Experts Urge Governments, United Nations to Ensure Greater Inclusion for Persons with Disabilities, Albinism, as Third Committee Continues Human Rights Debate

GA/SHC/4210
24 October 2017
Seventy-second Session, 28th & 29th Meetings (AM & PM)

Experts Urge Governments, United Nations to Ensure Greater Inclusion for Persons with Disabilities, Albinism, as Third Committee Continues Human Rights Debate

Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Cautions against Use of ‘Fake News’

States and international organizations must take simple, practical measures to ensure inclusivity, experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today as delegates debated the human rights of persons with disabilities, alongside broader freedoms of expression, belief and religion in an era of growing intolerance.

For the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said Chair Theresia Degener, budget appropriations were needed to provide such services as international sign language, national sign language interpretation, braille, captioning, plain language and Easy Read as a minimum.  Although it was the first treaty body with a person with intellectual disabilities as a member, the Committee had not been able to provide that expert with any information in plain language.

Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, identified the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls with disabilities as a matter requiring urgent action.  To identify and eliminate harmful practices, States must provide families with access to legal mechanisms, and rather than simply facilitating care, consider the opinions of persons with disabilities.  States had an obligation to protect sexual and reproductive health and rights by adapting legal and political frameworks, ensuring comprehensive sexual education, providing inclusive health services and empowering persons with disabilities, she stressed.

The international community must mitigate and prohibit all forms of harmful practice, said Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, citing witchcraft and trafficking in body parts as particular concerns.  There had been reports of fatalities and mutilations in three countries over the past month, she decried.

In the afternoon, the Committee explored the freedom of opinion and expression, among other issues, with the Special Rapporteur on that topic warning that public trust in information was under attack by political demagogues, and the particular use of “fake news”.  He cautioned Governments against making, sponsoring or encouraging statements they reasonably knew to be false.

Also presenting reports were Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 October, to continue its discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights.

Background

The Third Committee met today to continue its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights.  (For more information, please see Press Release GA/SHC/4205).

Interactive Dialogues — Persons with Disabilities

THERESIA DEGENER, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said the second decade of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was an occasion to reflect on lessons from its first decade.  Reporting on 19 points of General Assembly resolution 68/268 (2014) on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system, she said those points included offering States the option of submitting periodic reports under the simplified reporting procedure, as well as adopting a statement calling on States parties to consider restoring the gender balance on the Committee membership.

She further noted that the Committee had decided to maintain summary records only for dialogues with States parties and meetings in which the Committee considered communications under the Optional Protocol, to make efficient use of resources.  With the Committee’s meeting time increasing from two to eight weeks since 2011, she observed that human resources had increased by just two staff members, asking for additional resources commensurate with the Committee’s workload.  The allocation of additional meeting time for the Committee should be coupled with budget appropriations for the provision of accessibility items, such as international sign language, national sign language interpretation, braille, captioning, plain language and Easy Read as a minimum, she said.

In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Mexico, recognizing efforts by civil society actors to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, asked what further actions the Committee could take to promote progress on the matter.

The representative of Switzerland asked how the rights of persons with disabilities were accounted for across other human rights conventions.

The representative of the European Union said the bloc was the only international organization to become party to the Convention and noted recommendations to monitor existing services for persons with disabilities.  He asked for examples of such monitoring mechanisms already in place.

The representative of Japan said his Government placed great relevance on the holistic development of persons with disabilities and asked what the Committee could do to enhance their social participation. 

The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed the recognition that women and girls with disabilities faced increased risks of exploitation and trafficking.  She asked for examples of the legal recognition of the sexual and reproductive rights of women with disabilities.

The representative of Iraq called for increased cooperation to assist persons with disabilities affected by terrorism.

The representative of Morocco asked if it would be beneficial to check use of the word “handicapped” in all United Nations documents in French.

The representative of the Maldives expressed concern over the lack of participation of persons with disabilities in disaster risk reduction and asked what approaches could be taken to guarantee their involvement.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the foundation of the treaty body system was the observance of clear mandates and multilingualism.  All relevant documents must be made available in all official United Nations languages, he said.

