Quota and the United Nations

Human Rights in the 21st Century: The U.N. and Persons with Disabilities

By Jessica Hartl, www.unausa.org/council

Adopting by consensus vote on December 13, 2006, the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, the United Nations General Assembly approved the landmark U.N. Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. The most rapidly negotiated human rights treaty in the history of international law, this treaty does not establish new rights but emphasizes and consolidates existing rights and freedoms of those with disabilities. It is based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination, and full and effective participation and inclusion in society.

With an estimated 650 million people worldwide with disabilities (amounting to 10 percent of the world population), the international community coalesced quickly on the need for such a treaty. When the treaty opened for signatures and ratification on March 30, 2007, 80 countries immediately signed, with Jamaica submitting the first ratification. To date, 96 countries have signed the convention, 52 have signed the Optional Protocol (allowing individual petitions to be considered by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), and one country has ratified the convention. The United States has indicated that it will not sign the treaty, because of its already comprehensive laws on disability rights.

Moving forward towards ratification and implementation, of particular concern for the nongovernmental organizations represented by the International Disability Caucus, is “the need for governments to recognize sign language and other alternative methods of communication in all situations of information, education, and employment.” (U.N. press release, December 13, 2006)

Complementing this international legal framework, the U.N. system does much to assist countries in prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation for those individuals at risk of or with disabilities. From clearing landmines to encouraging inclusive education and providing affordable hearing aids, U.N. agencies and programs work closely with member states to address some of the major causes of disabilities and the subsequent problems faced by those with disabilities.

The following are some examples of efforts by the U.N. system to prevent deafness and improve access and opportunities for those who are hearing impaired:

UNESCO—As the U.N.’s primary specialized agency focused on education, UNESCO’s efforts to reach those that are typically marginalized have focused on inclusive education. As a result of the 1994 World Conference on Special Needs Education held in Salamanca, Spain, UNESCO, UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Bank have worked together to encourage countries to implement inclusive education. From working at the national level to help countries revise their education policies and structure, to developing syllabi and training teachers on how to work with students with disabilities, UNESCO aims to be comprehensive in its approach towards making sure children and adults with disabilities are included as equal participants in educational systems, not segregated from the broader community. Click here for more information on UNESCO’s inclusive education efforts.

ILO—The International Labor Organization, using as its guide its Convention No. 159 concerning Vocational Rehabilitation of Employment of Disabled Persons (1983) and the ILO Code of Practice on Managing Disability in the Workplace (adopted in 2001), supports civil society and governments in designing and implementing public policy, vocational training, and rehabilitation programs. These efforts work toward equality of opportunity and treatment. One example of its current work is the technical cooperation project “Developing Entrepreneurship among Women with Disabilities,” which seeks to develop an effective strategy for empowering women with disabilities, including those with hearing impairment, by maximizing their income-earning potential and helping them escape from poverty. Ethiopia is serving as the case study for the project, in the hopes of creating a model that can be implemented on a wider scale within Ethiopia and across the globe. Click here for more information on the ILO’s efforts.

WHO—With an estimated 250 million people with a disabling hearing loss worldwide (half of those in developing countries), the World Health Organization focuses on prevention of deafness by raising awareness of the causes of hearing impairment, strategic alliances to provide services to those in need, conducting major studies to provide statistical data for policy making, and provision of training manuals for primary health care workers to educate their communities about basic prevention, among other initiatives.

Over the decades, the World Health Assembly has passed several resolutions on prevention of hearing impairment and other disabilities. In particular, in 1995 the 48th World Health Assembly passed resolution 48.9, highlighting the social, developmental, and economic consequences of hearing impairment, with an aim to encourage member states to actively prevent major causes of hearing loss and ensure technical and financial support by the WHO for member states to implement these initiatives. Presently, the WHO’s “strategic target is to eliminate 50 percent of the burden of avoidable hearing loss by the year 2010.” (Click here to read more.) One of the WHO’s most recent undertakings is the strategic partnership it has formed with WWHearing (World Wide Hearing Care for Developing Countries), which will encourage and facilitate provision of affordable hearing aids and services on a massive scale.

The U.N. has created a portal, Enable, to link individuals to the various parts of the U.N. system working on disability issues. To access this website, go to: www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/unandpwd.htm

Ms. Hartl is Coordinator for the Council of Organizations of the United Nations Association of the U.S.A. Quota International is a member of the Council.

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