Dr Satya Narayan Jatiya, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment
Mr Orest Nowosad, National Institutions Team Leader, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Mr Mark Runacres, Acting British High Commissioner to India
Mr Kieren Fitzpatrick, Director, Asia Pacific Forum
The concept of human rights is based on the premise that all human beings are born free and equal in rights and dignity. For the effective enjoyment of rights by all, the State has an important role to play. The eminent Economist and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Amartya Sen observed that “rights are entitlements that require correlated duties”. An international treaty is an instrument which sets out the rights and duties. The just concluded workshop of National Human Rights Institutions has analyzed in depth various aspects of a new United Nations convention on the theme of disability.
In the last 20 years, many efforts have been made to bring forth a legally binding treaty on the theme of disability. In 1987, the expert meeting on World Programme of Action emphasised the need for a disability convention. In the same year, the Government of Italy and, in 1988, the Government of Sweden, proposed the idea of a disability convention to the UN General Assembly. On both occasions, however, no consensus was reached as many governmental representatives were of the opinion that existing human rights documents guaranteed persons with disabilities the same rights as other persons, and there was, therefore, no need for a special convention.
The World Programme of Action noted that “incidents of gross violation of basic human rights are a potential cause of mental and physical disability.” For a better understanding of the issues involved, the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, now known as the Sub-Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, appointed a Special Rapporteur, Mr. Leandro Despouy, to undertake a comprehensive study on the relationship between human rights and disability. His report made it clear that disability is a human rights concern with which the UN monitoring bodies should be involved. Subsequently, in 1994, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights assumed this responsibility by adopting a General Comment No. 5 which notes “The Covenant does not refer explicitly to persons with disabilities. Nevertheless, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and, since the Covenant’s provisions apply fully to all members of society, persons with disabilities are clearly entitled to the full range of rights recognized in the Covenant.”
In the 54th Session, the UN Commission on Human Rights thus adopted Resolution 98/31 in which a series of recommendations for the further development of disability rights were made. Subsequently in the year 2000, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 2000/51 since the State Parties to existing human rights treaties had not been reporting adequately on disability issues. A possible factor behind the apathetic response of the States could well have been the absence of an explicit reference to people with disabilities in the treaties (except the Convention on Rights of the Child) and the non-binding character of instruments on the theme of disability.
The shift from welfare of the disabled to the Human Rights of the disabled necessitated a fresh look at the whole issue and in the light of the decision of the first meeting of the UN Ad Hoc Committee to invite national human rights institutions to its future sessions, the seventh meeting of Asia Pacific Forum of national human rights institutions analyzed the need for a disability convention. The forum members firmly believe that a comprehensive and integral convention is necessary to give “status, authority and visibility” to disability issues which cannot be achieved through the process of reform of existing international instruments and monitoring mechanisms. Moreover, a single comprehensive treaty would enable the State Parties to understand their obligations in clear terms and it would set clear goals for the development of disability-inclusive systems and infrastructures. The elaboration of a new treaty would thus complement existing international standards for the rights of the people with disabilities.
It is my firmly held view that the primary objective of a disability convention must be to transact a shift from an approach based on welfare to one based on rights by firmly grounding the new treaty on human rights values that respect variations in human culture and recognize that people are different for several reasons such as gender, race and disability. However, this does not mean that all people should be treated in the same or similar way. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, once said that, “things that are alike should be treated alike, whereas things that are unalike should be treated unalike in proportion to their un-alikeness.”
People with disabilities have offered the world a precious opportunity to redefine the norms of social justice, citizenship, democracy and development. They insist on openness and tolerance to difference with a greater acceptance of variations in human potential. In that sense, the issue of disability is a means to attain a greater transformation of the State and society. For this to happen there is an indisputable need for an international treaty that is comprehensive.
Given the fact that two thirds of the world’s disabled people belong to the countries of the Asian and African regions, the participation of our member States in the process of treaty elaboration is of vital importance. Our active participation can greatly influence the quality of the substantive contents and elements of the treaty. On the other hand, passivity at this stage could deprive us of an opportunity to mould the treaty in a manner, which is most appropriate for the vast number of persons with disabilities living in developing countries.
The legal framework, policies and programmes that India has introduced for the protection and promotion of the rights of people with disabilities over the last decade are of great relevance. They demonstrate India’s commitment to upholding international norms and standards in promoting and protecting the rights of persons with Disabilities. In keeping with the spirit of the Asian and Pacific Decade for Persons with Disabilities (1993), the Government of India enacted two important pieces of legislation which are instrumental in mainstreaming people with disabilities in all aspects of society. I am confident that the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment, being the focal point on disability in Government of India, will take a very supportive view and encourage active participation by India in the treaty elaboration process. This is a unique opportunity to harmonize the doctrine of human rights and social development in a single instrument. Let us put all our experience and enlightened thoughts behind the idea of having a comprehensive and integral convention to protect and promote rights of people with disabilities. That would be a signal achievement of the early years of the 21st Century; it is an objective towards which all of us must contribute to the best of our ability.
On behalf of the 21 National Human Rights Institutions who have gathered here from countries of the Commonwealth and the Asia-Pacific region, I wish to assure our brothers and sisters, our children and friends who have disabilities that our proposals to the Ad Hoc Committee will be sensitive to your experience, vision and aspirations. We shall consult and engage you fully in our efforts. I am very grateful for the positive response and active participation of all who have attended this Workshop. I also acknowledge the enthusiastic participation of officers of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities in our deliberations here. The convergence of ideas of important stakeholders has made our recommendations to the Ad Hoc Committee both realistic and strong.
I am most grateful to the British High Commission, the British Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for providing the workshop their fullest support. The contribution by the Secretariat of Asia Pacific Forum has been great and I extend my thanks to it.