The Road to the UN Convention

Mr. Steve Estey, Former Human Rights Officer, Disabled Peoples' International

In this presentation I will focus on the events that led up to the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I was involved, with other representatives of the worldwide disability community, in the drafting of the treaty from 2002 to 2006, over the course of nine or ten meetings at the U.N. in New York and at regional meetings around the world. “Nothing about us without us” is our prevailing motto.

The Second World War was the genesis of the UN system. In the dying days of the Second World War, countries came together, and decided they wanted to have an institution to replace the defunct League of Nations—an institution where the countries of the world could come together to find ways to move their collective humanity forward.

One of the first acts of the U.N. was to endorse in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was informed by the experience of the Second World War and the horrors associated with it. The Universal Declaration addresses the basic rights and freedoms that we as people ought to be able to expect in order to live our lives in freedom and dignity (i.e. the right to vote, the right not to be incarcerated, the right to education).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights functions at a very high-level. The international debate moved to a focus on how to make rights meaningful for people. From 1952 until the mid-sixties, there were two sets of debates in the U.N. that led to the development of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These two covenants are predicated on the Universal Declaration and they address two different kinds of rights. On the one hand, the Convention on Civil and Political Rights addresses action that governments ought not to do (for example arbitrary detainment). The economic, social and cultural rights are actions that governments ought to be providing for citizens-- education, health care, etc.

Beginning in the sixties, there was increasing acknowledgement that there were distinct groups of people in the global community that were not able to enjoy their rights in the same way as others. From 1965 to 1990, “thematic treaties” were introduced in the U.N. system to extend the full enjoyment of human rights to these populations.

There are four thematic treaties: (1) The Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted by the U.N. in 1965; (2) CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979; (3) The Convention against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted in 1984; and (4) The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989. These thematic treaties acknowledge that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not address the needs of everyone equally.

In the 1970s, disability is discussed for the first time in the U.N. system. In 1971, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Rights on Mentally Retarded Persons (the language has since changed). The Declaration addresses the rights of people with intellectual disabilities to live in the community, where possible. ‘Where possible’ was a big back door, through which a lot of institutions remained open.

Thus, a discourse began at the U.N. about disability, which led in 1976 to the General Assembly’s decision to proclaim 1981 the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). Canada’s disability community was integrally involved in the paradigm shift that occurred at this time, from a medical model to a social model of disability, in which shared barriers to participation were the focus, not an individual’s medical diagnosis. One of the outcomes of this “last civil rights movement” was the creation, right here in Winnipeg, of Disabled Peoples’ International. Canadian leadership in this organization helped formulate the new philosophy of full participation, as reflected in the U.N. World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons (1981).

It is worth noting that only $510,000 was contributed to IYPD from countries around the world. By way of comparison, the Government of Ontario has an accommodation fund for employees with disabilities that is $1,000,000 annually. This offers some indication about where disability was on the radar screen in the eighties.

After IYDP, the U.N. established the International Decade of Persons (1982 to 1992), thereby setting in motion a process that triggered a number of important processes, including intermittent reviews of the Decade, experts’ meetings and so on. In 1987, when people with disabilities and other experts met in Italy for a mid-term review of the decade, one of the recommendations made was that the U.N. should consider adopting a convention on the rights of people with disabilities. However, when Italy presented the resolution to the General Assembly, the idea of a convention was dismissed.

When experts met once more for an end-of-decade review, again they called for a new convention on the rights of people with disabilities, and, once again, this resolution failed to gain support from the U.N. General Assembly. However, Sweden continued to promote disability rights at the U.N. in the period from 1990 to 1993. Rather than focus on a convention, they proposed the development of Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities.

The 1990s was the decade of the “Standard Rules,” which are a helpful set of programmatic suggestions for addressing the inclusion of people with disabilities in a wide variety of societal contexts. However, the Standard Rules are not binding.

In 1998, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights -- which is now defunct -- adopted a resolution about the human rights of people with disabilities. Having the U.N. Commission on Human Rights address disability was an important development. Previously, discussions in the U.N. about disabilities had taken place with rehabilitation experts, for instance at the World Health Organization on topics such as Community-based Rehabilitation (CBR).

In 1998, the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, commissioned a study by two European law professors, Gerard Quinn and Theresia Degener, to evaluate the place of people with disabilities in the U.N. system. During the next two years, the researchers surveyed all member states of the U.N. and all the treaty mechanisms. What they found (or didn’t find) is that throughout the U.N. and member state reports of the treaty system, barely a reference was made in official reports to people with disabilities. The study concluded that there were 650,000,000 people with disabilities in the world who have the same rights as everybody else. However, existing U.N. human rights instruments were not addressing the discrimination experienced by this population.

After receiving the Quinn-Degener report, the High Commissioner called for a twin-track approach to disability and human rights. The first track was to increase the presence of disability in the U.N. system, including reporting on the U.N. treaties, and the second track was to begin a discussion about a new convention on the rights of people with disabilities.

These events are the antecedents to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In 2001, the government of Mexico introduced a resolution to the General Assembly that called for the creation of a committee to determine whether there should be a convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The U.N. agreed to this strategic first step. The committee met for the first time in August of 2002 in New York City. I am in the privileged position to report that it was a very exciting moment. Countries from around the world had delegations participating, including representatives from the disability community, like me.

At the end of two weeks, the committee had not reached consensus on whether the U.N. should have a convention on the rights of people with disabilities. The participants agreed to meet in a year’s time to consider the issue further. In the meantime, they set up regional conferences in the five U.N. regions around the world, to explore the matter further.

The indecision continued right until 2003, when a turning point occurred thanks to the leadership of Kofi Annan. At the time, the group that met in New York in 2002 was reconvening to report back inconclusively on the regional meetings. , Suddenly, all discussion stopped as Mr. Annan walked into our meeting room and proceeded to the podium, glancing at the pen that someone from the disability community had handed him in the hall. Kofi Annan first complimented us all on the good work that we were doing. Then, he looked down at the pen, read the inscription and said, ‘Really, what else can I say, but (as per the pen’s message) ‘Convention – Yes!,’’

All waffling abruptly ended and everyone agreed: ‘Convention – Yes!’ A drafting committee was established and then, from 2004 to 2006, the issue became how to draft, and then improve upon the various drafts of the convention to achieve consensus.

Our task was completed, when in December 2006 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. On March 30, 2007, the Government of Canada was one of the first countries to sign. The Convention became international law with respect to ratifying states on May 3, 2008, when 20 member states of the United Nations ratified the Convention. On March 11, 2010, Canada became the 82nd country to ratify it.