Opening remarks by DSG Feleti Teo at Forum Disability Ministers' meeting
[Rarotonga, Cook Islands; from 21 – 23 October, 2009]


Your Excellencies
The Prime Minister of the Cook Islands; Hon Jim Marurai
Distinguished Ministers of Forum member countries
Delegates and Observers
Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Kia orana, and allow me to join Prime Minister Marurai in extending to you all a very warm welcome to Rarotonga, Cook Islands and to this auspicious and historical occasion of the very first regional meeting of Forum Disability Ministers.

2. But allow me at the outset, on behalf of all of you, to extend our sincere thanks to Prime Minister Marurai, for availing his precious time and for gracing us with his presence this morning to address this historical gathering and to officially open the first Forum Disability Ministers’ meeting.

3. Your Excellencies, I am indeed most privileged and honored to be part of this occasion. And to represent the Forum Secretary General Mr Tuiloma Neroni Slade, who is unable to be here, due to his engagement at another ministerial meeting this week. He asked me to, and I do so, convey to you his apologies for his absence and to extend to you his congratulations and best wishes for your historical meeting.

4. It was in 2002 that the Forum Leaders meeting decided for the Forum Secretariat to take on the issue of disability as part of its work programme. Since then, the Forum Secretariat has been instrumental in promoting the profile of disability issues as a regional concern and providing coordination for their consideration and discussion at a regional level.

5. Your meeting today is a direct response to the Forum Leaders decisions at their meeting in August of this year, in Cairns, Australia.

6. There, the Leaders affirmed the need for greater attention to be directed to the needs of the region’s most disadvantaged group, people with disabilities who are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

7. The Leaders also expressed their strongest support for the convening of this ministerial meeting to consider amongst other issues, a regional strategy on disability. A regional strategy that will build greater awareness of the importance, of allowing people with disabilities to enjoy a decent quality of life and to fully enjoy all fundamental human rights.

8. People with disabilities in the Pacific region deserve the practical concern of the Pacific community, both by reason of their numbers and more especially for their particular human and social conditions.

9. It is estimated that around 10% o all populations consist of people with disabilities. This equates to about 800,000 people in the Pacific with some form of disability. And a good number of these people are the poorest and least able to cope and the most marginalized members of society.

10. Despite the number of people with disabilities in Pacific societies, there is still a general lack of awareness; not only in terms of what their special needs are; but also a lack of acknowledgement of their very existence as an integral part of society. It is this general lack of disability awareness that serves as a barrier to developments that are inclusive of the needs of people with disabilities.

11. Although disability may be viewed generally as issues of domestic and national application and concern, the Forum Leaders in calling for this ministerial meeting; did so in full cognizance of the potential benefits and comparative advantage of coming together and pooling resources together as a region, to address issues impacting the lives of people with disabilities.

12. This meeting underpins the critical role that States and governments must play in providing leadership through the establishment at national levels; of enabling environments to allow for people with disabilities to contribute as effective and full participating members of societies.

13. Appropriate legislative and regulatory frameworks must be enacted and supported to empower people with disabilities to lead free and worthwhile lives and to achieve greater equity for all people.

14. The rights of people with disabilities was given universal and global acknowledgement through the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 13 December 2006, which came into force on 3 May 2008

15. Your meeting today and tomorrow will examine provisions of this Convention and their application in protecting the interests, special needs and rights of people with disabilities in this Pacific region of ours.

16. As you meet this week, 6 Forum member countries have signed that Convention; but only 4 have ratified it. And I take this opportunity to encourage all those Forum island countries that have not done so to support signing and ratifying this important Convention.

17. At the broader regional level for Asia-Pacific, the Biwako Millenium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier-free and Rights based society in Asia and the Pacific was adopted in 2002. This framework promoted a new approach to disability issues based on a rights-based approach, as opposed to the traditional charity-based approach to the development of persons with disabilities.

18. The Biwako Millenium Framework was endorsed by Forum Leaders at their meeting in 2003 and remains a useful regional set of guidelines for the development of national policies on disability issues.

19. At your meeting here in Rarotonga this week, you have been entrusted by the Forum Leaders with the responsibility to consider for adoption a Pacific Regional Strategy on Disability.

20. A Regional Strategy that will provide a regional framework for collaborative efforts to address the issues of people with disabilities and to improve their quality of life; in line with the noble vision of the Forum Leaders espoused in the Pacific Plan for “the Pacific to be a region of peace, harmony, security, and economic prosperity, so that all its people (I stress all its people) can lead free and worthwhile lives”.

21. I am confident that you distinguished Ministers will make this historical meeting a truly historical occasion by taking the historical measure of adopting the first regional strategy on disability that will lay the foundation that can be built on, to provide for better coordination and collaboration on addressing issues impacting the lives of people with disabilities in the region.

22. Adopting a regional strategy is one challenge, implementing the regional strategy is the greater challenge.

23. And collaborations between and amongst all stakeholders is absolutely vital in supporting the implementation of the regional strategy and sustaining robust enabling environments to empower people with disabilities to live full and productive lives.

24. I am particularly please that the theme selected for this meeting is ‘Strengthening Partnerships for Disability Inclusive Development in the Pacific’.

25. In that connection, I will like to acknowledge the many partners that have provided support and contributions to the convening of this historical regional ministerial meeting on disability.

26. I acknowledge the significant financial contribution provided by AusAID, to enable the meeting to be held at this beautiful location of Rarotonga. I also acknowledge the additional financial contribution and the technical assistance provided to the meeting by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), in particular its Pacific Operation Center.

27. I also acknowledge the participation and contribution of the Pacific Disability Forum; National Disabled Persons Organizations and other national non-governmental organizations that support and deal with issues of disabilities at the national level; the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and other regional organisations. Your participation and contribution have certainly enriched and informed our discussions, notably your input into the development of the Pacific Regional Strategy on Disability.

28. The last, but definitely not the least, acknowledgement and gratitude is reserved for our most wonderful and gracious host. On behalf of all of you, allow me to thank our host the government of the Cook Islands for the warmest of hospitality and the sincerity of the courtesies extended to all of us on our arrival at you beautiful island of Rarotonga.

29. Particular thanks to the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the logistical support provided to the Forum Secretariat and all the excellent arrangements for the meeting.

30. It now remains for me to wish you Ministers and senior Officials success in your meeting over the next two days. I hope that you will take the opportunity the meeting presents to learn from each other and to share your experience of the practical innovative ways that you may have contributed to improving the lives of people with disabilities in your respective countries and the region.

40. I thank you and Meitaki Mata.