New Horizons of Hope

by Rodolfo Cattani

The first convention on the rights of persons with disabilities was approved by the United Nations. A tiring achievement.
A great opportunity for the future.

In the fall of 2001, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to establish a commission in charge of studying proposals for a convention on the protection and the promotion of the rights and the dignity of persons with disabilities. The commission has worked with commitment, meeting twice a year until 2006 when an outline of the definite draft was reached and was later approved by the General Assembly on December 13.
On March 30, 2007, a ceremony took place at the Glass Palace for the signature of the Convention in the presence of about 50 delegations of State Members and represented organizations of persons with disabilities from all over the world. This is how was concluded a long and complex negociation process, like every convention adopted by the United Nations, but which was a source of plenty of preoccupations to the representatives of persons with disabilities involved in the negociations. As a matter of fact, it was not easy to come up with a text that would satisfy all parties, first the movement of persons with disabilities had to find a shared position internally and common ground with the delegations of the commission's State Members. The original document was discussed in depth and rewritten until it was considered acceptable by all parties involved.
It can with no doubt be asserted that the Convention, once it comes into force for the majority of the UN's State Members, will represent the context within which will be addressed whatever policy and social action concerning persons with disabilities, independently of the country or the social and cultural context in which they live.
Each country, signing this Convention, commits itself to recognize the rights of persons with disabilities, ratified by the Convention, even with a few possible exceptions, by providing amendments to its own legislation when it is not in harmony with the standards of the Convention. This is the beginning of progressiveness allowing some countries, most of all in development, to gradually act upon the various parts of the Convention. The States can also derogate from the application of some parts of the Convention, if they consider that certain provisions are incompatible with their own legislation. Therefore, a few years will have to go by before every signatory country adopts the Convention in whole or in part.

Picture of a person in a wheelchair in a European square

Here intercedes the role of representing organizations that have the duty to ensure that the Convention be adopted as integrally as possible.
After the assent of the Convention begins another delicate phase, its actual application. In order to better protect persons with disabilities where they would not be adequately protected by their own country, it would have been necessary to anticipate the possibility to resort to a higher instance, but the Convention does not hold this.

Picture of the Glass Palace, headquarters of the United Nations

Picture of an external device for the differently abled

An optional Protocol, annexed to the Convention, which rules on the modality of the recourse. Beyond the numerous national delegations, the European Community also wanted to sign the Convention and this is particulary significant since, in this manner, it becomes a State part of the Convention with all the obligations that rise from it. The signature of the Convention can without doubt be defined as a historical event since, for the first time, an Agreement of the United Nations concerns the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. Another highly significant development from the institutional point of view is the signature of the Convention by a transnational entity that is the European Union which is comprised of 27 member countries. Persons with disabilities will this way be the first European citizens whose human rights will be safeguarded in the legal context of the Community.
As mentioned earlier, a State that undersigns the Convention commits itself to support the ratification procedure which will take place in each State according to the standards in force. It is essential that represented organizations attentively follow the conduct of each government so that everything be done with efficiency and steadfastness. The right outcome of the Convention was also determined from the fact that represented organizations played a role of protagonists during the whole negociation phase and that official delegations collaborated with important availability.
The Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities can be subdivided in four main sections. The first is a true preamble, not binding, but fundamental because it provides the framework of the Convention in the context of the other UN Agreements and illustrates its basic philosophy.

Picture of an escalator in a European airport

The second section contains a series of articles of a general character (1-8). The third one contains articles from 9 to 33 which define the specific rights of persons with disabilities: access to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public; access to justice; personal mobility; freedom of expression and opinion; the right to education, to work and employment. The fourth section contains articles (33-50) which regulate the implementation and monitoring of the Convention.
Finally, the optional Protocol, which is not an integral part of the Convention, binds the states that undersign it to recognize the prerogative of the instituted Commission of the United Nations for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to receive communications by people or groups of people subject to their jurisdiction who say they are victims of a violation of their own rights by the States themselves.
For the 650 million persons with disabilities in the world, new horizons of hope are opening, but the real challenge begins now. The signatory States, including the European Community, have committed themselves not to have the Convention left on a shelf, but to make it an efficient instrument of freedom and integration of persons with disabilities in their respective societies. Unfortunately, there have been some wrong notes: some States do not intend to sign the Convention's optional Protocol, denying their disabled citizens the possibility to present individual or collective claims in cases where the Convention is not respected. It is to be hoped for that such position be re-examined in the future.

Picture of a disabled-parking-only sign in English

The European Disability Forum has launched an intensive awareness campaign and wants to collect a million signatures in all State Members to have the European Union adopt a specific directive on disability in line with the new international Convention. As a matter of fact, such a directive is the only way to ensure that the legislation on disability be a norm in all State Members and that discrimination of persons with disabilities be finally over.