16 October 2013

When will the UN Human Rights Committee focus on disability rights?

There is only one United Nations. The UN represents universality and indivisibility of human rights. Everything is supposed to work together.

There are, however, several different human rights treaties, such as CRPD, ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, CAT and CRC. It’s a full-time job remembering the abbreviations. Each treaty has a committee which monitors how governments are complying with the rights guaranteed in them. The committees’ recommendations to each state are called “concluding observations”. Generally speaking the Committees are good at reading across to other treaties, rather than operating as if their treaty was the only one to exist. As they should, to ensure that universality and indivisibility of human rights isn’t simply an ideal.

Flag of the United Nations wikipedia.org/un.org

It may come as a surprise that the Human Rights Committee (the body which monitors State compliance of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) is ignoring the standards set out in the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

We could choose the right to legal capacity, the right to liberty or the right to inclusive education but the right to vote is a good example. The CRPD sets out that people with disabilities are entitled to exercise their right to vote on an equal basis with others. One-person-one-vote: it’s quite an easy concept to understand, and essential to the notion of representative democracy.

The CPRD allows no exceptions to the right to vote and involvement in the political process, specifically to deal with the fact that laws around the world have often discriminated against people with disabilities (particularly those under guardianship and in institutions in particular) by disenfranchising them. Czech law prohibits people with disabilities who are placed under guardianship from voting, a situation which MDAC pointed out in its shadow report to the Committee, a situation which clearly violates the CRPD. The Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations recommend that the Czech government can strip them of their right to vote if the basis of doing so is proportionate and has a “reasonable and objective relationship to their ability to vote.”

This is completely unacceptable (or “wishy-washy wilful watering-down of CRPD standards” as we alliteratively adduced in our press release).

On 8 August MDAC asked the UN Human Rights Committee to kindly stop ignoring the CRPD. We sent a letter to the Committee Members which analysed the Committee’s concluding observations through the lens of the CRPD. We pointed out how the CRPD sets out the right to vote for adults with disabilities, yet how the Human Rights Committee seems not to agree with this. We asked them to change their concluding observations.

On 7 October the Secretary to the Committee replied to MDAC. She said that the Committee will not change their concluding observations. She said, however, that she had been asked to add our letter and its contents “for a general discussion in the bureau on the issues raised at the next session.” It is not clear what the bureau is and who its members are: there is no information on the Committee’s website.

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights photo: newsfirst.lk

The current session of the Human Rights Committee opened on Monday and runs until 1 November. The opening day included a statement one by Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He explained to the Human Rights Committee that the CRPD Committee has recently adjudicated a case on the right to vote. He pointed out that the CRPD Committee “was conscious of the Human Rights Committee’s views during its deliberations”. That may well be the case, but the judgment does not reference the Human Rights Committee at all, largely because their views are now widely seen as discriminatory in fact and wrong in law because they allow someone to be disenfranchised on the basis of their disability.

Salama said that, “cross-fertilization across the treaty bodies was very positive, and led to harmonization and consistency of jurisprudence.” A huge hint has been dropped upon the Committee by a senior member of the High Commissioner’s office. MDAC fully stands behind the efforts of Navi Pillay the High Commissioner, and the work that her staff are doing to ensure that the UN treaty bodies speak with one voice about basic human rights. 

We wait with baited breath to find out whether the Human Rights Committee stands fully behind human rights, and the right of people with disabilities to vote.