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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 August 2006, 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK
UN agrees disability treaty text
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website, New York

Delegates discussing the draft convention at the UN in New York
Delegates discussed the treaty's provisions for 10 days
An international treaty that will give greater rights and freedoms to disabled people around the world has been agreed at the United Nations.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in New York.

This is the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century, and the UN hopes it will mark a significant improvement in the treatment of disabled people.

The world's disabled population is estimated to be 650 million.

Don MacKay
[The convention] will force states to develop a different way of thinking about disability issues
Don MacKay

Negotiations went past the deadline set by the chairman of the ad-hoc committee, ambassador Don MacKay of New Zealand.

Welcoming the agreement, he said "I want to thank colleagues from the disability community for starting off the process and staying with it all along the way."

"As disabled colleagues say, nothing about us without us."

''It [the convention] will force states to develop a different way of thinking about disability issues" he said.

"Once you get the paradigm shift... and people adopt a 'can do' rather than a 'can't do' approach, a whole lot of other things flow from there."

New rights and freedoms

The treaty is expected to be adopted by the UN General Assembly during its next session, which starts in September.

Those countries that sign up to it will have to enact laws and other measures to improve disability rights and also agree to get rid of legislation, customs and practices that discriminate against disabled people.

The thinking behind the convention is that welfare and charity should be replaced by new rights and freedoms.

Disabled parking spaces in a car park (file picture)
Access to public spaces and transport will have to be improved

Currently only 45 countries have specific legislation that protects disabled people.

The convention recognises that a change of attitude is vital if disabled people 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.

Countries will also have to guarantee that disabled people will have a right to life on an equal basis with others.

Access to public spaces and buildings as well as transport, information and communications will also have to be improved.

US abstention

Most notable among the countries that will not be signing the convention is the United States.

It says that it already has comprehensive laws on disability rights.

But this is not something that concerns Maria Raina, co-ordinator of the international disability caucus which has been part of the negotiations.

"I think the USA is going to sign the convention as it did with other conventions," she told the BBC News website.

"When you sign the convention you are agreeing to the principles even if you don't have the obligation to apply them."

'Welcome step'

The treaty has been welcomed by the UK's statutory body, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

"The greatest significance will be a 'levelling up' of provision across the world, and the creation of civil and human rights for disabled people," said DRC chairman Bert Massie.

"Not every country has that now. Following the convention and when it's ratified by the UN, we will have approval for this enhancement of the rights of disabled people across the world."

Lebanese diabetic Mustafa Hussein, who has lost both his legs
Conflicts and unrest hit the disabled especially hard

Although current estimates are that about 10% of the world's population has a disability, the World Health Organization estimates that this is likely to increase as a result of medical advances and the ageing process.

Negotiations had been delayed because of two issues: the situation of disabled people in situations of risk, and access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Although the treaty refers to "situations of risk", these were not specified; the wording had been taken to refer to war zones and natural disasters but some people wanted this to include occupation by a foreign power - a clear reference to the situation in the Middle East.

Cultural differences on matters like abortion, contraception, aids prevention and sex education mean that reaching an agreed position was particularly difficult.

Given the economic, social and cultural differences across the world, it will be some years before the minimum standards set out in the convention will be universally applied.

But for campaigners who say that for too long the world's largest minority has been pushed to the margins of society, it will certainly be seen as a welcome first step.

How the treaty may impact disabled people's lives

At-a-glance: UN disability treaty
25 Aug 06 |  Special Reports


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