No. 1: The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Interview with Simon Walker, Advisor on Human Rights and Disability at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and  Vittoria Beria, Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)


The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol were the first human rights instruments of the 21st Century.  The Convention gives expression to the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of persons with disabilities and the steps governments must take to protect and promote those rights, including through promoting social development.  The Convention and Optional Protocol came into force on 3 May 2008.  The first Conference of States Parties, which will elect the experts of the treaty monitoring body, will take place within six months.

The Convention is a human rights instrument with a social development perspective. This responds to the needs of over 400 million persons with disabilities living in developing countries and to the fact that persons with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor across the world. The Convention constitutes a useful instrument to make development practices inclusive.


1- What is the main reason behind creating a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

The main reason behind creating a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was to strengthen protection and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities, including through promoting social development.  While existing human rights instruments did implicitly recognized the rights of persons with disabilities, breaches of the rights of persons with disabilities continued and persons with disabilities were not making use of human rights treaties and treaty bodies.  It became evident that greater explanation of the obligations on States to respect the rights of persons with disabilities was necessary.

For example, existing human rights treaties recognize that everyone has the right to free and compulsory primary education.  For persons with disabilities, free and compulsory education is not sufficient if education takes place in segregated schools.  This can exacerbate discrimination, inequality and social exclusion – and consequently deny the spirit of the right to education.  Therefore, the CRPD clarifies that, in the context of persons with disabilities, States have to ensure “inclusive education” – education in the general school system.

2- What is the purpose of the Convention?

The purpose of the Convention is set out in Article 1, namely: “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”.

In practice, we often explain that the Convention seeks a shift in attitudes and approaches to disability towards a rights-based approach.  In this way, persons with disabilities are no longer considered problems to be fixed, but free and equal members of society.  Consequently, the Convention moves from an old approach that treats persons with disabilities as passive recipients of charity or medical treatment, to active members of the community, free to protect their rights, live independently, make choices and contribute to society.

3- How does the Convention define disability?

The Convention does not actually define disability.  However, the Preamble to the Convention recognizes that “disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

To understand this better, consider for example, the right to vote.  Everyone has the right to vote, whether a person has a disability or not.  However, if a voter is in a wheelchair, she might not be able to vote if there is a staircase leading to the voting booth.  If the voter is blind, the voter might be unable to make a free choice between candidates where voting information is not supplied in Braille or other accessible format.  In both cases, the “disability” is the interaction between the lack of a ramp access or lack of voting material in accessible formats and the particular condition of the voter in question.  This moves away from a focus on “blindness” or “physical disability” and emphasizes the need for society to accommodate people from diverse backgrounds.

4- The Convention is often referred to as ‘ground breaking’ and ‘unique’, why is this?

The Convention is “ground-breaking” and “unique” in many ways.  Here are just three. One of the highlights is that the Convention includes an explicit social development dimension.  In this way, the Convention expresses in greater detail the sorts of positive “developmental” steps States must take to realize the rights of persons with disabilities.  Further, an article is dedicated to promoting international cooperation, including development cooperation, to meet the objectives of the Convention.  This is particularly important as over eighty percent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries and a vicious cycle linking poverty and disability exist across countries worldwide.

Another unique aspect is the emphasis placed on “participation” – both in the process of drafting the Convention as well as in its implementation.  Civil society organizations, particularly organizations of persons with disabilities (DPOs) were among the principal motivators behind the decision to draft the Convention and had an enormous influence on its content.  The Convention itself recognizes the importance of including persons with disabilities and their representatives organizations in processes affecting them by including “participation” expressly as a principle in Article 2.  Moreover, the Convention requires States to consult closely with persons with disabilities in the implementation phase as well as in nominating experts to the treaty monitoring Committee – the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Finally, the Convention includes a dedicated provision on national implementation, requiring States to coordinate in implementation and to nominate an independent body such as a National Human Rights Institution to promote, protect and monitor the rights in the Convention.

5- How will States that are party to the Convention be held accountable for implementing it?

As with other human rights treaties, the Convention establishes a treaty body known as the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  That Committee will conduct a constructive dialogue with States parties on the basis of a report States submit periodically.  Civil society organizations may also hold States to account by providing additional information to the Committee on the States performance.  For those States that have ratified the Optional Protocol, the Committee will be able to receive petitions claiming violations of the Convention from nationals of the State concerned.  The Optional Protocol also permits the Committee to undertake inquiries of States where there is reliable evidence of grave or systematic violations of the Convention.

As noted above, the Convention also requires States to nominate independent monitoring mechanisms such as a National Human Rights Institution which will also have an important role to hold States to account on implementation.

6- How can UN agencies and UNCTs support States in: a) Ratifying the Convention; and b) Implementing the Convention?

UN agencies and UNCTs can support ratification and implementation in many ways.  Here are three.  They can work with Parliaments, Ministries and National Human Rights Institutions in partnership with organizations of persons with disabilities to promote understanding of the Convention and even to translate the Convention into local languages, prepare posters, organize awareness-raising seminars and community activities.  The Handbook for Parliamentarians on the Convention (see below) can help.

They can include the rights of persons with disabilities into CCA/UNDAFs, poverty reduction strategies and into local development or humanitarian programming.  Indeed, the failure to include the rights of persons with disabilities into national programmes can leave a segment of the population excluded from UN assistance.  In the case of MDGs, this could be an obstacle to achieving the various goals given that persons with disabilities constitute some 10 per cent of the population.

They can also gather information and data on achievement of rights both for national purposes – such as policy-making – and also to supply to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which will meet for the first time in Spring 2009) so that the treaty body has reliable up-to-date information at its disposal.

Finally, they can participate in the Inter-Agency Support Group on the Convention, endorsed by the CEB.  The Group is developing an inter-agency strategy and joint plan on the Convention so that all agencies work in complementary ways.  A task team has been established within the UNDG that will develop guidance for UNCTs on the Convention.