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January 10, 2004

Resources Divide Delegates Drafting Disabled Rights Text

From: Inter Press Service (subscription), World - Jan 10, 2004

Peter Deselaers

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 10 (IPS) - A proposed transfer of resources from the North to the South is shaping up as a stumbling block at a conference to draft a human rights convention for people with disabilities.

While most of the developing countries want to include "international cooperation" in the treaty -- which means transferring resources like cutting-edge technologies -- developed nations are resisting.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) around 600 million people in the world live with disabilities -- mental, such as Down syndrome, or physical, such as blindness or paralysis.

Representatives from 27 governments, 12 NGOs and the South African Human Rights Commission are meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York until Jan. 16 to work on a draft text for the convention.

It will be the basis for negotiations at the U.N. General Assembly, which has to adopt the convention before it can be signed and ratified by U.N. member states and then finally come into effect.

This will probably still take years, but ''the time we are fighting for the convention is very important'', said delegate Klaus Lachwitz from the group Inclusion International. ''It is a chance to raise awareness and change attitudes in the countries.''

Already, the conference set-up is attracting attention. It includes a ramp for wheelchairs and sign language translation, along with the extraordinary skills of some disabled persons, like German delegate Theresia Degener, who has no arms but easily changes pages or grabs a microphone with her feet.

''The developed states should support developing countries in the infrastructure which enables people with disabilities to have a normal life'', said Lachwitz, whose London-based group is a global federation of family-based organisations that advocate for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities.

''We are asking for exchange of technology, capacity building and research,'' Adnan Al-Aboudi, Jordan director of the Landmine Survivors Network, told IPS.

In developing countries, he added, ''quality of rehabilitation and mobility aid is outdated, and governments are not aware of the research and progress in the developed world, especially on the causes for disabilities''.

But according to unnamed sources, the European Union (EU) told delegates that including "international cooperation" in the treaty would make it difficult for most donor countries to ratify the convention. The delegation from Ireland, which holds the EU presidency this year, refused to comment for this article.

The international community creates conventions to protect the rights of so-called vulnerable groups, like children, refugees and migrant workers.

But ''the existing human rights treaties do not explicitly explain how the rights can be carried out to disabled people'', Liisa Kauppinen, representing the World Federation of the Deaf, told IPS via sign language.

Non-discrimination, autonomy, equalisation of opportunities and participation as full citizens in society are important principles that should be echoed in the treaty, she added.

Other topics addressed in various draft conventions of disabled rights include accessibility, mobility, access to information, marriage, property rights, detention and participation in political life.

''We want the convention to be in an easy to read language, made for people and not for lawyers'', added Lachwitz.

The language problem starts with the 18 words of the draft treaty's title: 'Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities', which is far too long and complicated for most intellectually disabled people.

For Inclusion International representative Robert Martin, who is intellectually disabled, it is extremely important that the convention be understandable. In fact, he believes it is an aspect of his right to communicate.

''Often people assume that because you cannot communicate you should not have certain rights'', he told IPS. Mentally disabled people are not only denied their full citizenship with a right to vote, he added, but sometimes ''even the basic choice of when I want to have breakfast and what I am going to wear today''.

Especially in developing countries, disabled people are often unaware of their human rights, say delegates.

The gap between rich and developing nations is huge, they add. ''In developing countries people with disabilities are asking for a source of living, for a job, a salary, but in rich countries they ask for a raise in their assistant's salary'', said Al-Aboudi.

He says he once visited a person with mental and physical disabilities in a rural area of a developing country who was, ''tied with ropes on hand and feet, and they were throwing food at him like an animal''.

Al-Aboudi is convinced that a strong convention that is accepted by member states will change the lives of the world's disabled people, ''but we need a strong monitoring mechanism attached to the treaty''.

Conventions of the General Assembly are not binding on member states; each country decides whether it will ratify the convention. But normally the treaties include monitoring mechanisms, such as obligations for countries to report on their efforts to abide by the convention.

The draft text produced at this meeting will be sent to the ad hoc committee for the treaty, which will meet in May and August for the last of four sessions.

After it concludes its negotiations, the convention can be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, signed and ratified by states, and then come into force.

The United States has already announced that it will not ratify the convention, arguing that it already provides sufficient legal protection for the disabled, but Washington says it will not oppose the treaty either.

While in the United States and other industrial nations the law protects the rights of people with disabilities, for example by ensuring that mass transportation is accessible, there is no legislation for the disabled in most developing countries.

For Al-Aboudi, the process of negotiating the convention -- which includes the creation of relationships between government officials and disabled people -- helps to improve understanding of disabled peoples' special needs.

''When we started the process of the convention, delegates did not even know what disability is about'', he said. ''Seventy per cent of this treaty is not in books, but in the living experience of people with disabilities''.

''The convention was a dream'', he added. ''I am proud to be inside the negotiations room and at the highest level of decision-making in the U.N.'' (END/2004)

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