UN Disability Convention - Topics at a Glance: History of the Process

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Over the past two years, the National Council on Disability (NCD) has released several documents and reports related to the development of a UN convention (i.e., international human rights treaty) on the rights of people with disabilities. This briefing paper condenses the history of the process and provides new information regarding recent developments.

History of the Process

In November 2001, the UN General Assembly established an Ad Hoc Committee (AHC) to "consider proposals for a comprehensive and integral convention on the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities." This action came after many years of advocacy by the disability community for the inclusion of disability in the UN human rights legal framework.

The AHC, which reports to the General Assembly, met for the first time in July 2002. Very little significant progress was made by the AHC at this meeting: it was simply decided that regional consultations should be held, and that the Committee should meet again the following year. On the positive side, members of the disability community from many different countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attended the AHC meeting. To maximize their impact, they organized themselves into a "Disability Caucus" for the purpose of developing strategies and speaking with a united voice to the AHC. Meetings were held daily to coordinate messaging and to select who would speak on behalf of the Caucus each day.

As a result of this coordination, the Disability Caucus was successful in persuading the AHC to allow for a very open process in which the expertise and perspectives of people with disabilities and their representative organizations would play a significant role. Accredited NGOs were granted the right to attend any public meeting of the AHC, to make statements on the floor of the Committee, to receive all official meeting documentation and to make written presentations. This is very much to the credit of the disability community, as the UN is traditionally very resistant to significant inclusion of outside groups. It often takes years for a community to get a foothold in a treaty process.

Between the first and second meetings of the AHC, regional "Expert Meetings" were held in several regions to discuss substantive issues related to the development of a convention. When the AHC re-convened in June 2003, the first three days yielded consensus that a convention was indeed needed and that work on drafting a convention should be started.

For the remainder of the two weeks the Committee was singularly focused - in formal and informal sessions - on establishing a special working group to draft a treaty text for consideration by the Committee in 2004. The Disability Caucus fought very hard for inclusion of people with disabilities on this working group, repeating "nothing about us without us!" in every public statement it made to the AHC. The impressive result was that representatives of the disability community were granted nearly one-third of the seats on the working group, which is unprecedented for an official UN drafting committee.

The final decision from the second AHC meeting was that the working group would comprise 27 governmental representatives, 12 NGO representatives and one representative from among National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs).

The AHC charged the Disability Caucus with deciding how the twelve NGO seats on the working group should be allocated. The Caucus decided that one seat each would be given to the seven International Disability Alliance (IDA) member organizations. The remaining five were divided up regionally among Europe, the Americas, Africa, West Asia (mainly Arab states) and Asia Pacific. The twelve NGO representatives on the working group are:

Regional seats:
Luis Fernardo Astorga, the Americas 
Shuib Chalklan, Africa
Theresia Degener, Europe
Adnan al Aboudi, West Asia
Anuradha Mohit, Asia Pacific

International Disability Alliance member seats:
Venus Ilagan, Disabled Peoples' International
Robert Martin assisted by Klaus Lachwitz, Inclusion International
Gerard Quinn, Rehabilitation International
Kicki Nordstrom, World Blind Union
Liisa Kauppinen, World Federation of the Deaf
Lex Grandia, World Federation of DeafBlind
Tina Minkowitz, World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry

There is no official list of governmental representatives to date.

The working group will convene officially in January 2004 for a two week working session. It is not clear how the work will be structured. Normally, drafting processes include only governments that are able to work through the mission structure of the UN. In this case, however, the large number of NGOs on the working group precludes that option. Instead, DESA (the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the UN), which is the coordinating department for the AHC, plans to create an online forum to facilitate the process. It is not clear whether this website forum will be open to the public, although many expect that it will be. The forum will not be launched until the governmental representatives have been identified.

There are many working papers on the table - some in the form of draft conventions and others that offer commentary, general principles, ideas for structure and content, etc. The working group has been instructed to consider these documents as it undertakes its work. These documents are available on the DESA website:http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/rights/adhoccom.htm

The twelve NGO members of the working group have been in coordinated communication with one another since the adjournment of the AHC meeting. It is an enormous responsibility to represent the global disability community in the development of international human rights law pertaining to people with disabilities. The twelve will meet in Madrid from December 13-15 to discuss strategies for ensuring that the views of people with disabilities are the focus of the drafting process. The European Disability Forum is convening this meeting.

The United States Position on a Convention

During the second AHC meeting, Ralph Boyd, former US Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, announced that the US would "participate in order to share our experiences - and to offer technical assistance if desired on key principles and elements - but given our comprehensive domestic laws protecting those with disabilities, not with the expectation that we will become party to any resulting legal instrument." He also indicated that an international convention will not necessarily be helpful to other countries either, asserting that ensuring the rights of people with disabilities is a "largely domestic mission" and stating that "the most constructive way to proceed is for each Member State, through action and leadership at home, to pursue within its borders the mission of ensuring that real change and real improvement is brought to their citizens with disabilities." In a press conference at the UN, NCD Chair, Lex Frieden, commented "Many countries still require the guidance of international compacts to ensure the human rights of people with disabilities. NCD further believes that, as the world evolves into a global society, it is important to have meaningful international standards and structures in place to protect people with disabilities from discrimination and abuse."

For more information on the role of a convention and its relevance to Americans with disabilities, please visit NCD's website for documents on this topic:

An International Disability and Human Rights Convention
Understanding the Role of an on the Human Rights of People with Disabilities International Convention