The representative of Indonesia said persons with disabilities were being provided services in line with relevant international mechanisms and asked how their rights could be further promoted.

Also speaking was the representative of Spain.

Ms. DEGENER, responding, said universal ratification of the Convention was needed, as was implementation of its Article 33 on independent international monitoring, in which disabled people could play an important role.  The Committee had adopted a general comment on women, she noted, which offered examples of how to improve the situation of women and girls with disabilities, as did the thematic report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  Tackling intersectional discrimination was an important question, but many countries lacked measures to address that multidimensional challenge.  The general comment on living independently in the community was also important, she said, noting that deinstitutionalization was among the biggest challenges throughout the world. 

To a question on how to address use of the word “handicapped” in the French translation, she said the Committee discussed the correct language a great deal, noting that the word “handicapped” should be substituted with “persons with disabilities” or “disabled persons”.  On disaster risk reduction, she said the Committee had recently issued a statement on that topic, adding that the tsunami affecting Asia had occurred as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was being negotiated and drafted.  The Committee was the first treaty body with a person with intellectual disabilities as a member, but it had not been able to provide that expert with any information in plain language.  There was a need to include plain language in the United Nations’ accessibility body.

CATALINA DEVANDAS AGUILAR, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, identified the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls with disabilities as a matter of vital importance that required urgent action.  In addition to gender-based discrimination, women and girls with disabilities faced obstacles to accessing the health and education services they needed.  Girls and young women with disabilities continued to be sterilized against their will, she stressed, noting that the practice exposed them to greater threats of sexual exploitation.  Involuntary sterilization must be eliminated, along with other forms of violence such as forced abortion, she said.  The best way to ensure the development of women and girls with disabilities was to guarantee their sexual health and rights were protected.

It was a mistake to believe that the sexuality of young women and girls with disabilities did not deserve attention, she said.  Services for them were limited, placing them at higher risk of sexually transmitted disease, early marriage, sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy.  Too often, health providers discriminated against that group.  States had an obligation to protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls with disabilities by adapting legal and political frameworks, ensuring comprehensive sexual education, providing inclusive health services and empowering persons with disabilities, she concluded.

The representative of Morocco asked the Special Rapporteur how cooperation could be strengthened in the field of sexual and reproductive health, which was a taboo area in many parts of the world.

The representative of the European Union underlined the need for universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information.  Noting the disproportionate risk faced by women and girls with disabilities toward violence and harmful practices, he asked the Special Rapporteur to share best practices in terms of legislation.

The representative of Brazil asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on how the United Nations and its agencies could support States in implementing sexual and reproductive health policies.

The representative of New Zealand agreed with the Special Rapporteur that all States must ensure that legal frameworks supported the autonomy of women and girls with disabilities, asking about the most urgent areas where the implementation gap of States parties jurisprudence must be closed.

The representative of Switzerland said accessibility enabled persons with disabilities to enjoy the right to health and procreation, adding that information was crucial for young girls and women with disabilities, and society as a whole.

The representative of Argentina said the international community had a unique opportunity to promote the rights of persons with disabilities in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which took an inclusive, human rights-based approach. 

The representative of the Russian Federation differentiated between legal capacity and active legal capacity, which in the Russian Federation was affected by the age of a person and medical information about that person.  He asked the Special Rapporteur who should make a decision about the reproductive and sexual health of women and young girls.

The representative of the United States, stressing that numerous barriers prevented women and girls with disabilities from accessing essential health care, asked how States should address discrimination leading to violence against those women and girls. 

The representative of Estonia asked what the United Nations should prioritize to ensure maximum accessibility to information about the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young women and girls with disabilities.

A representative of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls with disabilities was a critical issue for women’s rights and disability rights.

Also participating in the discussion were representatives of Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Maldives and Australia.

Ms. AGUILAR replied that meeting the needs of women and girls with disabilities called for greater international coordination.  Good practices to promote their sexual and reproductive health included a national directive issued in Mexico that outlined support for advised consent.  There was a need to involve persons with disabilities in decision-making, she said, adding that women must guide discussions on their sexual and reproductive rights.  Women and girls with disabilities must be empowered and allowed to make informed decisions.

