People with disabilities in Pacific island countries are among the poorest and most marginalized members of their communities. Disability limits access to education and employment and other basic social services and leads to economic and social exclusion, while disabled people and their families face prejudice, discrimination and rejection.
If people with disabilities in the Pacific are to be included in the national development process, then the development of policy, legislation and service provision must be established in full partnership with organizations of people with disabilities and other concerned agencies. Only when this collaborative process is undertaken will people with disabilities experience acceptance in Pacific societies. Assessment of the current situation suggests that serious attention is needed to address these issues. However, significant progress is being made and recent developments may serve as a model to other countries in the region.
Map of Forum Island Countries
Position of Persons with Disabilities in the Pacific
We understand that persons with disabilities in the pacific are often excluded from the mainstream of the society and denied their human rights. Research has proven that discrimination against persons with disabilities takes various forms, ranging from invidious discrimination, such as the denial of educational opportunities, to more subtle forms of discrimination, such as segregation and isolation because of the imposition of physical and social barriers. The effects of disability-based discrimination have been particularly severe in fields such as education, employment, housing, transport, cultural life and access to public places and services. This may result from distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference, or denial of reasonable accommodation on the basis of disablement, which effectively nullifies or impairs the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of the rights of persons with disabilities. Despite some progress in terms of disability policy and some form of limited legislation over the past decade, such violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities have not been systematically addressed in our pacific society. We need to ensure that disability legislation and policies are based on the assumption that persons with disabilities simply are able to exercise the same rights as non-disabled persons. Consequently the situation of persons with disabilities often will be addressed in terms of rehabilitation and social services.
All PICs need to ensure to have in place a more comprehensive legislation to ensure the rights of disabled persons in all aspects – political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights - on an equal basis with persons without disabilities. Our governments in PICs need to be encouraged to have in place appropriate measures that are required to address existing discrimination and to promote thereby opportunities for persons with disabilities to participate on the basis of equality in social life and development.
We have realized that there are also certain cultural and social barriers that have served to deter full participation of persons with disabilities in our pacific community. Discriminatory practices against persons with disabilities thus may be the result of social and cultural norms that have been institutionalized by law. Changes in the perception and concepts of disability will involve both changes in values and increased understanding at all levels of society, and a focus on those social and cultural norms, that can bring about false and inappropriate myths about disability. One of the dominant features of legal thinking in twentieth century has been the recognition of law as a tool of social change. Though legislation is not the only means of social progress, it represents one of the most powerful vehicles of change, progress and development in society.
It is also recognized that Legislation at country level is fundamental in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities in the pacific. While the importance - and increasing role - of international law in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities is recognised by the international community, domestic legislation remains one of the most effective means of facilitating social change and improving the status of disabled persons. International norms concerning disability are useful for setting common standards for disability legislation. Those standards also need to be appropriately reflected in policies and programmes that reach persons with disabilities and can effect positive changes in their lives.
A regional review of the Agenda for Action for the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, 1993-2002, conducted in 2000/2001, indicated an overall improvement in key policy areas and it further indicated that the Agenda for Action had become an effective tool for Governments of the region, providing a blueprint for policy development. The regional review identified the need for further action to maintain the impetus towards the achievement of full participation and equality of opportunities for persons with disabilities in the region.
A High-level Intergovernmental Meeting to Conclude the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons (1993-2002) held in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan, from 25 to 28 October 2002, reviewed achievements of the goals of the Decade, and in particular the fulfillment of the 107 targets for the Agenda for Action, and agreed on the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action (BMF) beyond the Decade.
The Biwako Millennium Framework for Action aims to promote an inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society for persons with disabilities in the region. An “inclusive” society means a society for all and a “barrier-free” society means a society free from physical and attitudinal barriers, as well as social, economic and cultural barriers. A “rights-based” society means a society based on the concept of human rights, including the right to development.
The priority policy areas identified in the BMF are:
(a) Self-help organizations of persons with disabilities and related family and parent associations;
(b) Women with disabilities;
(c) Early detection, early intervention and education;
(d) Training and employment, including self-employment;
(e) Access to built environments and public transport;
(f) Access to information and communications, including information, communications and assistive technologies;
(g) Poverty alleviation through capacity-building, social security and sustainable livelihood programmes.
Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities
A human rights convention is a piece of international law, which sets out the duty of countries to protect human rights. It is legally binding on any country that agrees to commit to it. The UN Convention on Disability Rights will provide a recognised international standard for disabled people’s human rights in one document. This will help the international community to put pressure on countries whose work on disability rights could be improved. Countries that formally sign up to the convention will also have to report regularly to the UN about the steps they’re taking to protect and promote disabled people’s rights.
In the Pacific context all Pacific Island Countries are encourage to recognize at the outset all those who have contributed to making this effort possible. We thank the Government of New Zealand for allowing Ambassador Don McKay, New Zealand’s Permanent Representative to the UN to lead the process to where it is today.
Inclusive in this are many others including in civil societies whose contributions towards this great achievement should be acknowledge as well.
The vision for the United Nations to embark on a program of reform that aims, among other things, to strengthen its capacity to contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights and the support and leadership of the UN Secretary-General and with the endorsement of its Member States of the United Nations is to be applauded. There is no doubt that the existing human rights system was meant to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities. There is also no doubt that the existing standards and mechanisms have in fact, failed to provide adequate protection in the specific cases of person with disabilities. It is at this juncture that we thank the United Nations for taking on board this convention to remedy the shortcomings experienced in the past.
