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Friday 25 August saw a UN General Assembly committee approve a UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century and is designed to encourage governments to pass legislation protecting people with disabilities and to eliminate discriminatory laws and practices. Lina Lindblom from the Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities explores the implications for the 60 million people in Africa living with disabilities.

The first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century has just been finalised at the United Nations. It will serve to promote and protect the human rights of 650 million persons with disabilities around the world. In Africa, the decade between 1999 and 2009 has been proclaimed the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities by the African Union. The first-ever human rights convention for persons with disabilities will be an important tool for the Secretariat that facilitates the implementation of the African Decade’s plan of action.

Around 60 million persons with disabilities live in Africa. These individuals are barely visible in most African societies, and rarely appear to have voices or opinions about general issues that are brought to our attention by the media. The majority of them are excluded from schools, work opportunities and participation in development programs. The African disability movement’s struggle for human rights is essentially a fight against this exclusion and against the overwhelming poverty that it leads to.

The Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities advocates for the inclusion of disability into the existing development priorities of African Union member states, because the exclusion of disability from them perpetuates the poverty and despair of disabled Africans. The new convention constitutes a broad framework for disability, human rights and development. It will be increasingly important to associate any work on disability to the convention, including poverty reduction processes. The African Decade for Persons with Disabilities, 1999-2009, was proclaimed by the African Union to address the human rights and development needs of disabled Africans.

Representatives of DPOs and UN Agencies came up with a continental plan of action for the Decade. It was endorsed by the executive counsil of the AU in 2002. The government of the Republic of South Africa accepted to host the Secretariat of the African Decade in 2003, and the Secretariat was established in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2004. The Secretariat facilitates the implementation of the Continental Plan of Action through its African Decade Disability Programme (ADDP), a program primarily funded by the governments of Sweden and Denmark.

One of the working focuses of the disability movement has become to mainstream disability, i.e. to get disability and persons with disabilities included in the existing development community. It is about getting governments and development organisations to include disability into policies and programs, and to invite persons with disabilities to participate in the development of these policies and programs. The disability movement does not want separate, exclusionary processes, keeping them out of the mainstream societies.

If mainstreaming is a buzz word in the disability movement, how come they have designed a new and separate human rights convention just for persons with disabilities?, you may ask. Some within the movement are indeed wishing that disability had been inserted and mentioned in the existing human rights provisions instead, but most people are actively supporting the new convention. Petronella Linders, who works for the South African government and assisted the South African delegation to the convention deliberations in New York, explains that she believes that the convention will force countries to look at their own legislation from a disability point of view. In so doing, a separate convention can actually enhance and enforce mainstreaming of disability into national legislation. Before, the approach of many African governments has been to implement human rights provisions for persons with disabilities on an ad-hoc basis. Now there will be a legally binding document that governments must implement if they ratify it.

Thomas Ong’olo from Kenya, who works as a program manager at the Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities, agrees. He says that the convention will be a crucial instrument “to remind governments that we are here”. So many times before, Africans with disabilities have simply been left out of the equation. It has also been argued that persons with disabilities find themselves in a legal disadvantage in relation to other vulnerable groups such as refugees and women, because the latter have the protection of single bodies of binding norms in thematic human rights conventions. The convention on the Rights of the Child has been the only one of the conventions to explicitly mention persons with disabilities. In the other ones, individuals with disabilities are only covered as being part of “vulnerable or marginalized groups”. Governments that ratify the new convention will be legally bound to treat persons with disabilities not just as a vulnerable group or a minority, but as subjects to the law with clearly defined rights.

The process of developing the new convention has been said to be very participatory and well functioning. More than 400 delegates and disability advocates from around the world have attended the eight sessions since 2002 at the United Nations in New York. One of the few serious problems mentioned is that many persons with disabilities and Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs) from developing countries have not been able to attend the meetings, meaning that their issues and voices have not been adequately captured in the draft convention. This, again, is down to the issue of poverty. Many African DPOs have simply not had the money to send representatives to the United Nations headquarters in New York.

