The United Nations is preparing to promulgate an international convention to promote and defend the rights of persons with disabilities.

Rodolfo Cattani

The debate at the United Nations concerning a convention relating to the rights of persons with disabilities is not new. The question of disability has been brought to light numerous times in the history of the UNO. In the seventies, there were the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the first documents in which were overtly recognized the rights of these persons. From the beginning, these declarations represented significant steps in the affirmation of these rights, but they were based on outmoded clinical and care approach towards disability, and they were criticized for that reason. At the end of the eighties, were approved the Principles for Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Care, and in 1993 the Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Though these documents have contributed to a better understanding by the international community about the importance to sanction the rights of persons with disabilies, they still have not, however, a value of obligation by the state members of the UNO, and do not propose measures to oversee the respect of the rights in the various countries.  

Based on these facts, motivated by some organizations for persons with disabilities, disappointed by the rare results of the International Year of Persons with Disabilities (1981) and the following Decade of Persons with Disabilities initated in 1982, a group of experts proposed that the United Nations adopt a Convention, or an instrument with legal obligations for all state members. It is in this context that in December 2001, the Mexican Government submitted to the General Assembly an outline of resolutions and the proposal of constituting an ad hoc technical committee to consider the proposals towards a full international convention to defend and promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. The resolution was unanimously approved and was accepted favourably also by the Commission for Social Development and Human Rights. The technical committee held its first meeting from July 29 to August 8, 2002, and formulated some recommendations to encourage full participation in preparing the outline of the convention. The United Nations estimates that more than half a billion people all over the world are disabled because of a physical, sensory, mental or psychological incapacity. Wherever they live on the planet, their life is often conditioned by barriers of all sorts. The majority of these people live in developing countries where poverty, lack of social services and inadequate education are additional elements to the disability factor. The basic instruments for the defense of human rights are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which state that humand rights are for all human beings and that each person has a right to enjoy them without distinction and limits. Persons with disabilites are obviously entitled to enjoy these rights without any direct or indirect discrimination. Every UNO instrument for human rights is based the principle of quality according to which also persons with disabilities can exercise their own rights in respect to their effective equality to others. In recent years, there has been noteworthy progress, but there are still limitations which are restraining persons with disabilities to fully participate in society's life. It is therefore necessary to ask ourselves if the protection actually planned in existing instruments for human rights is adequate or not, also for persons with disabilities. The international community seems to be oriented in recognizing that persons with disabilities have the same rights as all other citizens, as was proclaimed also at the Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. But, it is still not so in the daily reality. The difference between theory and practice is quite considerable.   

The special referendum of the Commission for Human Rights of the United Nations, in its relation on Human Rights and Disability states that in the majority of countries the human rights violations of persons with disabilities have an unsuspected discrimination character, which includes creation and upholding of barriers by the same human society to the point of excluding persons with disabilities from social, economic and political participation in their own community. The majority of governments demonstrate quite a limited understanding of the requirements and rights of persons with disabilities, which transpires at the political and the legal levels. From this ensues the necessity of an instrument creating an obligation to concretely defend every person's human rights. The reasons justifying this consideration are that they would provide a better definition in terms of discrimination and would encourage the understanding that the question of disability also enters in the human rights dimension. The fact that it is a matter of a legal document carrying an obligation, different from the Standards, would contribute in clarifying what are precisely the rights of persons with disabilities, excluding any doubt in that regard. It would then be less easy to discriminate and this would place persons with disabilities on the same level of other groups which have already a convention protecting their rights, like women and children. Finally, this would reinforce the legal base and would encourage the implementation of standards.  

The convention should clearly define the sphere of human rights to which all persons with disabilities can expect, independently from their different characteristics (nationality, sex, religion, opinion, social or economic position, etc.). It should have the strength and clarity necessary to provide a model on which persons with disabilities can base their evaluation of their own level of social inclusion, and it should be included in the constitution of state members. The convention has to be used by persons with disabilities themselves in order to determine if their rights are being violated, and it should allow United Nations Agencies to verify to what degree signatory countries ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy their human rights.

The World Blind Union (WBU), which represent close to 180 million persons with a visual impairment belonging to almost 600 different organizations in 158 countries, has followed with great interest the preparatory work to the Convention. Its position is stated in the manifest Equal Rights and Full Integration for the Citizens of the World. WBU collaborates with other world organizations for persons with disabilities, including the International Disability Alliance (IDA).   

According to the WBU, the basic principles which should be included in the Convention should ensure that persons with a visual impairment, together with other persons with disabilities, can have:
- the fundamental right to full social inclusion like all entitled citizens;
- the liberty to decide of one's own life in complete independence and to develop full potential (economic, social, cultural, civil and political);
- the right to full participation in all aspects of life in the community to which they belong in conditions of full equality with the other citizens;
- the right to ownership, to family, to autodetermination and autorepresentativity;
- the right to dignity, tolerance, and inclusion;
- the right to life and, consequently, the right to refuse therapeutic abortion based on the diagnosis of disability of the unborn.

Specific rights to be included in the convention should be:
- the right to full inclusion and citizenship in society;
- the right to conduct one's life independently and to realize one's own potential;
- the right of freedom of association to guarantee proper representation and the defense of one's specific interests;
- the right to equal opportunity and legal defense;
- the right to information, communication through means adapted to specific requirements;
- the right to receive assistive technology ensuring access to the Internet and other sources of information, electronic or not;
- the right to access adapted environment and public transportation;
- the right to education and professional training;
- the right to work and social security;
- the right to culture and leisure;
- the right to compensatory providence on the grounds of disability, etc.

The WBU proposes that the Convention be applied in a gradual but planned manner, according to successive phases, in order for this to be possible for all countries, independently of the starting point. It also proposes a wide consultation of all representative organizations of persons with disabilities encouraging their participation in the preparatory discussions. The European Forum on Disability, which represents 37 million disabled persons in Europe, has taken an important role before and during the meetings of the Technical Committee in New York. The Forum has proposed to promote a better coordination and an efficient exchange of information between the various representative organizations. To this end, a program of common action was proposed, the elaboration of a guideline to be submitted to the Committee, the preparation of informative material and the creation of a dedicated site. 

On the occasion of its General Assembly in 2002, the Forum has approved a resolution in which the importance of the future Convention is recognized, and it was recommended to set up a monitoring system to overview its application. The European Union has also positioned itself in favour of the support of this Convention, and the European Commission has recently published a memo in which are illustrated the reasons in favour of this choice. It is to hope that the serious vicissitudes that the United Nations Organization is now experiencing will not compromise the realization of this ambitious project.