human rights news & views

First human rights treaty for the 21st century?

After 5 years of negotiations, there’s a race to find agreement among the UN’s 192 member nations on a treaty to  protect explicitly the rights of people with disabilities in time to have it adopted at the next meeting of the General Assembly in September.

Writes the UN’s Thomas Schindlmayr, who suffered a permanent spinal injury in a car accident at the age of four:

"I have long accepted my reliance on a wheelchair to move about . . . Like so many other individuals with disabilities, I accept who I am. But what I can never accept are the artificial limitations imposed upon me through physical barriers such as stairs, ignorance and sometimes downright discrimination."

Only 45 countries in the world have legislation aimed at protecting the human rights of people with disabilities, and one reason to pursue an international treaty is to help get those rights, recognised at the highest levels, enshrined in domestic legislation.

Even in a country like Australia, where it’s illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, they none the less "swim in a sea of discrimination". They are generally less educated, less likely to be employed — or well employed — and less financially secure. This, in spite of research findings that show workers with disabilities to be at least as good at their jobs as their able-bodied counterparts, with less absenteeism.

Although the text of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is largely complete, a fundamental point remains contested: how to define disability. There are an estimated 650 million people with disabilities worldwide, though I guess that depends on your definition. Should disability be defined in terms of a person’s interaction with society or in medical terms, such as ‘the loss of sight’? asks Aotearoa/New Zealand chairman of the negotiations, Don MacKay.

A speedy conclusion to negotiations on the treaty is far from certain. A large number of disability groups are involved, with 150 11th-hour amendments proposed.

Meanwhile, the United States is refusing to support the Convention, claiming it would represent a dilution of US legislation. This is perplexing, given that it is common for treaties to make clear that they are a minimum standard and cannot be used as an excuse to diminish the enjoyment rights (e.g., Article 5 of the ICCPR).

Negotiations are set to conclude on Friday, with or without an agreed text.


  1. 29 August 2006 | 10:46 am

    […] They did it. Negotiations of the UN ad hoc committee concluded successfully late on Friday with an agreed text to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention will be presented for adoption by the General Assembly in September. […]

  2. 1 September 2006 | 11:49 pm

    […] Vying for the honour of the first human rights treaty of the 21st century is the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. After 25 years of work, the text of the draft convention has been passed by the UN Human Rights Council and now awaits adoption at the General Assembly later this month. I guess it depends whether it or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is listed higher on the agenda. […]

Leave a reply

Subscribe to website updates by email