In recognition of the unique and unpleasant difficulties persons with disabilities face in our PICs it is believed that this convention will address squarely the complex issues that need to be clarified in order to ensure that persons with disabilities in this part of the world can enjoy their human rights on an equal basis with everyone else. We are also are well aware that in our own human rights system in PICs has much work to do in this area.
We need to ensure that our facilities, our methods of work, even our attitudes and understanding are geared towards treating persons with disabilities equally, towards accommodating and respecting differences while at the same time acknowledging equality in rights and dignity. We have much to learn and much to change and this convention will surely help us all.
PICs welcome the efforts to consider the special protection that may be needed by children with disabilities, at the same time that we give them the full recognition as subjects of rights that all children are entitled to. Moreover it also appreciates the efforts to take account of the specific needs of women with disabilities. The multiple discrimination faced by women with disabilities in the Pacific who are also marginalized on additional grounds – requires specific attention and effort to ensure they enjoy their rights equally and that women with disabilities are empowered, rather than rendered more vulnerable.
This new treaty will play a key role. It will affirm the rights of persons with disabilities explicitly and spell out the action needed to implement them. It will also raise awareness about the human rights of persons with disabilities within the existing human rights mechanisms, as well as within the whole PICs. There is a need to understand better the specific challenges that persons with disabilities face in accessing their human rights, and this treaty will serve to educate as well as to ensure that obligations are met.
A paradigm shift is needed in our Pacific society if we are really going to eliminate discrimination against persons with disability and to provide reasonable accommodation to ensure they can claim and enjoy their rights. We are encouraged that nothing in this treaty could set a lower standard of protection than that already recognized in the other core human rights treaties. Empowering persons with disabilities to claim their human rights is our collective obligation. All member countries of the UN including all PICs bear the primary responsibility for ensuring equality and eliminating discrimination and act accordingly. The efforts to consider the special protection that may be needed by children with disabilities, at the same time that we give them the full recognition as subjects of rights that all children are entitled to be welcomed. We also appreciate the efforts to take account of the specific needs of women with disabilities. The multiple discrimination faced by women with disabilities who are also marginalized on additional grounds requires specific attention and effort to ensure they enjoy their rights equally and that women with disabilities are empowered, rather than rendered more vulnerable.
We face an urgent task in addressing stereotypes and prejudices that are at the root of so many of the barriers faced by persons with disabilities; barriers that prevent them from obtaining equal access to education, to employment, to full participation in decision-making and to all their other rights. But it is not only the public sphere that should concern us. Persons with disabilities are entitled to full equality in the enjoyment of their rights not only with regard to public institutions and services but also in their dealings with society and in the privacy of their own homes and personal relations. Families, the private sector and the public at large are equally in need of access to appropriate and accurate information, as they are often also in need of support - as well as encouragement and pressure - so that harmful attitudes and practices based on misconception and misunderstanding are eliminated.
We do know that for such a convention to be implemented and ensure that persons with disabilities access their rights may imply considerable cost. The General Assembly has specifically noted that this treaty must address social development, as well as human rights.
Ensuring respect for human rights always has resource implications. International human rights standards – both for civil and political rights and for economic and social and cultural rights - impose on States a series of obligations, some of which have been labeled ‘negative’ obligations - to refrain from certain action and others ‘positive’ obligations – the obligation to adopt specific measures. The resource implications in the implementation of both types of obligations can be significant. Irrespective of their resources, all States must refrain from actions that interfere with the ability of any individuals or groups to enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights. States must also ensure that the allocation of available resources is not discriminatory either in intent or in effect.
The concept of reasonable accommodation acknowledges that disproportionate burdens cannot be imposed to provide absolute equality of opportunities, much less equal outcomes. But available resources must be used in a non-discriminatory manner and accommodation of specific difference must be provided where it does not impose an unreasonable burden. Wealthier States will be held accountable for a higher level of accommodation since the discharge of the obligation to accommodate is proportionate with means and capacity. International cooperation must also play a role in ensuring that progress is made everywhere, particularly in less developed States.
There will also be instances where the current distribution of resources may be discriminatory and require correction. The concept of “reasonableness” of State action is a well known legal concept and long used in arbitration in the field of civil and political rights. The legal system at national and regional levels illustrates that it can be similarly employed to assess the extent to which States respect their obligations in the area of economic, social and cultural rights. Such rights may not be fully achievable for all on an immediate basis, yet they remain rights. The obligations of States in that domain can be fully enforced while taking into account their resource constraints.
We should acknowledge that it is often attitudes, rather than resource constraints, that create the strongest barriers to the enjoyment of civil and political rights and of economic, social and cultural rights by persons with disabilities. Rules that block persons with certain disabilities because they make no allowance for difference - can be modified, often at little expense. Go to the top
The experience of the human rights system has shown, that the respect for human rights must be ensured, above all, by strong systems of national protection. Experience has shown that independent, impartial and adequately resourced national human rights institutions make an important difference in allowing and assisting States to implement their human rights obligations. It is believed that this treaty strongly reflects the need for effective machinery for human rights protection at the national level.
There will be a need for our PICs along with member states of the United Nations to engage in a serious effort to improve the functioning of the existing system of human rights treaty monitoring bodies. These bodies can have an important contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights, but their capacity to assist States could be greatly enhanced. Reform will not happen overnight but because the task of genuine improvement is complex and challenging, it should engage our full attention and efforts immediately. In the meantime, we need to reflect on the monitoring mechanism established by this treaty, the lessons that we have learnt and the best practices of the existing system. International monitoring must:
- Provide maximum opportunities for informed national deliberation
- Reflect on how to improve enjoyment of human rights
- Provide useful advice and guidance to States and help raise awareness
- Promote international cooperation
- Facilitate full participation of those whose rights are in question and
- Provide effective remedies for those whose human rights are violated