Empowerment: Persons with Disabilities: Persons with Disabilities & Peacebuilding Processes
The progressive recognition of the rights of persons with disabilitiesEfforts to mainstream disabilities into development programs have been recently qualified by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as an "emerging issue."1 They benefit from an increased attention, with a progressive development of a new thinking to actually incorporate disability provisions in every program. The topic remains, however, relatively new on the agenda, in particular in peacebuilding.
In parallel, a dramatic shift in perspective has taken place over the past two decades from an approach motivated by charity towards persons with disabilities to one based on rights. "In essence, the human rights perspective on disability means viewing people with disabilities as subjects and not as objects. It entails moving away from viewing people with disabilities as problems towards viewing them as holders of rights. Importantly, it means locating problems outside the disabled person and addressing the manner in which various economic and social processes accommodate the difference of disability - or not, as the case may be."2 In that context, the non-discrimination principle has been strengthened.
The shift to the human rights perspective has been authoritatively endorsed at the level of the United Nations over the past two decades. The authoritative document to this end, agreed upon as the binding, comprehensively endorsed standard for disability rights,3 is the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities, adopted by the General Assembly in 1993. The rules have been monitored by a United Nations Special Rapporteur and have been instrumental to the process of raising consciousness about the human rights of persons with disabilities and in stimulating positive change throughout the world. The shift to the human rights perspective is also reflected in the fact that national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world have begun to take an active interest in disability issues. More recently, the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (adopted in December 2006 and entered into application in May 2008) have constituted a further step.
Disabled peoples organizations have been framing grievance and injustice into the language of rights for a long time. They stress the fact that isolated injustices need to benefit from a collective approach. For instance, members of the collaborative project Disability Awareness in Action view themselves also as human rights organization. A similar process of self-transformation is under way within traditional human rights NGOs, which are increasingly approaching disability as a mainstream human rights issue.4
Emerging efforts to improve the mainstreaming of disability issues
Galvanised by the new United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, international organisations have taken a renewed interest in disability issues. The United Nations humanitarian aid agencies are guided by Article 11 of the Convention governing the obligation to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies, as well as Article 32 on international cooperation. Among those agencies, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is attempting to improve the mainstreaming of disability issues in its programmes and within UN inter-agency coordination bodies (clusters). One of the major evolutions is a shift from a medical approach to a global approach, mechanisms for increasing disabled people's participation and the strengthening of partnerships between stakeholders (as emphasized by article 32 of the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). In the past years, UNHCR has made efforts to incorporate protection issues into its guidance notes and policy documents, and its activities towards disabled and elderly people. The efforts are now focused on moving beyond seeing these populations as solely vulnerable and dependent.5 However, the NGO community has stressed the fact that "more important than synergies between provisions in international conventions or new conceptual approaches is the need to reduce the huge gap between established standards and the day-to-day reality of people with disabilities in crisis situations."6 In practice, this often turns into a discussion of prioritization, which may be seen as an oversimplification of a complex issue that does not take into account long-term impacts of short-term solutions.7 Further, article 32 or the CPRD encourages international cooperation on these issues, in a sense, promoting a cross-agency mainstreaming of these issues.
Non-governmental organizations have utilized advocacy to promote mainstreaming as well. There is also a drive, put forth by Include Everybody, to include issues relevant to people with disabilities into the framework of the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) has a task group that works on mainstreaming these issues into various aspects of development and peacebuilding.8 Go to Main ActorsHumanitarian workers involved in the support of people with disabilities, in particular in conflict and post-conflict situations, have also been pushing this agenda. Efforts to develop best practices in providing medical, psychosocial and mental health support in emergency settings, for instance, have been part of that process. To provide just a few examples of NGOs initiatives: Handicap International has developed guidelines and recommendations towards the protection and inclusion of these vulnerable populations. This especially includes displaced persons and refugees, who are jointly affected by changes to their environment and familiar reference points.9 The International Coalition to Ban Landmines established a Working Group on Victim Assistance in 1998. Among their general goals was to promote inclusion of landmine survivors in decision making, planning, and implementation of programs and activities that concern them; and to advocate for the rights of landmine survivors.10
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General instrumentsThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) confirms the right to all people for equality before the law as well as full participation within the law as citizens of a country. It also affirms other rights, such as the right to social security and to adequate standards of living (Articles 22 and 25).
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
specifies in Article 2 that "Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
Convention, principles and plans of actions on persons with disabilities
The UN General Assembly's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly by Resolution 61/106, at its 76th plenary meeting on 13 December 2006, and the Convention came into effect in May 2008. As stated in Article 1, "The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity."
For a full analysis of the use of international and national human rights mechanisms to defend the human rights of those with disabilities, see: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights The Current Use and Future Potential of United Nations Human Rights Instruments in the Context of Disability. Geneva: UNHCR 2002.
