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Dec 19, 2006

The Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, adopted today by the General Assembly, was an “extraordinarily far-reaching” human rights and development instrument, Don Mackay ( New Zealand), Chairman of the Ad Hoc on the Convention told correspondents this afternoon at Headquarters.

In today’s press conference, Mr. MacKay, the Permanent Representative of New Zealand and Chairman of the negotiating committee that prepared the Convention, was joined by two leaders of the International Disability Caucus: Pamela Molina Toledo, Corporación Ciudadanía Real de Sordos de Chile, and Tina Minkowitz, World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry.

Mr. MackKay said the credit for achieving the Convention’s adoptions went to the representatives of civil society. Over 400 of them had registered and constantly “cajoled, urged, entreated, pressured, argued and very, very effectively persuaded Governments to keep shifting the boundaries of the envelope”.

He said at the end of negotiations, it was “touch and go”. One issue had been left hanging then, namely the issue of “legal capacity”. A footnote had been inserted in the text as the price for being able to obtain agreement. He was pleased that it had been possible to remove the footnote from the text at the final meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on 5 December. The footnote was not part of the text, he emphasized.

Ms. Molina Toledo informed correspondents that the International Disabilities Caucus was a coalition of 70 international, regional and national organizations of persons with disabilities, representing more than 600 million persons with disabilities worldwide, 80 per cent of them living in developing countries, often in circumstances of extreme poverty and social exclusion. The coalition celebrated today the adoption of the Convention, which was the first convention of the twenty-first century that recognized disability as a human rights issue. Disability was now an inherent part of human diversity. Without development that included the persons with disabilities in all aspects of social and political life, the Millennium Goals would not be achieved.

The Convention was an example of unity and cooperation between Governments and civil society, showing the world the only way to achieve the profound changes that would improve the current and future quality of life of mankind on the basis of equality. Persons with disabilities had the right to be recognized on an equal basis with all other citizens, and never less than that. The organizations of the Caucus should be included at all decision-making levels, in all countries, at all stages of the implementation of the Convention.

Ms. Minkowitz said the International Disability Caucus urged Governments to ratify and implement the Convention within national legislation. In order to address some particular concerns, sign language and other alternative means of communication must be recognized in all situations of information, education and employment. Plans and programmes must be developed to achieve the full inclusion and development of all people with disabilities, including those of indigenous communities. As women, girls and boys with disabilities suffered double discrimination, they must be prioritized when implementing the Convention.

Abusive and paternalistic practices such as the forced sterilization of girls and women because of their disability, forced institutionalization and substituted decision-making, must be abolished. People with medical conditions and pain could also be people with disabilities and had the same rights under the Convention. For all those reasons, it was vital that the United Nations extend the mandate of the voluntary fund to support persons with disabilities and their organizations coming from developing countries to include the implementation process.

Asked about the “footnote issue”, which was also subject of many explanations of position in the Assembly, Mr. MacKay said that for translation purposes, language on legal capacity would be used from the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Any nuances in translation would be worked out throughout time and would depend on State practice. A monitoring body would need to ensure that there was consistent State practice. The footnote was definitely not included in the final text.

The issue had come up some four sessions ago of the negotiating committee. It preserved the position of countries for which the issue was a long stretch. Since then, there had been continuing discussion on the issue. At the end of the last session, he had proposed, in order to get one and maybe more delegations on board, that the footnote be included. That had been his judgement call, with which some colleagues had not been happy. After that, it was clear that the footnote was not sustainable. There had been extensive informal consultations. As a result, it had been possible to remove the footnote at the final meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee last Tuesday. A number of countries, therefore, had to make an interpretive statement.

Ms. Minkowitz added that, from a perspective of persons with disabilities, there must be equality in all aspects that related to matters of human rights, including legal capacities and the capacity to act. The footnote issue had given the coalition an opportunity to raise more awareness about the issue. The coalition had been promoting the concept of supported decision making. There was not yet any country that had fully implemented legal changes to accommodate supported decision making and a lot of work in that area had still to be done. Everyone should be able to make decisions in their own lives, using their legal capacity.

Asked about the situation in the former Soviet Union countries, one of the attendees of the press conference signed that those countries were opening up and that there was an intention to follow at least the underlying principles of the Convention. Mr. MacKay added that the Russian Federation had been very active and constructive during negotiations.

Answering a question about how peoples with disabilities would not be discriminated against when it came to affordable health care and honouring their right to life, particular in hospitals, Ms. Minkowitz answered that implementation of that matter depended on individual Governments, Ms. Minkowitz said there were provisions that guaranteed persons with disabilities the same rights to free or affordable health care as others. How that would be implemented would depend on each Government. Everything in health care should be made accessible, including accessible examining tables and accessible information. It should be recognized that disability in itself was not a health issue, but persons with disability had the right to the same quality of health care as others.

As for protection of the rights of persons who became disabled in hospital, Mr. MacKay said that that had been a controversial area in negotiations. There was a guarantee to the same rights to live as others and that was the benchmarks against which Governments could be held. It all came down to consistent State practices.

Ms. Molina Toledo added that, in Chile and other Latin American countries, health services were not accessible for deaf persons due to communication problems. There was no sign language available in hospitals. The Convention, however, asked for the inclusion of sign language in all services. The challenge was now to get Government support and to have civil society monitor implementation of the Convention.

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