4 February 2005


Press Briefing

Press conference on convention protecting


rights of persons with disabilities


Things were progressing very nicely on a very difficult issue -- a draft convention on the protection and promotion of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities -- correspondents were told at a Headquarters’ press conference today.

Speaking as the two-week session concluded, the Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations and Chairman of the drafting Committee, Luis Gallegos Chiriboga, said things were at “mid-convention point”, probably requiring two more sessions of two weeks apiece next year, in order to get to the “nitty-gritty” of having it written.  Another year or more of negotiating, signing and ratifying should produce an operational treaty by 2008 or 2009, he said.  (Mr. Gallegos Chiriboga was leaving to take up his new post as Ecuador’s Ambassador to Australia).

Joining him was New Zealand’s Permanent Representative, Don MacKay, who coordinated the session’s negotiations, especially concerning articles 8 to 15, which deal with individual rights of people with disabilities.  A major human rights convention was currently being negotiated, which involved quite fundamental issues for both persons with disabilities and States, he said.

The body negotiating the first-ever Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, as its working title is known, was created by the General Assembly as an ad hoc committee in 2001.  Over five sessions, it has considered proposals and the draft of a treaty based on a holistic approach to social development, human rights and non-discrimination, and taking into account recommendations of the Commissions on Human Rights and Social Development.

During the current session, Mr. MacKay said, the issues had been particularly complex, because they involved fundamental right to life issues for persons with disabilities, and the freedom of choice to decide if and when to be subjected to medical intervention, and where and how to live.  The draft convention reflected a paradigm shift in how governments interacted with persons with disabilities.  Those people wanted to have the same freedom of choice as other members of society, and they did not want to be institutionalized because of disabilities.

He noted that many had said that the rights of persons with disabilities were already guaranteed in existing broad human rights agreements, but the reality was that persons with disabilities had been deprived of those rights.  The convention set out a detailed set of provisions, including what States could and could not do.  In so doing, the drafters had run into a very complex set of issues, including differences in legal systems.

Existing treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which said that women should have the same rights as men, had not set out in detail what those rights were, he said.  The present convention would say not only that persons with disabilities had the same rights as those without, but would spell out in detail what those rights were.  It was not enough to simply cover persons with disabilities with the existing general rules, because those rules were being broken.  Many countries had fallen into the trap of treating persons with disabilities differently.  “So, we’re setting up a new regime and a new way of thinking, and a new sort of paradigm”, he said.

Explaining that the Ad Hoc Committee had been given the mandate to work towards the realization of a comprehensive and integral convention, Mr. Gallegos Chiriboga reported steady progress in the work since 2001.  In the beginning, it had seemed that the issues were too complex and stymied by a number of contrasting positions and few agreements, but in the session just concluding the Committee had worked in unity and had demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the cause of promoting the rights of persons with disabilities. 

The Committee had achieved further momentum in negotiating the convention, he said, noting that the next session, the sixth, would be held at Headquarters for two weeks from 1 to 12 August.  The process, namely, the integration of 600 million people, or 10 per cent of the world’s population, was historic.  As the world aged, there would be more and more people with disabilities.  With that growing number, the aim was to try to defend those persons’ dignity and human rights.  The effort was breaking new ground in the human rights sphere, as countries and non-governmental organizations and people from different cultures and venues and systems came together to reach agreement on a treaty.

Asked if the panellists could provide more details about the “right to life” debate, Mr. MacKay said that the reality was that there were situations in which embryos were aborted because they had a disability.  A number of people in the room had been very conscious of the fact that they, too, could have been deprived of the right to life had that decision been made in their case.  People with disabilities were sometimes sterilized and deprived of the opportunity to have children.  In societies where abortion was legal, people with disabilities say they should have the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion.  The discussion was not yet resolved, and it would be one of the most difficult issues.

So, would States parties have to outlaw abortion for persons with disabilities? the correspondent asked in a follow-up question.  Mr. MacKay said he thought that would mean that, if countries did not allow abortion as a national policy applicable to the population at large, then no one was proposing to change the rule with persons with disabilities, but if they do allow abortion, a foetus should not be aborted because it had a disability or because the mother had a disability.  There should be no situation where a woman with a disability was not allowed to conceive, yet in a lot of countries that was actually occurring.

He added, to a further question, that, depending on the negotiations’ outcome, governments might be asked to prevent the abortion of a foetus made solely on the grounds that it had a disability.  So, in countries where governments allowed abortion to preserve the mother’s health, then that would continue to be the case.  People were suggesting that, in terms of article 8 of the convention, a decision should be taken on abortion “as usual”, but not on the basis that either the foetus or the parent had a disability.  If a child was born with a disability, then society should support the parents in helping to care for that child.

On another complex issue, Mr. Gallegos Chiriboga said that often people with disabilities committed suicide, but that was not necessarily because the person had a disability, but because society did not accept that person.

Mr. MacKay added that the convention might have a role to play in terms of laying downs norms and standards, and the approaches of governments and societies in a way that made people with disabilities less unhappy.

Replying to another question, he said that the convention would be a guideline, both to countries that did not have legislation for persons with disabilities -– and of the United Nations’ 191 Member States, more than 70 did not -– and others had legislation that needed to be modernized.  Persons with disabilities were seeking the capacity to “self-determine” their futures, and not be subjected to government interference or inference by others in that process.

Disability had been a health issue before it evolved into a social issue, Mr. Gallegos Chiriboga said to a further question.  The concern now was how to integrate those individuals into society by protecting their right to a job, to a family, and to doing what other human beings did and not be excluded because of their disabilities.  In 2002, when work first began on the convention, it was clear that there was no clear-cut definition of disability.  The issue had also evolved from one of limitation to compensation.  For example, a person who needed glasses used to be thought of as having a disability, but now they have a “compensation”.

Responding to another question, Mr. MacKay say the discussions had not yet touched on the final clause issue, such as how many ratifications would be needed for the convention to come into force.  So far, 15 articles had been drafted out of a total of 25, but even that number was still a bit fluid.  “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, he said.

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For information media. Not an official record.