Increased numbers and vulnerability of disabled and elderlyConflict situations increase the vulnerability of persons with a disability and raises the number of newly disabled persons-- or "war wounded." This can be through direct outcomes of violence and injuries; but also indirectly, through the breakdown of social structures and services like family links, community support mechanisms and health services. These, along with the lack of other infrastructures that could support people with disabilities all contribute to rising marginalization of needs... New disabilities are the direct outcome of violence and injuries caused by weapons, mines, bombs and other explosives.
Reliable data about war fatalities are hard to find, and even harder for conflict-related disabilities. But a few statistics by World Health Organisation (WHO) help provide a view of the extent of the issue. WHO estimates that for every child killed in warfare, three are injured and permanently disabled.11 According to these statistics, there would currently be between 2.3 and 3.3 million people with disabilities among the world's 33 million refugees and displaced persons, a large proportion of them in post-conflict settings. NGOs intervening in those contexts provide similar statistics.12
Consequences of conflict for the community of people with disabilities are manifold. Some are mentioned below:13
More discriminated against, and at further risk of abusePeople with disabilities and their family members, who generally already constitute a particularly vulnerable minority, are often excluded and disadvantaged by a system of assistance designed to cater to the majority. Furthermore, the aid provided to the injured rarely includes the kind of specific care essential for preventing disabling after effects, for rehabilitation and for a return to self-reliance.14 Humanitarian responses concentrate on meeting immediate basic needs for the average population and, as a consequence, they tend to neglect or simply ignore the specific needs of these groups.
This has been shown to be aggravated when violence continues and people become displaced, which are two common challenges common in post-conflict settings.15 Indeed, this tends to increase the risk of social isolation as they may become separated from their original community and extended family.
Persons with disabilities, facing difficulties in communication and/or mobility may encounter serious barriers in accessing essential protection services. In terms of mobility for instance, accommodation may not be designed with their specific needs in mind, including appropriate shelter/housing, doors, latrines and shower cubicles, as well as lighting to secure safe access at night. The offices where new institutions, (re)formed in the peacebuilding process, are based may not be accessible or may have no appropriate facilities for people with physical disabilities. Social services such as health and education may be inadequate or simply unavailable to them. In all those cases, that means that a proportion of the population who suffers from disabilities because of the violent conflict is denied access to the State structures and services. This has important social, political and economic consequences. According to the World Bank, the proportion of disabled people would exceed 20% among the poor in post-conflict countries.16
Persons with disabilities are often ostracized or marginalized within their immediate families and communities, which exacerbate their protection problems.17They may even be particularly at risk of violence or rape, and are less likely to be afforded police intervention, legal protection or preventive care.18 In several countries, field studies found that women with disabilities were at risk of sexual violence, domestic abuse and physical assault.19
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Persons with disabilities as engaged actorsNGOs operate in a 'relief' model in conflict scenarios, which consider 'beneficiaries' as passive recipients of aid; this is particularly true for disabled persons. 20 More generally, the relief and rehabilitation operations do not consider them to be actors for rehabilitation, development and peacebuilding. Studies have pointed to this deficiency: "Staff may not be sufficiently sensitized to reach out proactively to [...] persons with disabilities: perceiving them as 'vulnerable groups' rather than persons with specific needs and rights. This can lead to insufficient analysis of the risks individuals face and, in particular, disregard for their capacities. Being categorized as 'a vulnerable person' can contribute to exclusion from empowerment opportunities, such as education and self-reliance activities, vocational training, tools, business grants and land." 21
Persons with disabilities as full partners in peacebuildingPeople with disabilities, in particular refugees and the displaced, have been shown as able to live independent lives, participate fully in public affairs and make positive contributions to their communities.22 Participation requires an intentional inclusion of persons with disabilities in policies and programs, so that they can participate actively in their formulation and implementation, share their knowledge and skills, form movements and associations (the constitution of disabled persons organizations is increasingly encouraged), and become part of all dimensions of the peacebuilding process. This is all the more important when decisions impact their well-being. If one of the goals of building a positive peace is to achieve an equitable society, all groups who have been excluded should be given special attention.23 Mainstreaming these concerns and issues into peacebuilding programs means paying attention to the particular views, experiences and needs of people with disabilities... It also emphasizes the importance of their input, as with any other citizen.24
1. ECOSOC, Mainstreaming Disability in the Development Agenda, UN Commission for Social Development, E/CN.5/2008/6, 2008.
2. UNHCR, The Current Use and Future Potential of United Nations Human Rights Instruments in the Context of Disability, (Geneva: 2002), 1-2.
3. Communication with Tirza Leibowitz and Nerina Cevra, Survivor Corps (8 December 2008).