Milestone role for the EU regarding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

, by Stijn Houben

Milestone role for the EU regarding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The possible EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights has widely attracted media attention: another important instrument of international law, however, is already on the way and might entail important consequences for the protection of human rights in Europe. By ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the European Community can become the first regional organisation to become a State party of a human rights treaty.

Until not so long ago, mental and physical disabilities were merely seen as a medical or charity matters to be isolated or – in the best scenario – to be overcome by philanthropic interventions. As a result of this approach, persons with disabilities - who form around 10% of the world population, i.e. some 650 million people - have been systematically discriminated against and left at the margins of society.

the Convention does not create new human rights, but instead aims to ensure the implementation of existing norms.

In the past two decades, persons with disabilities have been recognised, slowly but surely, as rights-holders just like any other human being. As a result of this process - and the traditionally lengthy UN negotiations - the General Assembly adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol on 30 March 2007.

One might question why is it necessary to have a specific convention on the matter, when a rather solid international human rights framework already exists. The answer is quite simple: the Convention does not create new human rights, but instead aims to ensure the implementation of existing norms. Persons with disabilities have always been entitled to fully enjoy human rights protection without discrimination: yet, practice has clearly shown that this group was - and to a large extent still is - kept at the margins of society in all parts of the world, Europe included. This open and systematic discrimination highlighted the need for a clearer reaffirmation of rights, departing from a precise formulation of States’ obligations in the field.

The Convention establishes minimum standards for the promotion and protection of a full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, which would certainly deserve a much deeper analysis than the one allowed in this limited space. One element, though, should be stressed as innovative and particularly relevant from a European perspective: the possibility for regional organisations to become a State party. Even more significantly, the EU expressed the political will to seize this opportunity. Based on a Commission proposal - and in accordance with an explicit request from the European Parliament - the Council gave green light for the European Community to become a State party of the Convention. The process, however, will be concluded only once all EU Member States have ratified the treaty. Up to now, 13 of them have concluded the procedure.

A few elements, in particular, deserve further attention and active follow-up given their political consequences:

· It will be the first time ever (!) that a regional organisation becomes State party to a human rights convention: an important step in the path towards a more federal understanding of international relations;

· A close cooperation between the EU’s internal and external policy in the field will be necessary. For example, common approaches and formats between Member States and the European Community will have to be established when reporting back to the UN about the progress achieved in the Convention’s implementation;

· The process of implementation itself will require a clear formulation of powers between the European and the national level, given the number of shared competences involved. In this respect, the new European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 - currently prepared by the European Commission - has the potential to fully take into account the Convention’s provisions.

· The existing link between disability and poverty might be finally addressed: the fight against poverty is the primary objective of EU development cooperation, and the Convention imposes the obligation to ensure that international cooperation is inclusive of, and accessible to, persons with disabilities;

· Further development of EU and national non-discrimination legislation, coherent with the Conventions’ provisions, will be required. Of course, the list is not exhaustive.

The most urgent issue at the moment is the completion of the ratification process by the remaining 14 EU Member States.

One thing is sure: the time has come for the EU to act swiftly addressing the needs of persons with disabilities, who still encounter major obstacles and unacceptable discrimination in their daily lives. The Convention calls on all State Parties - but also on all of us - to undertake every possible effort to make this world accessible to all people. This treaty is often compared with an elevator, trying to bring persons with disabilities to the same level of protection and respect as any other human being: it is time the elevator starts working.

Image: Rights of Persons with Disabilities; source: Google Images

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