Too Many Human Rights
Marta Russell is a writer whose focus is on the socio-economic aspects of disablement. She is the author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract (Common Courage Press).
By Marta Russell
The Bush administration continues to set itself apart from world opinion, this time by not actively supporting a U.N. effort to create a disability-sensitive human rights treaty. Fortunately, more than 100 other nations do not share the U.S.'s position.
The administration's views became known at "The Second Ad Hoc Committee Meeting of the United Nations on a Comprehensive and Integral International Convention to Promote and Protect the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities," held in New York on June 16 to 27. The General Assembly charged the panel with deciding whether the United Nations should develop a disability-themed human rights treaty.
Almost immediately, Ralph Boyd, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights said a global treaty on disability and human rights was not necessary. Instead, he said countries should follow the U.S. model and adopt non-discrimination laws. The United States would help craft such model laws, he said, but "not with the expectation that we will become party to any resulting legal instrument."
For disabled people's organizations (DPOs), this assertion was especially galling, because if anything, the recent record of the U.S. court system, Congress and many state legislatures is one that has consistently undermined these very rights. The administration's perception that the United States has laws that "seamlessly integrate" disabled people into American society belies reality.
For many years now, disability activists have watched the business-friendly Supreme Court shrink the legal definition of disability to accommodate employers, instead of employees with disabilities. Increasingly deserving Americans who seek redress in court face summary judgments, instead of jury trials. Meanwhile, enforcement of key laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has fallen short. Yet the administration now asserts that our laws are a model for the world.
It is also important to understand the inherent limitations of adopting "non-discrimination" laws. While these laws have moved public policy from a medical notion of disability to the wider recognition that disabled persons are a grouping within society who face rampant social and economic discrimination, non-discrimination laws are not enough to address the entirety of disability rights.
Under principles of non-discrimination, for instance, there is no broader right to be free from hunger or right to have shelter. With 82 percent of the 600 million disabled persons worldwide living in "developing" nations, the lack of access to food kills thousands of disabled children yearly. Thirteen percent of over two million recorded instances of human rights breaches since 1990 have resulted in the deaths of disabled individuals.
In addition, many policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have widened socio-economic inequalities in developing countries, not narrowed them. Thus, increasing global poverty has compounded the isolated, degrading and dehumanizing conditions in which disabled persons live.
For DPOs, a comprehensive treaty would include a guarantee of social and economic rights -- along with non-discrimination measures. It would embrace affirmative action to ensure that disabled persons have access to community living, in-home support services, jobs, affordable health care, accessible housing and other societal supports in non-segregated settings. Even in a wealthy society such as the United States, disabled people too often go homeless because of a lack of rights and social policies within our borders.
There are 28 rights in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights
. A few rights tailored to disability would include:
- to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, including violent and harmful medical practices (such as putting developmentally disabled persons in cages or performing involuntary psychiatric procedures);
- the right to personal integrity, freedom from degrading, dehumanizing treatment (not to be institutionalized or abused by caregivers);
- the right to marry and have a family;
- the right to life (as opposed to being chained in a public square and starved to death);
- to be free from forced sterilization;
- the right to access the justice system (to sign language interpreters in court).
Additionally, it is necessary to include disabled peoples' right to bodily and psychic integrity including autonomy in decision-making.
In sum, disabled peoples' movements seek to overturn the assertion that disability is pathological in health terms and a social problem in welfare terms. Disabled persons want to be citizens with human rights. This was the agenda promoted at the United Nations, by groups including The World Federation of the Deaf, World Blind Union, Disabled Peoples' International, World Federation of Deaf blind, World Network of Users of Psychiatry, and Inclusion International.
Fortunately, the administration's efforts to derail progress on global disability rights were largely ignored by the international community participating in the U.N. session. Delegates agreed not only to proceed with drafting a treaty but also to include disabled persons selected by DPOs in the drafting group.
While it is likely a treaty will be drafted, whether the outcome will be a strong treaty and whether it will be ratified and implemented is yet another matter.
The United States has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Landmine Ban Treaty and to sign onto the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Accord. And it has failed to enforce numerous domestic laws that would work toward the goals expressed by the international community in these treaties.
Regardless, the United Nations has a role to set a globally recognized set of standards, whether or not countries sign onto them. The significance here is historic -- disabled people are at long last gaining the power to secure a place for legally binding disability law at the human rights table.
Note: This article was originally published in TomPaine.com.