New United Nations Human Rights Convention

Over the course of the last five years, some very important meetings affecting people with disabilities have been quietly taking place at the Headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in New York. During this time, UN Member States and disabled people’s organizations have been meeting to negotiate a new human rights convention (also called a “treaty”) that would elaborate the human rights of people with disabilities. The next meeting for negotiations will take place August 14-25, and it is hoped that this will be the final negotiating session—meaning that the world will soon welcome the first ever UN convention devoted entirely to the human rights of people with disabilities!

The drafting process began in December of 2001, when Mexico sponsored a General Assembly resolution to establish an “Ad Hoc Committee” to consider proposals for a new human rights convention for people with disabilities. The negotiations process has been ongoing since the Ad Hoc Committee first met in July/August 2002. To date there have been seven sessions (of two or three weeks each) of the Ad Hoc Committee, and one two-week session of the Ad Hoc Committee’s temporary Working Group, which put together the first draft text for the Ad Hoc Committee to use as the basis for its discussions.

Why do we need a convention? First, although people with disabilities have the same human rights as everyone else, many people with disabilities are frequently denied the opportunity to enjoy those rights, and many suffer terrible human rights abuses. The existing human rights conventions are seldom applied to people with disabilities, largely because those conventions do not really address disability issues, and those applying the conventions (such as governments and treaty monitoring bodies) often do not understand disability issues. In the past, other groups (such as women, children, refugees, etc.) faced similar problems and found that drafting thematic human rights conventions addressing their issues could be helpful. It is hoped that this new convention will help governments better understand their human rights obligations to people with disabilities, and in turn work to respect and ensure those rights. Second, international conventions are legally binding documents, and governments that choose to become Parties to them are legally obliged to implement them. Until now, disability-specific instruments, such as the UN Standard Rules, have not been legally binding, meaning that governments could ignore them. Such disregard for people with disabilities will not be permitted for governments that become Parties to the new convention.

A unique feature of the process has been the extensive participation of people with disabilities and their representative organizations. Traditionally, the UN’s General Assembly has not been very open to the participation of civil society, restricting access to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with “ECOSOC consultative status,” which is a formal ccreditation that groups can get with the UN. However, things have been very different in the disability convention negotiations, with non-ECOSOC groups being able to apply for accreditation to attend the meetings, and all accredited NGOs being able to speak and directly address government delegates. The Working Group was even more participatory, with the membership of that group including government delegates, national human rights institutions and disability representatives —all with equal rights of participation. Many government delegates have noted that they have never before experienced such negotiations at the UN, and that the process has greatly benefited from the unique perspective and voice of people with disabilities.

It should be stressed that the new convention will not create new rights for people with disabilities, but it will elaborate the full range of existing human rights (including civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights) using a disability perspective. Nobody is suggesting that this convention will solve all the problems faced by people with disabilities overnight, but it is a useful tool that we can all use in our work to advocate for people with disabilities. Although the current U.S. administration has said that it will not become a Party to the convention once it is completed, there is no reason we should not encourage our government to join, and at the same time use the convention to help inform and support our work. If you are interested in learning more about the draft convention, or even attending or contributing to the meetings in New York before the negotiations are concluded, the resources listed below will help you find out more information. It is never too late to say “nothing about us without us,” and take your part in promoting the full enjoyment of all human rights by all people with disabilities!

Further Resources

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs homepage: www.un.org/

Current draft of the convention as of February, 2006, known as the “Working Text”: www.un.org/

Information note for NGOs wanting to participate in the work of the Ad Hoc Committee: www.un.org/

List of NGOs accredited to the Ad Hoc Committee (this does not include many of the major disability organizations that already have ECOSOC accreditation): www.un.org/

Convention-related resources from Disabled Peoples’ International (stay tuned for a ratification toolkit to be released soon!): http://v1.dpi.org/lang-en/resources/

Update on the most recent Ad Hoc Committee session from the U.S. National Council on Disability (NCD) (Note – there are many other useful convention-related resources on the NCD website): www.ncd.gov/