Dutch View: What Impact Will the UN Disability Rights Convention Have?
By Wim Verhallen, November 15, 2006
Reprinted from DCDD's newsletter 13
Lydia la Rivière-Zijdel, chair of the DCDD board, returned from New York in an optimistic mood. In August, as a lobbyist on behalf of DCDD and other NGOs, she attended the UN-negotiations on the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At that point the UN Ad Hoc Committee had worked on this Convention for six years and reached agreement on the entire text; it is anticipated that the Convention will be adopted during the 2007 General Assembly. This is a magnificent victory for all the diverse disabled people organizations and the NGOs who put such an enormous effort into achieving this goal. But what does a UN Convention really mean for disabled people? Wim Verhallen asked Lydia la Rivière-Zijdel to explain the main points.
Will this Convention be a powerful instrument in urging governments to move towards adopting a better policy?
Yes, as soon as the General Assembly has adopted the draft Convention, each state which signs is obliged to implement the convention in its own legislation. A new UN commission will be installed to monitor this implementation. Eventually this process will succeed, but it may take some years. The Convention is already a powerful instrument in supporting disabled people to stand up for their rights. Its content transcends the other UN treaties which have been drafted in the past. The CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) for instance, only focuses on discrimination, whereas this convention is about rights.
This progress has been made because of all the organizations of disabled people who participated directly in the whole drafting process. They were not only heard, but their contributions were also highly appreciated. A big advantage compared to former UN commissions, when government representatives tended to shut NGO's out, considering them as a threat to their positions of power. This time, disabled people themselves got the Convention to emphasize autonomy. Toleration is just not enough; governments are now obliged to enable disabled people to participate in decisions about themselves and to guarantee that disabled people can organize themselves so that they can become effective partners in the decision-making process.
Have you come to a universal definition of disability?
Eventually, the Ad Hoc committee could not come to an agreement on the definition of disability, so some categories are not included. We are pleased that there is an Article about mental disability, which was quite a success. For many American states this proved to be a problem.
Are you not afraid that the Convention will mean a deterioration of standards in countries such as The Netherlands which already has many provisions and rules?
No, not at all. We think we have the best provisions and regulations in the world, but our place in the top hundred list has deteriorated greatly over the last few years. Our government is more concerned about the financial implications than about incorporating the rights-based and autonomy approach of the convention. As one of the Dutch delegates said: “The implementation of the Convention would cost 17 million euros and we already have such good regulations”. They forget the enormous income that is generated because of disabled people, i.e. people earning a living in the field of disability, special education, care, medical and pharmaceutical industries etc. The Netherlands still struggles with the concept of autonomy and prefers to focus on the care structure. It is typically Dutch to first look at the costs. Even in our welfare state many disabled people still live on or below the poverty line and, if they are not able to work, they are confronted with life-long poverty.
Our country was among the rich ones who objected to a special Article which focussed on international cooperation and stipulated that (financial) support had to be given to disabled people in developing countries. As disabled people are among the poorest and the largest group in developing countries, the Dutch government is afraid that the demands for support will be too great. Disabled people in developing countries are among the most marginalized in the world and have been ignored for far too long: they are not explicitly included in Dutch development programs. With this convention, the Dutch obligation to support the poorest people in the world has to include disabled people too.
A lot of money is donated through private foundations which have their own targets and policies. Will these foundations feel bound by the Convention?
They will have to, to some extent, as the foundations are often partially funded by governments, and these funds will only be granted under the conditions of the Convention. It may require some foundations to adopt a paradigmatic shift in their conceptual thinking about how support is offered to disabled people: from the charity and medical concept to a human rights and autonomy approach. This means including disabled people in the design of support and rehabilitation programs instead of simply being the subjects of a paternalistic and colonial approach which dumps outdated medical equipment or aids in their countries. DCDD can play an important role in supporting organisations through the incorporation of such a paradigmatic change. We also see a similar trend in the health and care institutions in industrialised countries which have programs in third world countries. They often consider disabled people as second-class citizens who have to be dependent and grateful; approaching a disabled person as an equal human being, with rights and unique qualities, is still not common.
You already mentioned the Articles about international cooperation and the inclusion of mental disability as important news. Any others?
Yes, the Article about women and girls with disabilities and the references to gender in many of the Articles. Actually I experienced this personally as the greatest victory of all because of my own commitment and in the role of coordinator of a team that worked so hard for this twin-track approach. At first, for many governments and civil society it seemed a step too far to admit there are gender-specific problems which cause more deprivation for women and girls (and even more so in developing countries) than for men and boys with disabilities, and that this justifies extra measures being taken. After many negotiations, drafting and redrafting the text, the specific Article and the references were adopted. We were overjoyed. After the vote in favour all the women in the room were cheering and even crying because this great achievement, which includes issues like reproductive health services for women with disabilities, goes so much farther than any of the earlier conventions.
So you expect the UN General Assembly to adopt the Convention next year? Are all the political hurdles really overcome?
I am quite confident that the Convention will be adopted next year but, at the last moment, a new hurdle emerged: namely, a footnote on legal capacity, which could have devastating effects on people with mental health disabilities. Civil society, as well as the European Union will contest this footnote within the juridical process. From a human rights perspective the restriction is unacceptable. China still shuts people up under psychiatric restraints in order to silence them. This is absolutely contrary to the Convention.
But we all knew that if the Convention was held up at this stage it would mean postponing it for indefinite time as it could open up the debates on all the other issues again. When, at 5 minutes to 8, the adoption of the draft text became a fact and the Chair, Ambassador MacKay, thanked everyone, especially all the NGOs, for their tremendous input, the standing ovation by all the government delegates came as a huge and greatly appreciated gift. The biggest one, however, will be when the Convention is implemented worldwide and when the millions of disabled women, girls, men and boys in the developing world can finally have their human rights met.