workers, who had discussed the reality of political participation by persons with disabilities.

The training had identified many issues and concerns, he continued, adding that it had also led to the realization that Canada had made many advances in inclusion.  Despite the existence of a strong framework for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in public and political life, an important aspect was missing — their inclusion in political parties.  Persons with disabilities often had trouble attending election meetings or other campaign events, which were not legally mandated to be accessible to them, he said.  Consequently, two main proposals had emerged from the training:  in the short term, an accessibility tool kit should be created for political parties in planning for campaigns; and in the long term, legislative changes should be considered to mandate that political parties make their work more accessible to all.

Mr. BUNTAN said that in Thailand, legislation mandating respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities existed for both citizens and the Government, which, not long ago, had been all but immune from punishment for violating those rights.  That had changed since the establishment of several new legal mandates in 1999.  Lawsuits could now be brought if the rights of persons with disabilities — including the right to public and political participation — were denied.  The Thai Constitution now mandated an ad hoc parliamentary committee to defend the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities and other minorities.  The participation of those groups was mandated to be no less than one third of the committee’s total membership.  The use of Braille voting, another good example of a low-cost and simple approach to making politics accessible to persons with disabilities, had been in place for many years, he said.

Despite such progress, however, many remaining challenges prevented persons with disabilities from serving in certain field, he said.  For example, a law barring them from working as judges would hopefully be repealed as soon as possible.  Lack of access for persons with disabilities was also a challenge for those living in rural or remote areas.  To counter those challenges and move forward, the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Fund had been created to support local-level programmes.  There was also a subcommittee working specifically with non-governmental bodies and organizations of persons with disabilities.  Changes were needed to improve the livelihoods of persons with disabilities, including through greater visibility in public and judicial life, he said.

Mr. BRUCE said that the Electoral Assistance Division of the Department of Political Affairs considered the question of accessibility and participation in the context of the three phases of polling.  In the pre-polling period, the inclusion of persons with disabilities meant that all materials were accessible, that no unreasonable restrictions were placed on candidate registration, and that party platforms and other campaign materials or activities were accessible.  In the polling phase, there was a need to ensure that persons with disabilities served as polling officials, and that polling stations were accessible, allowing persons with disabilities to “cast votes secretly and with dignity”.  In the post-polling period, information on complaints and appeals must be widely distributed and made accessible to persons with disabilities, he said.

A number of countries had made serious efforts to meet those concrete aspects of Article 29, he said, citing Mexico’s Federal Election Institute as a good example.  The United Nations and other international organizations were working throughout the world, including though such activities as building the capacity of civil society organizations to promote the right to political participation, and providing training for election officials.  However, ensuring that such actions were taken was not currently high enough on the international agenda, he cautioned, emphasizing that greater attention must be paid to reforming electoral procedures.  Additionally, bodies involved in election monitoring and assessment must focus on participation by and access for persons with disabilities.

Ms. DEGENER said the right to political participation lay at the heart of democracy and it was remarkable that such a monumental right had only been extended to persons with disabilities in the twenty-first century.  It was necessary to ensure that all groups were able to participate — not just “high-impairment” ones, but children, women and elderly persons with disabilities.  One of the most serious human rights violations against such persons was the denial of their right to vote or stand for election, she emphasized, pointing out that many States had laws that banned them from voting, no matter the nature of their disability.

Yet, there seemed to be a general trend towards revising the traditional restrictions on voting capacity, which often included persons with physical disabilities or those under partial guardianship, she continued.  The European Commission, as well as many other regional bodies, was working to overturn discriminatory or restrictive laws, she said, adding that she was troubled by de facto restrictions on political participation such as lack of access to voting facilities and materials.

She said the Convention’s tripartite call to “respect, protect and fulfil” the right of persons with disabilities to political participation required States to ensure accessibility and provide reasonable accommodations for such individuals.  States should also guard against disenfranchisement by third-party institutions such as welfare agencies, she stressed.  “It is time to give up the fear that democracy is threatened by giving disabled persons the right to vote.”

Ms. VILLANUEVA, saying she was speaking on behalf of all people lacking the right to participate in national political life, described herself as one of the thousands of Peruvians denied the right to vote because they had not been included in the electoral lists.  Having grown up hearing her parents’ wondrous stories about voting, she had been excited about gaining the right to vote when she reached the required age.  However, in 2010, when the voting rolls had been updated, her parents had been questioned about her disability and her mother had been asked to sign her voter’s identification card.

She went on to say that when her mother had explained that she could sign for herself, the officials had told her that people with Down Syndrome could not vote, and returned her identification card, stamped with her ineligibility.  Yet, she had taken the matter to the local court and the decision had been overturned once she had cited the Convention.  She said her travails had not ended there, however, as a few weeks later she had had to rush to get her name reinstated on the voters’ lists so she could participate in Peru’s recent presidential elections.  She said she had surmounted that hurdle, but only by allowing “person with physical disability” to be stamped on her identification card.  “I want to fight to change this — for me and other persons with disabilities,” she declared.  “I want to be considered a citizen.”

Mr. KAMARA, reading out a statement on behalf of Mr. Cuffie, said political participation allowed persons with disabilities effectively to take part in decisions affecting their lives.  Describing the struggle, led by civil society organizations, to ensure that the Sierra Leone Elections Commission made voting facilities and polling stations accessible to persons with disabilities, he said those groups had also pressed for legal changes to ensure respect for their broader rights.

He said the culmination of all that activity was that for the first time in Sierra Leone’s history, disability rights had not only become a key issue in the build-up to the 2007 parliamentary elections, it had also become a matter of heated debate among candidates.  That had led Mr. Cuffie to declare himself a candidate for Parliament, and shortly after his announcement, many other persons with disabilities had begun flocking to his party’s office to register as voters and secure party cards.

Mr. Cuffie had won a parliamentary seat and continued to debate all topics in the legislature from a disability perspective, he said.  The achievement had had a far-reaching impact on colleagues, and further ripple effects had led to the establishment of a strategic commission dealing with disability interests, he continued.  But despite those successes, challenges remained, including the fact that many institutions established by the 2011 Persons with Disabilities Act were not yet up and running.  In addition, the national umbrella civil society organization dealing with the rights of persons with disabilities lacked the finances to push through and carry out its programmes.

In the brief discussion that followed, speakers highlighted efforts by their respective Governments to promote and safeguard the political rights of persons with disabilities.  In several instances, that required revoking discriminatory laws and targeting resources to enhance access to electoral and governmental agencies, including through the provision of Braille or sign language services, training for interpreters and facilities for the deaf or hard of hearing.

The representative of Hungary noted that changing attitudes and constant pressure from civil society and politicians with disabilities had led his country’s Government to prepare for the first-ever full national census of disabled persons.  “We have been dealing with ‘estimates’ and ‘approximates’ for too long,” he said, emphasizing that such comprehensive information would provide the Government with more accurate data while enhancing opportunities for political participation by person with disabilities.

Mr. TOURAY, wrapping up the discussion, said political participation lay at the heart of all efforts to promote inclusive development.  The panellists had shared their wealth of experience with a view to securing the ground for equal participation by persons with disabilities.  They had also highlighted, among other things, the fundamental importance of persons with disabilities voting in elections, thereby demonstrating their concern that people with psycho-social and intellectual disabilities, among other disabilities, were routinely denied that right.  Negative stereotypes about such people must be erased, he stressed.  The panellists were also concerned that physical obstacles continued to hamper access to polling stations and voting facilities.  All the panellists had highlighted the need to ensure participation by persons with disabilities in mechanisms and organizations making decisions that would directly affect their lives.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.