For their part, the United Nations and related agencies must include reproductive and sexual health in their work, she said.  To identify and eliminate harmful practices, States must provide families with access to legal mechanisms.  Evidence had shown that sterilization promoted impunity, as disabled women and girls who had been victims of sexual abuse were afforded little credibility.  Rather than simply facilitating care, States must consider the opinions of persons with disabilities.

Turning to the relevance of disaggregated data, she said information on issues directly affecting disabled persons was vital to assessing progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  Protecting sexual and reproductive rights would empower women and girls with disabilities.

Persons with Albinism

IKPONWOSA ERO, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, reiterated that people with albinism in certain parts of the world were being hunted and killed for the harvesting of their body parts.  Globally, persons with albinism faced extreme forms of stigma, she stressed, citing reports of fatalities and mutilations in three countries over the past month.  In her report, she set out to review human rights standards applicable to persons with albinism and determine what progress had been made.

Persons with albinism encountered multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, she said.  While the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognized multiple forms of discrimination, it offered no provisions on racial matters or issues of colour outside of its preamble.  Such gaps called for the joint consideration of that Convention and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to better address the needs of persons with albinism.

The right to life of persons with albinism was systematically violated, she warned, adding that failure to combat the impunity of perpetrators was a major issue.  The international community must mitigate and prohibit all forms of harmful practice, she said, citing witchcraft and trafficking in body parts as particular concerns.  Several countries affected by attacks had developed national action plans on that matter and a regional action plan had recently been endorsed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. That plan focused on immediate and effective responses to attacks, she noted, adding that regional efforts could ensure the rights of persons with albinisms were not ignored.

In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of the United Republic of Tanzania said it continued to prioritize investigation, prosecution and trial of cases where persons with albinism were victims.  Standing operation task forces had been established to respond to attacks and killings of persons with albinism, leading to a decline from 2015 to the present.

The representative of Fiji said albinism was a part of Fijian history and culture, noting that it was not a disease but a genetic disorder.  Fiji had recently ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but there was room for improvement.  He asked the Independent Expert how Fiji could better address those shortcomings related to the right to health.

The representative of Japan said persons with albinism faced many challenges in daily life, and asked for examples of implementation-oriented approaches, and what she would suggest States do to raise awareness of the issue in areas where albinism was not generally known.

The representative of the United States asked the Independent Expert how the international community could assist States and civil society to raise awareness to combat the myths about albinism. 

The representative of Israel said his country for many years had granted asylum to persons with albinism, who faced dangers and threats to their lives in some countries.  He asked the Independent Expert for her priorities in the coming year.

The representative of Malawi said the Government had taken measures to ensure the prosecution of perpetrators of violence against persons with albinism.

The representative of South Africa noted that the Independent Expert’s report referred to various human rights instruments.  South Africa cautioned against intersectionality with racism as albinism was prevalent across all races.

The representative of the European Union welcomed more details on the Independent Expert’s ideas for how to address the impunity associated with violations of the human rights of persons with albinism.

The representative of Somalia asked the Independent Expert how the action plan could be effectively implemented.

The representative of Kenya said that since 2011, the country had provided persons with albinism with free sunscreen, and asked the Independent Expert how regional Governments could collaborate to enhance the protection of persons with albinism, particularly children.

The representative of Panama said data on people with albinism was needed, particularly about the health risks they faced.

Ms. ERO, responding, said Kenya’s National Council for Persons with Disabilities, which included an officer dedicated to albinism, stood out as an example of good practice, adding that inclusion of questions on albinism in several countries’ national census questionnaires was also notable.  If national Governments did not provide assistance, the needs of people with albinism would not be met as international donors did not prioritize that issue.  With well-established human rights norms already in place, her mandate would focus on implementation efforts to promote the rights of people with albinism, with disaggregated data central to assessing their needs.

Turning to the regional action plan, she said new partnerships were being explored to make progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  Regional solidarity was crucial in that regard.  The plan set out approaches to address causes of rights violations, including awareness-raising campaigns, she said, adding that racial discrimination was based on many grounds, at times, on colour, and those grounds were not interlinked.

