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The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

In this video, Gerard Quinn and Rosemary Kayess give an introduction to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Understanding the Convention
GERARD QUINN: Since the late 1960s, we’ve had two very general treaties on civil and political rights, and on economic, social, and cultural rights. And for many, many reasons, a lot of groups figured these conventions were not enough, that their own circumstances were rather unique and peculiar, and that treaties would have to be drafted dealing thematically with these particular groups. And the groups included women, people of colour, migrants, obviously children, with one additional treaty focusing on a very specific right, rather than a group, namely the Committee Against Torture. So naturally enough, a lot of disability groups around the world were scratching their heads saying, hey, why not us?
We continue to be invisible within the existing UN system, and why not draft a thematic convention on the rights of people with disabilities, which would give you the head space to actually dig deep into the unique problems that people with disabilities face.
ROSEMARY KAYESS: The driving forces behind the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was really the fact that, even though we had had a human rights framework that included disability, albeit under the concept of other status, people with disability were still living in abject poverty. People with disability were still overwhelmingly represented in living in residential care. Were still experiencing high levels of violence, exploitation, and abuse. Were recognised as the poorest of the poor. And so it was even with significant policy and programmatic work at the international level that the experience of people with disability was not improving across the world.
And when, in 2000, the world came together to develop objectives and goals for the eradication of poverty, and the development of the Millennium Development Goals, and they didn’t include a focus on disability, it was responded to by the developing countries by– and especially Mexico pushed the issue saying we can’t eradicate poverty if we don’t deal with disability. And this became an opportunity, and it was an opportunity that was taken by Mexico, and pushed by Mexico, but it was also supported by lots of developing countries. And it wasn’t unusual that developing countries would follow Mexico’s lead, because developing countries– poverty, the relationship between poverty and disability is quite strong.
And so most developing countries have high prevalence numbers of people with disability within their communities. And so it’s a big issue for these countries.
GERARD: It was really a departure from welfare and charity to looking at disability in terms of a theory of justice to which everybody subscribes. And the UN Convention on disability, I say, is not actually primarily about disability. It’s primarily about that deeply embedded cosmopolitan theory of justice that happens to be grounded on disability in this instance. It’s validating people and their intuitions about the injustice of their own situation and the situation of others with disabilities. And that’s incredibly important, because it emboldens people to take their grievance to the next level. Not just to experience the grievance individually, but to join up with others to advocate for change.
And that has a dynamic all of its own, and helps to spur other things into life. I think the second thing about it is that it’s not just an inert instrument with which to measure compliance. It actually provides a moral and a legal compass for reform and for change. And if the cues are taken seriously and internalised within states, then that informs the reform process going forward. And I think it’s also important because people with disabilities have been left out at the periphery of reform, and now the convention gives legal expression to the slogan “nothing about this without us,” and demands the act of presence and consultation of people disabilities in the process.
So this all gets back to my previous point about the new politics of disability. That’s its fundamental importance. I think there’s a few things that are quite unique about the convention, at least relative to the other thematic conventions in the UN system. For one thing, we’ve been complaining for a long time about these identity-specific, group-specific conventions that don’t cross over as much as they should. In legalese, we call this intersectionality. And the unique thing about the disability convention is that it’s very much alive to intersectionality, to the plasticity of identity, and how disability doesn’t exhaust your identity. You’re also a woman, you’re also an older person, you’re also a child, and so on and so forth.
And so there’s several provisions in the convention that give expression to this. My one regret is that in the drafting process, we weren’t attentive enough to the linkage between disability and old age, the rights of older people. Another unique thing about the convention is that in previous conventions, there was a little bit of a disconnect between civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights.
The disability convention you might say is more faithful to the original intention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in that it blends together civil and political rights with economic, social, and cultural rights for the obvious reason– that many, not all, but many people with disabilities need not just their formal privileges and freedoms, but also some material means in order to be able to go forward. Interestingly enough in the drafting of the convention, at least in the initial phases to some of these civil society groups, economic, social, and cultural rights were seen as part of the problem, and not part of the solution.
