On May 10, 2011 Columbia became the 100th country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The event is a majormilestone for the treaty, as it demonstrates how quickly progress was made in spreading its message across the international community after it entered into force in 2008. To commemorate this achievement, this post will be the first in a two-part series which will examine the history, goals, and finally, the implementation and effectiveness of the CRPD.
Although the CRPD made its official debut in the 2000s, disability-based discrimination was recognized as a global issue by the United Nations as far back as the 1970s. In 1976, the UN General Assembly declared 1981 to be the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP), in order to urge the development of strategies to promote the full inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWDs) on regional, national, and international levels. This ambitious goal led to the adoption of the landmark document, the World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons (WPA) by the UN General Assembly in December of 1982. The WPA further solidified and framed the goals of the IYDP as a human rights issue. As a global strategy, it continued to promote disability prevention, the expansion of opportunities, actions against discrimination, the right to independent living, and the participation of PWDs in public life. The General Assembly set aside a timeline for the implementation of these policies by its member states, which came to be known as the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons, from 1983 to 1992.
During this decade member states, including Sweden and Italy, attempted to put together drafts of a treaty that would address disability rights; however, they were unsuccessful due to a lack of consensus. The disagreements arose because representatives and political leaders believed that existing human rights documents already guaranteed equality among all citizens, and that a specific focus on PWDs would be superfluous. This impasse prevented the adoption of a treaty at the time, but in 1993 it did allow for a less binding international document, the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities. This document presented guidelines to national governments on the best ways to take action and translate the principles of the WPA into national policies. It addressed everything from awareness-raising, culture, religion, and family life, to support services, accessibility, rehabilitation, and social security. More importantly, however, the Standard Rules marked a shift in the way international documents viewed disability. The UN adopted the social model of disability, which views PWDs as individuals experiencing stigma as a result of their environment, instead of invalids who need protection and charity. Hence, the goal of preventing disabilities lost some of its support.
During an NGO summit on disability in 2000, participating organizations produced the Beijing Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which renewed the call for an official UN treaty (i.e. convention) that would address disability rights. Advocates claimed that despite the inclusive language of other human rights documents, PWDs continued to be marginalized and denied basic rights. A convention with a focus on disability would list legal obligations on states that are geared specifically towards protecting and promoting the rights of PWDs. In response to this pressure from advocates, Mexico proposed negotiations for such a convention in December 2001, and just 5 years later a draft convention was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly, making this the fastest negotiation of any human rights treaty.
The CRPD and its Optional Protocol entered into force on May 3, 2008, after garnering a sufficient number of signatures and ratifications. It emphasizes non-discrimination, individual autonomy, respect for PWDs as part of human diversity, accessibility, evolving capacities and the right to maintain a disabled identity, and the right to social, cultural, and political participation . Uniquely, it’s a powerful instrument for human rights as well as a guideline for international development. As I mentioned in an earlier post, disability rights are essential for alleviating poverty and improving health, although disability had been missing from development strategies until very recently.
The Convention is still new relative to others, and there is plenty to do in terms of evaluating its effects on member states, monitoring human rights protections for PWDs, and finding strategies that can be extended to non-signatories. I will explore some of these issues in my next post- so stay tuned!