According to Phitalis Were Masakhwe, an international advisor on disability within the United Nations, there appears to be a wide gap between the wishes, needs and aspirations of persons with disabilities from poor developing countries and those from the so called developed world. In Africa and parts of Asia people would have wanted a convention that emphasizes their main challenges; poverty, disability and conflicts, and invisibility of disability in international development and cooperation, he says. Thomas Ong’olo of the African Decade Secretariat agrees. The benchmark of the discussions in New York has been set by the rich, he argues: “Sometimes the discussions may be around issues that are simply not relevant to most Africans, such as choice of services. Choosing the type of accessible transport you want to use or the exact time of pickup by that transport of your choice, is not an issue in developing countries. The main African issue is around basic survival.”

Implementation is the main concern now. International monitoring of the convention and international cooperation in the implementation process have been two of the most difficult issues to agree on during the eighth session of the convention committee. This is possibly an even bigger concern in Africa than in other parts of the world, because of the lack of capacity and funds at the national level. Many Africans worry that the convention will be just another document not put into practice by their governments. The money issue is the predominant concern here too. Putting the provisions of the convention into practice will be costly. Concerns have been raised that lack of money will hinder states to meet even the most urgent obligations. All countries will face costs, but it will be hardest for developing countries.

International cooperation must play an important part in this, Ambassador Don MacKay, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on the convention at the United Nations, says, for example in incorporating into development cooperation programmes elements to assist with disability related matters.

A worry is also that the DPOs are expected to monitor the governments in the implementation process, but many of these organisations in many countries are simply too weak. Training programs are taking place, but the problem remains. Much more capacity building and better structures are needed. In the five pilot countries of the African Decade Disability Program, [1]Decade Steering Committees (DSCs) have been established, comprised of representatives of government ministries, DPOs, civil society, media, experts on disability and international organizations. The private sector in the countries has been invited to participate. A partnership between the public and the private sectors is crucial for job creation and effective resource mobilization.

The major functions of the National Decade Steering Committees include playing a key role in the preparation of a comprehensive national plan and in the development of national policy. The committees also monitor the implementation of policies and programmes for persons with disabilities in their countries. The African Decade Secretariat’s plan is to facilitate the establishment of new committees in at least 15 other African countries by the end of 2009.[2] The mission of the Secretariat is to empower governments, DSCs, DPOs and development organisations to work in partnership to include disability and persons with disabilities into policies and programs in all sectors of society in Africa. This means that the emphasis is on capacitating these actors to work together. One of the Secretariat’s strengths is that we are able to learn from initiatives in one country, and bring them to (or avoid them in) another.

We are also engaging large international organisations in the struggle for mainstreaming. Our experience is that it often only takes one meeting, a small effort that brings large results if we manage to get them on board. One current new initiative is collaboration between the Secretariat and UNESCO, to train African journalists in how to report on disability issues in a way that respects their human rights and does not reproduce common stereotypes. Another is to collaborate with UNICEF to ensure that children with disabilities are included in their programs.

Prejudice, exclusion, stigmas and a tendency to still view disability within a charity perspective or a medical model, rather than within the human rights discourse, are all very real barriers to participation for persons with disabilities in Africa today. Combined with a high level of poverty, the African disability movement is facing an uphill struggle. There are positive signs and opportunities, however. The topic of disability and development has been featured in the development discourse for a couple of decades now. Many global and regional discussions and pledges abound to ensure that policies, programs and resources are accessible to persons with disabilities and inclusive of everyone.

Some ten African countries, e.g. Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and South Africa, have developed White Papers on national disability strategies. These are model documents for the mainstreaming of disability. The African Union has taken important and promising initiatives in recent years, such as proclaiming the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities. However, Africans with disabilities are increasingly frustrated by the beautiful words, and want action. For this reason the establishment of the Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities is an important step from talk to implementation.

The Decade was proclaimed in 1999. We only started our work at the Secretariat in 2004. We can regret the delay, but we choose to focus now on our role as facilitators of the implementation of the Continental Plan of Action, capacity building, awareness raising, continued struggle for mainstreaming of disability and against the poverty and exclusion of disabled Africans. Now we will be enforced with a new and important tool, the first-ever human rights convention for persons with disabilities.

* Lina Lindblom, communications officer at the Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities.

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[1] The pilot countries are Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda and Senegal.
[2] Some African countries, e.g. Mali, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and the DRC, have also set up their own Decade Steering Committees outside of the Secretariat’s programme.

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