Opening statement by SG Tuiloma Neroni Slade at Disability meeting

Tanoa International Hotel, Nadi – 24 November 2008

Representatives of government focal points for disability in our Forum Island countries, Development partners, Observers, ladies and gentlemen. I extend to each of you a warm welcome. Talofa Lava, Ni sa bula vinaka.

There was a moment in biblical times when a lone voice from a man with a mission was proclaiming liberty to captives, giving sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free and preaching justice to an unjust society. We have come some distance in 2000 years and there is significant progress in the world today in the development and advancement of issues facing people with disabilities.

2. Despite that progress, there is much that remains to be done. A recent review of legislation and policies in the Pacific confirms that more effort is required to realise the objectives of regional and international agreements and treaties for persons with disabilities.

3. We need to do much more because persons with disabilities are virtually invisible to those around them. Their access to education, employment and other basic social services is restricted. Everyday they face discrimination, rejection and prejudice. These are serious obstacles to prospects for happiness and a successful future, directly compromising their overall wellbeing. For some of the 650 million people around the world with disabilities, this is the reality of day to day existence.

4. It is calculated that 10% o all populations in the Pacific region suffer some form of disability. They deserve our respect and practical concern for their human and social condition. A good number of these people suffer, in addition, sheer poverty. More often than not, people with disabilities are the poorest and least able to cope and the most marginalised members of society. Many are unable to reach their full potential or participate full y in their communities because of the barriers they face. And these barriers are not purely physical, such as access to public places and services. Many people with disabilities are also denied educational and employment opportunities severely limiting their professional and financial independence. Segregation and isolation from mainstream society, while often caused by access issues, are also the result of uninformed, sometimes misinformed, and other negative social attitudes.

5. Estimates show that approximately 830,000 people in Forum Island Countries, excluding Australia and New Zealand, are living with disabilities. Compared to those without disabilities, opportunities for disabled Pacific Islanders are much more restricted. While a general lack of disability awareness is one of the greatest barriers, there is also a lack of recognition that people with disabilities even exist in the Pacific due to limited research on the types and extent of disabilities. The vast geographical distances that exists in the Pacific increases the challenge as people with disabilities live across distant islands which exacerbates their isolation. This makes it more difficult to ensure that the same range of support services, advocacy groups and self-help organisations that exist in developed countries are available for those people who need them in the Pacific.

6. The true measure and quality of a society is the respect that it provides to the weakest and most vulnerable of its members. It is wrong and unworthy of any society which only allows fully functional members and which neglects, institutionalizes or discriminates against those who do not measure up to this standard of functionality or who are unable to carry out a useful role. It must be clearly affirmed that a person with disability is one of us, a sharer in the same humanity and, by recognizing and promoting that person's dignity and rights, we are recognizing and promoting our own dignity and our own rights.

7. There is, therefore nobility in the purpose of your meeting. Your very presence here testifies to your sense of caring and of concern and respect and I am sure you would all wish to engage in the proceedings of this meeting in that spirit.

8. In particular, I’m sure you would wish to note and be sensitive to the society and cultural barriers that I believe people with disabilities face in society. It seems to me some discriminatory practices are the result of social and cultural norms that have been institutionalised by the way we have been brought up to do things, and even by law. To change these perceptions and concepts of disability, there needs to be a change in values and an increased understanding at all levels of society. No matter how rare the disability is, and no matter how entrenched certain cultural and traditional practices are, every person with a disability is entitled to a life where their human potential and rights are promoted and protected.

9. Over the last decade, a number of frameworks and policies have been developed. The Biwako Millennium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier-free and Rights-based Society for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific was adopted by governments of the East Asia and Pacific region at a high-level intergovernmental meeting in Japan in 2002. This same document was endorsed by Pacific Islands Forum Leaders at their 2003 Forum meeting which was held in Auckland New Zealand. The Biwako Millennium Framework advocates for a human rights-based approach to national policy development and planning, meaning that the rights of all people - although in particular the rights of people with disabilities - are considered by governments in their policy development. It incorporates the Millennium Development Goals and their targets and ensures that disabilities are an integral part of achieving them. The Biwako Millennium Framework also supports national disabled person’s organisations and helps them to improve public awareness and the overall understanding of disability.

