The future of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
An interview with Prof. Gerard Quinn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities
1 Dec 2021

In 2019, the United Nations adopted the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy. How do you assess the usefulness of this strategy?

It is a logical step because the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) obviously applies to States and States Parties, but I nevertheless think that the UN system has a moral obligation to step up and begin applying the CRPD values to its action around the world and to its own specialised agencies. So, as a logical step, the process being put in place is beginning to report steady progress in sensitising the outer reaches of the UN system to the UNCRPD, even down to things like peacekeeping operations. These are the early days, but there is hope for it.

How in your view can the UN, as an employer, implement this strategy?

There is a lot to be done here. There is a lot of learning from around the world that can be absorbed within the UN human rights machinery. I think that the main issue has to do with how we imagine and how we deliver reasonable accommodation both to job applicants as well as

to employees, who either have disabilities or maybe acquire a disability in the course of their work. Yet, we are not reinventing the wheel, as there is already huge experience around the world. It is really a process of trying to get the benefit of this experience within the UN system. Again, I think it is early days, but hopefully, it is a beginning.

Persons with disabilities are a minority. However, inclusion is key for them. Yet, it varies from one country to another.

What global actions are, in your view, needed to help achieve better inclusion for all disabled persons, regardless of the country in which they live?

I think one of the interesting things that COVID-19 has demonstrated is that we have made a lot of progress in the system, but in reality we really haven’t made much. The big lesson is that law and public policy are fine on their own, but unless you’re changing the way systems react to disabilities, you’re not changing much on the ground. So, I think this is one of the big lessons from the COVID-19 period. Therefore, a lot of people are coming to realise that you really must reinvent systems, particularly services for people with disabilities throughout the world, and put completely different defaults into place. Even the World Bank has emphasised this last summer by highlighting the fragility of service paradigms for people with disabilities, and also for older people. There is an important intersection with dementia in past years, and this is the main challenge on the road ahead.

Do you think it is possible to fulfil the promises of the UNCRPD when there is no freedom of the press or transparency vis-à-vis international monitors in countries governed by authoritarian regimes? Do you worry about countries that use their trumpeted support for disability rights as a means of distracting from other human rights violations?

It’s a complex story. I think that one of the embedded assumptions in any convention rests in the value of pacta sunt servanda. The fact that States take their international obligations seriously assumes that there is a process of responsiveness in that country to their own people. The way this works differs widely across the world from one economic and political system to another. In my own experience, no matter how open or closed a country is, there are always windows and there are always opportunities to nudge change forward. Being ever on the optimistic side, that’s what I try to keep focussed on, driving things forward no matter how relatively closed the political system might be to us on the outside.

How do you think the absence of the United States affects the status of the Convention?

To a certain extent, the intellectual structure of the Convention rests on a lot of foundations that were established in the United States, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. So, the Convention is almost recognisably an American document, with the difference that there is an elaborate social model built on top of it to achieve the civil rights it puts forward. Intellectually and morally, there is very little distance between US history and public policy, and the Convention.

It would be great to have the United States as a fully signed-up member of the Convention, not just for the world, but also for its own sake because it then becomes truly engaged in a global multilateral conversation of how to implement an equality agenda for people with disabilities throughout the world. It is one thing to do this bilaterally. And, while the US does that superbly, as does the EU, it is another thing to enter into a multilateral conversation, and that’s where we miss the US the most.


What about the EU’s strategy for its citizens with disabilities?

In the last 15 to 20 years, every two or three years the EU has put forward a disability strategy. Up until quite recently, it focussed almost exclusively on internal European progress and developments. The big breakthrough in the last year is that the new, highly ambitious EU strategy on the rights of people with disabilities now has a completely new section on the EU, actively advancing disability rights throughout the world. In addition, the EU is one of the biggest multilateral donors, and given that it supplies technical adviace globally, this will potentially have huge implications in every corner of the world.

How do you think your mandate can make a difference and what areas of improvement do you consider necessary?

When I undertook this mandate, I said that one of my big goals was to link or re-link the disability issue to some fo the common challenges facing humanity, which include: conflicts, armed conflicts (unfortunately), artificial intelligence, which is – as we speak – changing our terms of coexistence as human beings, and climate change, which has obvious implications for the future. So, I want to shine a light on the relevance of the disability issue in this context as well as the contribution of people with disabilities to the broader human rights challenges facing us. I also want to shine a light on some under-appreciated domains of disability rights, for example, the whole intersectionality dimension, but particularly hidden voices such as indigenous people with disabilities throughout the world. So, a lot of work of thematic reporting is going to focus on many of these issues in the next two to three years.

Also, in terms of country visits, we are currently putting together our agenda, hoping that COVID-19 will permit it in the coming months and years. One thing I am particularly interested in is the face of disability in situations of extreme stress and conflict, which means countries that are undergoing conflict and are emerging on the other side of conflict. The other thing that interests me here – coming from my home country of Ireland – is the positive contribution of people with disabilities to peacebuilding processes in societies that are fractured, are emerging from stress, and are trying to build a much more resilient and inclusive future.

* Oreste Foppiani is the Head of the Department of International Relations at Webster University, Geneva.
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