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Disability Convention: new treaty comes into being

Nothing about us without us: the newest international human rights treaty comes into being

By Robyn Hunt

The tyranny of distance can make New Zealand seem a long way from the centres of world power and decision-making.

Yet as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons became part of international law in the weekend (May 3), New Zealanders with disabilities can feel a sense of pride in their role in making the first human rights treaty of the 21st century reality.

New Zealanders were there at the birth of the convention, taking full part in the debates in New York that preceded the Convention’s adoption by the United Nations on 13 December, 2006.

New Zealand consumer rights advocate Robert Martin, a member of our delegation, was the first person with an intellectual disability to speak before the UN General Assembly. New Zealand diplomat Don MacKay chaired the drafting work and shepherded the disparate points of view to find consensus.

Behind the scenes representatives from disabled communities in this country chivvied and persuaded, remonstrated and argued to ensure that the drafters of the convention paid heed to the catch cry of disabled communities, “Nothing about us without us!”

The catch cry was heeded. The Convention embodies the paradigm shift behind the words. People with disabilities do not want to be seen as “objects” of charity, or “victims” always in need of social protection, nor as “deserving” cases for medical treatment.

Instead they want to be seen through the same lens as everyone else. This means recognition that people with disabilities are citizens with rights, capable of claiming those rights and of making decisions about their lives based on free and informed consent as active members of society.

There is no greater sign that the Convention is ripe for its time than the speed with which it has been enacted. The Convention practically whirled through the drafting process in eight sessions, making it the fastest human rights treaty yet negotiated. When it was opened for signature on 30 March, 2007, it immediately collected 82 signatories for the Convention, 44 signatories to the Optional Protocol and one ratification.

A month ago the 20th country Ecuador ratified the Convention, triggering its formal entry into international law. From this weekend the attendant Optional Protocol comes into force as international law.

This offers two important ways of ensuring the Convention has power and ideals. First it allows individuals to petition the UN Committee on Disabled Rights about breaches of their rights and, secondly, it gives the Committee the authority to hold inquiries of grave or systematic violations of the Convention.

New Zealand was one of the early countries to sign the Convention and now is working through our laws to ensure they are consistent with the Convention. The Government has said it hopes to ratify the Convention before the end of the year and disabled people and organisations are working closely with Government to meet this goal.

An initial scan indicates that most of our legislation does comply and it is unlikely that there will need to make too many changes to New Zealand law.

And in truth, the Convention does not include any new rights for people with disabilities, but rather spells out the rights people with disabilities already possess alongside everyone else.

What is new about this Convention is that it shows countries what they need to do to ensure those rights are respected and the responsibilities that come with those rights acknowledged.
For example, countries that have ratified the Convention are obliged to ensure accessibility of the physical environment and information and communications technology. Once New Zealand has ratified, the country would be obliged to raise awareness of disability issues, promote access to justice and collect data relevant to the Convention. The task of achieving equality is likely to always be a work in progress, but would be subject to international scrutiny and benchmarks.

Nothing happens overnight and nobody waking up next week should think that. What the Convention does is give people with disabilities a voice, visibility and the legitimacy to make them heard and seen.

Over time the logic of what they say will be hard to refute. Expect to see people with disabilities in all sorts of new roles, contributing their talents and energy, and by doing so, cementing New Zealand’s reputation as a place where everyone not only expects a fair go, but actually might get it.

Fact box:
* The Convention on the Rights of Disabled People is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century

* It was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 13 December, 2006 and comes into force on May 3, 2008.

* The Convention is the first legally binding international law with comprehensive protection of the rights of persons with disabilities.

* The Government expects to ratify the Convention before year’s end.

* Vanuatu was the first Pacific state to ratify the Convention. Ecuador was the 20th nation to ratify the Convention, triggering the Convention’s entry into international law.

+ Robyn Hunt is a Commissioner with responsibility for disability issues with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.


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