10. The existing informal arrangements between the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Pacific Disability Forum and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat have supported a number of Pacific countries including the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Fiji to develop and pass rights-based disability policies using the Biwako Millennium Framework as a basis. The Federated States of Micronesia, Niue and Kiribati all have draft policies, while Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu are expected to develop new policies in the near future.

11. On the world stage, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) endorsed by the United Nation General Assembly gives increased rights and freedoms to people with disabilities around the world. Agreed in December 2006, I believe the Convention is the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century and marks a significant improvement in the treatment of persons with disabilities. The Convention will encourage states to develop a different way of thinking about disability issues. Countries that sign up to the Convention commit to enacting laws and other measures to improve disability rights; to getting rid of legislation, customs and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities; and to ensuring that they have a right to life on an equal basis with others. Progressively improving access to public spaces and buildings as well as transport, information and communications is also an important component of the Convention. By following these principles, it is hoped that traditional medical, welfare and charity approaches will be replaced by a new human rights approach to disability. The Convention recognises that a change of attitude is vital if people with disabilities are to achieve equal status - countries that ratify it will be obliged to combat negative stereotypes and prejudices and to promote an awareness of people's abilities and contribution to society. I would strongly commend to governments of the region the objectives and enlightened principles of the Convention.

12. I am told that, so far, from our Pacific region, Australia, New Zealand and Vanuatu have signed and ratified the Convention, and that Solomon Islands has signed. I hope that as a result of this workshop, you will return to your countries and encourage your governments to sign and ratify this ground-breaking Convention. The rights of people with disabilities in all aspects – political, civil, economic, social and cultural - must be part of the national development of Pacific nations if they are to be accepted as equal members of society. During negotiations for the Convention, people with disabilities coined the phrase “nothing about us, without us.” - people with disabilities themselves must be included and consulted in all policy, legislation and service provision development, while the quality of the legislation is also fundamental in promoting and protecting their rights.

13. The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) in its engagement with Forum Island Countries believes that there should be greater involvement from country representatives and people with disabilities in the advancement of such international instruments.

14. We believe very strongly in the importance of working with governments in the region. I say this for a purpose because I understand that the disability agenda in the region has been largely driven by Non Governmental Organizations. But NGOs they need an enabling policy and legislative environment in which to work to be able to get endorsement at the policy level from governments. It has also been noted that Pacific governments though they have been a bit slow in taking action, are starting to grapple with the issues pertaining to persons with disabilities and that is one of the main reasons why we have called this workshop. In that respect I would encourage all of us here to ensure that there is full commitment to our joint endeavour and the work we all must do for persons with disabilities and that the approach you take to address disability issues in your country must be inspired by the principles of inclusion.

15. I take this opportunity to thank the New Zealand government for the funding of this workshop through the NZAID Pacific Island Countries Participation Fund. One of NZAID’s key priorities is supporting regional organisations in the Pacific such as the Pacific Disability Forum, and at a country level, national Disabled Persons Organisations. These organisations are an important voice for people with disabilities and essential to ensuring that their messages are heard.

16. In 2006 the post of Disability Coordination Officer was established at the Forum Secretariat in Suva. Funded by NZAID, the Disability Coordination Officer’s role helps to promote inclusive development policies and strategies and acts as a voice for people with disabilities, ensuring that disability issues are integrated into the work of all of the Secretariat's operations. It is recognised that the people best qualified and best equipped to support, inform and advocate for persons with disabilities, are the people with disabilities themselves. Evidence shows that the quality of life for people with disabilities improves when they actively voice their concerns and participate in decision-making around issues that affect them.

17. I would also like to acknowledge that at the same time as this workshop takes place, AusAID is launching its disability Strategy for the Asia and Pacific region, to which the Forum Secretariat and the Pacific Disability Forum and others have contributed. This policy is a great step forward for one of our major development partners.

18. I would like to thank the organisations that have partnered to help making this workshop successful, in particular United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Office for the Commission of Human Rights, the Regional Rights Resource Team of Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the Pacific Disability Forum, International Labour Organization and the Foundation of the People of the South Pacific.

19. I hope that our Fiji hospitality will contribute positively to the success of your endeavours. You have an important mission, I wish you well in your deliberations and look forward to seeing good meeting outcomes. It is on this note that it gives me great pleasure to declare the first meeting of government focal points for disability in Forum Island Countries open.

Fa’afetai lava . Soifua Thank you