Freedom of Religion, Belief

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said his report highlighted that religious tolerance was rising around the world, which could be addressed with tools developed within the United Nations system.  The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and subsequent United Nations resolutions had established standards to counter religious intolerance. However, there was an implementation gap between standards and commitments.  Discrimination rooted in religion or belief stemmed from Government actions, such as travel bans or laws for immigration, refugee settlements, anti‑blasphemy or anti‑conversion.  Non‑State actors, such as terrorists, had also engaged in violence against minorities.

He urged the international community to narrow the gap between commitment and action to ensure that everyone had the right to freedom of religion or belief by putting in place transparent, credible and accountable policies.  He called on States to repeal laws that discriminated on the basis of religion and belief, and those for anti‑blasphemy.  Criminal sanctions penalizing violent and discriminatory acts should also be enforced, he said, stressing that particular attention must be paid to protecting religious minorities, women, children, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex communities, migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.  He urged States, faith leaders and civil society groups to use the recommendations outlined in relevant resolutions and declarations, as well as to promote religious literacy and interfaith dialogue.

The representative of the United States said gaps existed between what some States stated and what they did regarding the freedom of religion or belief.  She asked what measures they should take to enhance protections for religious minorities.

The representative of Germany, associating himself with the European Union, expressed deep concern over increasing religious intolerance around the world and asked what could be done to support tolerance.

The representative of Switzerland asked what positive practices had been established to promote tolerance and how they could be expanded.  She also asked how the rights of minorities could be upheld.

The representative of Poland, associating herself with the European Union, said States were responsible for protecting the freedom of religion or belief and asked how sanctions against those violating such freedoms could be implemented without causing undue harm.

The representative of the Russian Federation urged the Special Rapporteur to consider the effects of education on countering intolerance.  He said the Special Rapporteur had overstepped his mandate and called for him to hold to his responsibilities.

The representative of Lichtenstein noted that migration had led to greater interaction among diverse religious groups and asked how international mechanisms should be designed to mitigate religious intolerance resulting from migration.

The representative of the United Kingdom said greater understanding among people of different faiths was central to strengthening communities, and asked how States could be encouraged to tackle discrimination among public bodies.

A delegate of the European Union, noting the Special Rapporteur’s concerns over online blasphemy, asked for examples of good practices to combat intolerance in social media.

The representative of Denmark said her Government planned to appoint a representative for freedom of religion or belief. There was a need to clarify those issues, and the human rights of women, she said, asking for steps to clarify normative mechanisms.

The representative of Albania agreed that attention must be paid to protect the rights of vulnerable groups and said a pilot project was being carried out to raise awareness of religious diversity in school settings.

The representative of Brazil suggested that migration be treated as an opportunity to foster religious tolerance and asked how migratory flows could play such a role.

The representative of Ireland, associating himself with the European Union, said the right to freedom of religion or belief did not give people the right to discriminate.  He asked how civil society could play a positive role in supporting the Special Rapporteur’s work and how cooperation could be facilitated.

The representative of Canada noted the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation to provide platforms for advocates of diversity and asked for examples of best practices in that regard.

The representative of Iraq said terrorist groups attacked Iraqi citizens regardless of their faith and asked what measures could be taken to eliminate the terrorist threat.

The representative of Bahrain said her country respected all relevant human rights conventions and promoted an environment of understanding.

The representative of Myanmar said religious tolerance was being promoted by his Government with interfaith friendship groups being established across the country.

The representative of Norway said authorities must ensure trust in institutions to promote tolerance and asked for best practices.

Mr. SHAHEED, responding, stressed the importance of dialogue across faith communities, which created a spirit of cooperation and built trust.  Educating people about different religions was also crucial, as prejudice often stemmed from a lack of understanding.  He called on States to invest in such efforts, pointing out that the freedom of religion could only be achieved if it existed alongside the freedom of expression and the rule of law, which respected such civil liberties as the freedom of belief.  He cautioned States against aligning themselves with specific religious groups, as that would feed distrust, and rather, take an introspective look into the state of freedom of religion and belief in their territories.  Countries could learn from their own best practices and challenges, he said, recalling that in today’s age of intolerance, there was potential to promote greater understanding of religion and belief.

