Address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Interactive Debate on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

6 March 2009

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome the initiative of the Human Rights Council in holding this discussion on the rights of persons with disabilities. This is the first of the annual debates that the Council plans to hold on this vital topic.

With the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities last May 2008, a major legal protection gap was filled. As of today, 50 States are parties to the Convention (and 139 are signatories). Moreover, 29 States are parties to its Optional Protocol (with 82 signatories). I am particularly pleased with the speed of ratifications, second only to that of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The implementing bodies established by the Convention are in the initial phases of their institutional development: the Conference of States Parties met in October last year; while the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has just concluded its first meeting. We are glad to have two of its expert members with us today.

As the principal United Nations human rights institution, the Council is perfectly positioned--and indeed expected--to advance the Convention’s goals amongst States and within the United Nations system. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that the Council has eagerly embraced this responsibility.

Mr. President,

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires us to move away from charity-based or medical-based approaches to disability to a new perspective stemming from and firmly grounded in human rights. These traditional approaches and attitudes, no matter how well intentioned they might have been, regarded persons with disabilities either as passive recipients of good will or deeds, or as problems to be fixed, or both.

In its innovative vision, the Convention recognises disability as the result of the interaction between the impairment of the person and outside barriers. Rather than the impairment itself, the Convention identifies in policies, legislation and practices the roots of discrimination, lack of participation or utter exclusion of people with disabilities. The implications of such shift in the understanding of disability, often referred to as the “paradigm shift”, represent a watershed in thinking.

For example, the Convention regards inaccessibility of buildings, as a failure of policies and norms on accessibility to take into account the special needs of persons with disabilities, rather than a consequence of the disability itself.

Another area in which the transition from passive or charity-oriented attitudes regarding disability to a human rights-based approach is most evident in the recognition by the Convention that persons with any kind of disability enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others. Without doubt, your discussion today will enrich the understanding of the full scope of the legal and societal reforms that the Convention envisages.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The depth and implications of the paradigm shift of the Convention require nothing less than a thorough and dispassionate reflection on what is needed to give full effect at the national level to this new international human rights instrument. I wish to underscore that any discussion about the rights of persons with disabilities should tackle the content and scope of rights, as well as the concrete steps, measures, approaches and processes that are needed to implement them.

People with disabilities summarized their call for action with the formula “nothing about us without us.” This participative rationale inspired and energized the negotiations leading to the adoption of the Convention. I am glad to see that the Human Rights Council is seeking to translate such words into practice, and give effect to the cardinal human rights principles of participation and empowerment. I am eager to listen to the presentations of the panellists. They are all distinguished experts who have made important contributions to framing and advocating the rights of persons with disabilities enshrined in the Convention during the course of the debate that surrounded it.

In order to support your debate, my Office has prepared a study on legal measures for the ratification and implementation of the Convention now before you. I hope you find it helpful. Allow me to take this opportunity to reiterate that my Office always stands ready to assist you.

Mr. President,

Every society, every community has persons with disabilities. At the same time, persons with disabilities everywhere suffer some of the most egregious violations of their human rights. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides a road map to improve this unacceptable situation. Universal ratification and effective implementation of the Convention will help achieve this vision everywhere. I encourage you to exercise your leadership to make this a reality.

Thank you.