After fifteen years spent working in the field with Handicap International, I came to the organisation’s headquarters in the early 2000s. At that time, new technical areas of intervention were starting to emerge, going beyond the organisation’s original core activity. Health, employment and education-related sectors of intervention added themselves to the rehabilitation sector, contributing to greater transversality and greater consideration of disabled peoples’ environment. To begin with, I was responsible for community-based rehabilitation, then I took responsibility for a new Technical Unit, known as “Disability Rights and Policies”. This unit’s scope of action included Disabled People’s Organisation capacity-building, with the objective of constituting a counterweight able to exert pressure on the States, and make States guarantee services development and sustainability and, more broadly speaking, access to rights. In addition, this associative advocacy was helping to promote inclusive development, through the very close attention it was paying to the local level.
I had been informally informed of the preparatory discussions by a former HI staff member who had been given the information by staff officiating at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Then, I took part in the first Ad Hoc Committee Meeting, with the task of performing an “exploratory” mission of sorts, to identify potential action pathways for HI. Then, the position held by the “Disability Rights and Policies” Technical Unit’s very quickly enabled involvement in the process, and this process built itself in partnership with a number of programmes. At the international level, the Technical Unit had contacts with the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC), comprised of international NGOs working in the disability field, at a time when the International Disability Alliance (IDA), comprised of International Disabled People’s Organisations, was still in its infancy (and still known as the International Disability Caucus).
The question of the rights of persons with disabilities had begun to arise in the international arena during the United Nations’ Decade of Disabled Persons, between 1983 and 1992, leading in 1993 to the adoption of the United Nations’ Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, which had no binding effect and no hard, legislative value for the States. As we wanted to place the new “Disability Rights and Policies” Technical Unit’s action within a conceptual framework that included the Disability Creation Process and the WHO’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, in addition to the UN’s Standard Rules, we did the groundwork so that we could be involved in the convention’s drafting process.
When I first returned from New York, we identified two lines of work to focus upon. The first line of work materialised into projet Sud, developed with HI’s Central American Programme and its partners, to support the participation of Southern Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) leaders in the convention’s drafting process. At the time, the drafting process was strongly dominated by the powerful presence of English, American and Nordic representatives. The second line of work saw Handicap International become actively involved, alongside the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC), in an advocacy process, with the goal of mainstreaming disability in development. The idea was that disability not be addressed solely by specific sectors, but considered transversally in order to imbue all development policy. This input was particularly tangible on Article 32, which addresses international cooperation, and Article 11, which addresses humanitarian action. HI was also involved on several different fronts within the International Disability Caucus (IDC), the organisation responsible for bringing the voices of Disabled People’s Organisations to the convention drafting process. To begin with, we translated the negotiation minutes into French. In coordination with Handicap International staff, we also provided for the IDC’s secretarial needs. The multiple transcription, synthesis and secretarial tasks were of crucial importance to enable the Caucus to work effectively and build a unified voice amongst its members.
Handicap International’s participation in the Convention drafting process was made possible by a dynamic that brought together chiefly the “Disability Rights and Policies” Technical Unit and local programmes involved in supporting disability rights movements in their own countries and regions. For example, for projet Sud’s implementation, the leaders were identified by the programmes themselves, and these leaders included Sanna Laitamo for Latin America, Alexandre Cote for Eastern Europe, and Muhanad Al-Azzeh for the Middle East. For the most part, the people involved in this way already had behind them extensive public advocacy for change practises. They were given preparatory training on the convention drafting process before leaving and, once in New York, participated in the International Disability Caucus (IDC) meetings, which took place on the sidelines of the official sessions. In addition, the projet Sud representatives also met regularly. The Southern leaders quickly integrated the global disability rights movement, and their participation undeniably enriched the debates, bringing the notion of development into the discussion agenda. The participation of these leaders was all the more critical as, once back home in their countries, it was up to them to explain this new convention’s content and challenges to civil society.
Although the Convention was developed and promulgated globally, we then had to focus at the national level to envision its ratification and implementation. Therefore, the next step for HI involved the creation of tools to train the national stakeholders responsible for raising awareness of the Convention, and the mobilisation of States for its implementation. This was a swift process, and the convention was ratified in record time (just under two years). In addition, HI also collaborated with the International Disability Alliance (IDA), which is the World Federation of Disabled People’s Organisations, to create guidance tools for the drafting of alternative reports by civil society. The function of these alternative reports was to counterbalance the official report produced and presented by Member State governments to the Convention’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva, responsible for monitoring States Party implementation of the Convention. Handicap International also participated in the annual Conferences of States Parties to the CRPD, held in New York, during which States and civil society discussed good practises and Convention implementation processes. In relation to this, one of HI’s contributions was the ‘Making it Work’ Project, whose goal was to identify effective or innovative Convention implementation practises, illustrating the strong connection between the Convention text and tangible development programmes.
The Convention does not create any new rights for persons with disabilities. However, what it does intend to do is facilitate the writing into national law and implementation of specific measures that will enable the full enjoyment of human rights for persons with disabilities. The final text that was produced in 2006 is of very high quality, and greatly influenced by the disability rights movement. It marks a break with the medical and paternalistic approach to disability, and gives persons with disabilities and their organisations a significant say in all the decisions that affect them. The Convention’s contributions are twofold. Firstly, in legal terms, the text has given persons with disabilities visibility in the United Nations Human Rights System. This is a major recognition. Secondly, in conceptual terms, the framework established by the Convention is also in effect a practical tool, which must be used to address the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in specific, tangible areas. In this sense, the Convention is not an abstract scaffolding of thought, it clearly establishes a framework, and each of its articles provides a way of apprehending specific challenges encountered in specific, tangible situations. The Convention has also made it possible to access a greater number of specialised UN agency and institutional donor programmes relating to disability issues, and this has contributed to mainstreaming disability into all development-related issues (mainstreaming dynamic).
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