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The Disabled and the Lack of International Law

 by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK


December 3, 2004 is the International Day of the Disabled. Yet there is still no International Law protecting the rights of the Disabled as full citizens. Why?


Equality, freedom and participation – not just welfare – are the goals of the December 3 International Day of Disabled Persons 2004.


Do you ever look at the disabled as equal citizens of your country, with full rights – or purely as unfortunates to be helped?


When I was teenager, I was asked at a senior’s home at which I was volunteering, to spend time with an “old man in a wheelchair”. In the course of the afternoon spent with him, he told me that he used to be the top surgeon in the city, teaching in the world famous local medical school. When he was admitted to the senior’s home, he asked for medical journals to read. The nurses laughed – until the chief doctor found out and told the nurses that this “old man” taught him to be a doctor! He received his medical journals – and the staff learned a lesson in the human rights of the disabled.


An interesting fact is that there is no international law specifically designed or designated for the rights of the disabled. There has been a significant push in this direction with the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. This landmark 1993 resolution by the General Assembly does not form part of any treaty, and therefore lacks legal effect. However, given these Rules use the International Bill of Human Rights as their political and moral foundation, they do represent a strong moral commitment of the world body to this goal.


Nonetheless, the Standard Rules are the main United Nations rules guiding action in the area of rights for the disabled. Prevention and rehabilitation have taken a secondary role to that of rights, as seen in the four parts of the rules:


  1. Preconditions for equal participation;
  2. Target areas for equal participation;
  3. Implementation measures; and
  4. Monitoring mechanisms.


Why has something so just, so obvious, not become international law?


A large part of the reason for the slowness of adoption, even by ‘enlightened’ countries, is that many of the existing United Nations treaties, if applied to the disabled, could result in internal political conflicts – something that few governments need.


For example,  Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR) contains the most fundamental right – that of the Right to Life. In developing countries, the mortality rate of disabled children is often higher because they are last to be fed or taken care of – especially when local warlords control the food supply. In developed countries, on the other hand, the right to life is affected by ‘euthanasia’ practices such as withholding life-saving treatment from a newborn child with disabilities – or mercy killing of the disabled.


There are some readers who, when seeing the comments above – for example, on ‘euthanasia’ – will interpret the statements as reflecting a particular political or religious ideology. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, that is the biggest problem for the disabled – their rights constantly get lost in political agendas and diatribe. Those who are pro-euthanasia are in favour of a set agenda of political positions; and those who are not, have a different agenda.


Accordingly, the rights of the disabled must be separated from political agenda playing; otherwise, the game-players are just as abusive to the disabled.


Why is this article being written?


This article is not just a nice piece in support of the disabled; it is meant as a call to action, a call to enshrine the rights of the disabled into international law. The Law Journal UK, as a Law Journal with an international focus, is looking to make a difference for the disabled around the world. There are many distinguished fund raisers, and rock stars, raising money for the disadvantaged; but there is little action or organisation to push for an International Law on the Rights of the Disabled.


The goal of this article, and The Law Journal UK, is to change international attitudes towards enshrining the rights of the disabled in International Law.


If you are disabled, or a caregiver for a disabled person, or a relative of a disabled person – or an interested person – this issue is critical for all of us.


Our mortal lives are short. Far too often, we look at our lives and feel that we have not made a difference in this world.  This is our – and your – opportunity to make that difference.


One more thing – our concern is with the disabled, not with political, ideological or social agendas. We want to help ensure rights.


People can make a difference – let's work together to build this initiative into an international legal reality. The United Nations, Disabled Persons International, and government officials have been made aware of this article for the International Day of Disabled Persons. Let us make that day, December 3, more than just platitudes to be forgotten on December 4.


I look forward to more than your comments – I look forward to your participation.


Your thoughts?


Brian Risman

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