Freedom of Opinion, Expression

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said he sought to detail the ways in which human rights law protected the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.  The framework defending those rights was under serious threat, he said, pointing to the murder of journalists and detention of individuals for criticizing Government officials as main concerns.  The public’s trust of information was under attack by political demagogues, he stressed.

The first step to addressing those issues was ensuring international organizations followed norms of freedom of information, he said.  Access to information was an essential component of good governance and the rule of law, and the United Nations had fallen far behind Governments in creating legal frameworks to promote such access.  He identified several elements central to promoting access to information, including clear, searchable disclosures of information and independent whistle-blower protections.  For their part, Member States must encourage intergovernmental organizations to adopt relevant policies.

Turning to disinformation, he said “fake news” was undermining public trust in information.  He urged States not to make, sponsor or encourage statements they reasonably knew to be false, or to interfere in the work of Internet service providers.  Noting that private companies now facilitated unprecedented sharing of information through various platforms, he concluded by saying he would assess the impact of content regulations on the freedom of expression.

The representative of the United States asked the Special Rapporteur for best practices to ensure the freedom of expression was protected.

The representative of Austria asked if there were any international organizations to serve as models for whistle-blowing.

The representative of the European Union asked the Special Rapporteur what he thought were the greatest obstacles to establishing freedom of expression policies.

The representative of the Czech Republic asked the Special Rapporteur how Member States and civil societies could be better engaged to develop freedom of expression policies.

The representative of Latvia asked how information and communication technology could be used to provide access to materials in international organizations.

The representative of Norway asked the Special Rapporteur to provide details on information policies which had already been established in international organizations.

The representative of Indonesia asked how the United Nations could strengthen its internal monitoring mechanisms to ensure that the freedom of information and expression was safeguarded.

The representative of the Republic of Korea asked about obstacles to implementing access to information policies within the United Nations, and how Member States and civil society could help surmount them.

The representatives of Mexico, Russian Federation, Estonia, Poland, Qatar, Maldives, Switzerland, Cuba, France and the United Arab Emirates also spoke.

Mr. KAYE, responding, said the gap between intergovernmental organizations and their constituencies was among the main obstacles to identifying policies that promoted access to information.  Organizations must demonstrate an eagerness to push for such policies and accept that a sole focus on protecting their secrets was no longer tenable.

He called for organizations to promote whistle-blower protections characterized by strong, effective internal processes that advanced change.  They should include sanctions against those retaliating against whistle-blowers.  Also, avenues should be created to allow whistle-blowers to reach media outlets.  Importantly, any office handling whistle-blower protections must have specific expertise on that issue, he stressed.

Promoting civil society engagement, including in consultations, would allow for robust protections of the freedom of opinion and expression to develop.  Such engagement was in keeping with the obligations of intergovernmental organizations, he said, stressing that protecting the reputations of individuals, notably human rights defenders, was a priority.

Foreign Debt

JUAN PABLO BOHOSLAVSKY, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, said his report studied the human rights implications of debt disputes submitted to the international investment arbitration system.  That system had not been designed to enforce financial obligations, and thus, could be problematic from a human rights and debt sustainability perspective.  It was necessary to ensure human rights protection during financial crises requiring debt restructuring, he said, the success of which should be determined by whether it had minimized the social and human cost of a financial crisis.

His report contained five recommendations, he said, among them, that bilateral and multilateral investment agreements should undergo human rights impact assessments before they were concluded.  In the context of investment dispute settlements, arbitration tribunals must consider human rights law as applicable for the interpretation of investment treaties.  He reviewed his most recent reports, initiatives and projects carried out over the year, noting that the Human Rights Council had requested him to develop guiding principles for human rights impact assessments of economic reform policies.  In March, he had presented a report to the Council on austerity-related labour market reforms affecting labour rights.  In 2016, he had taken official country visits to Tunisia, Panama and Switzerland, and would be visiting Brazil and Ukraine in 2018.

For information media. Not an official record.