And that’s because of the way they were misoperationalised to actually consolidate the absence of people with disabilities from the mainstream. The way that was expressed is that it compensates for your absence. Certainly, that was not the way economic, social, and cultural rights were conceptualised in the disability convention, so they’re blended together very interestingly, and very positively. I guess another unique feature is that the drafters were keenly aware of the limitations of international law. It doesn’t necessarily translate directly into reform processes in Canberra, or in New Delhi, or in Berlin. So that’s why they took the next logical step in the disability convention to demand that there would be an architecture of change.
Some entities, some process in relation to each other to force change forward in the domestic arena. So that’s why article 33 of the convention is pretty unique in demanding that there would be a focal point within government. Bearing in mind, if you don’t, when people fall through the cracks, they fall a long way if they’re disabled; that there should be an independent reality check in the form of a national human rights commission and so forth; and that people with disabilities themselves be directly in the process. I call that the triangulation of change. And once that’s right, you can count on almost everything else becoming right, because a positive momentum for change is put in place.
One last pretty unique feature of the convention is that it drew a line between domestic processes of change, and the availability of international development assistance. Because a lot of that assistance in the past was misused to do all of the wrong things– for example, to build segregated schools, or to build institutions. So the convention doesn’t go quite so far as to legitimate a legal right to international aid. What it does do very, very usefully is to insist that whatever development aid programmes are available, they’re made inclusive of persons with disabilities themselves. And we can see all around the world how development aid programmes are slowly, but surely being reconfigured to achieve exactly that.
ROSEMARY: I think the convention has had an impact. I think it’s had an impact in a couple of ways. The biggest impact I think is for those people that are working with the convention, especially people in policy areas within governments that have been working with it. I think there was a big impact for people that were working on the convention. And I think there’s even been a big impact for DPOs. I think it’s given a lot of symbolic impact, in terms of giving a guide, a framework, a charter for organisations to work with, to advocate for.
And I think for lots of people within the policy context, it’s challenged their thinking.
GERARD: I think it’s emboldened a lot of disabled person’s organisations, NGOs, to reframe disability and to do so with confidence. And that has opened up lines of communication between various impairment specific groups with other impairment specific groups, so that we’re now talking a common language. And we’re now articulating inarticulate grievances in terms of specific violations of an instrument that’s out there and validated in the international community. Well, I think the first achievement is at the level of ideas, because symbolically now, the ground has shifted very dramatically, and there’s no going back. And even if entities are opposed to some of the changes, they will nevertheless be forced to co-opt at least the language of the UNCRPD.
So the high ground has changed, and has shifted irretrievably, I would say. And that’s incredibly important in sustaining dynamics of change domestically, where it matters most. In practical terms, you can see more and more states taking seriously the imperative for having a real positive reform process, and actively involving people with disabilities. This is really concretising the new politics of disability at the local level. It doesn’t mean they’ll get everything right. It doesn’t mean they’ll be absolutely faithful to the convention, but it does mean that there is now a seriousness of intent behind processes of change throughout the world.
I mean, one indicator of that is prior to ratification, at least in European terms, four of our member states had disability action plans. Now, all of them do, including the European Union itself. I’m not saying they’re perfect. I’m not saying the process is perfect, but you’ve embedded a dynamic of change that just wouldn’t be there without the convention.

In 2006 the UN drafted a human rights treaty specifically intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities: the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In the above video, Gerard Quinn and Rosemary Kayess discuss the UNCRPD.

The UNCPRD is a pivotal document to understanding contemporary framings of disability. You can read the entire thing on the UN Website:

We also highly recommend that you read at least the first chapter of the 2011 World Report on Disability.
Gerard was deeply involved in the drafting of the UNCRPD and has worked internationally to support its ratification and implementation by many different countries in the world. As he explains, the UNCRPD is one of a number of thematic human rights treaties which address particular groups of people, including:
  • women,
  • refugees,
  • children,
  • people of colour,
  • migrant workers,
  • victims of forced disappearance (e.g. secret abduction or imprisonment),
  • indigenous people,
  • victims of torture,
  • victims of genocide.

Talking points

  • What were the driving forces behind the UNCRPD?
  • Why is the UNCRPD important?
  • What has been the impact of the UNCRPD on the international community? On governments? On disabled people’s organisations (DPOs)? On people with disabilities?

Extend your knowledge — In Step 2.12: Developing the Convention, you can read more about how the UNCRPD was drafted.

In the next step, we explore how the UNCRPD is being applied in local, domestic contexts — and the challenges that remain in creating change at the national, local and personal levels.

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