First ever treaty on human rights of persons with disabilities enters into force today

The third of May 2008 marked the commencement of a new chapter in the history of the fight for the rights of persons with disabilities. With the entry into force of the first ever comprehensive human rights treaty of persons with disabilities – the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a new reality has been set in motion, in which the dignity and worth of about 650 million persons throughout the world can finally be affirmed, promoted and ultimately ensured. The world’s most disadvantaged minority now has at its disposal an effective legal tool to end the injustice, discrimination and violation of rights that they have been consistently confronted with.
The Convention, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, ushers in a new era in which persons with disabilities 1 can enjoy the same rights and opportunities as everyone else and are able to lead their lives as full citizens, able to make valuable contributions to the society. This potent instrument covers areas where persons with disabilities have long been discriminated against, including access to information and services; education; employment; participation in political and public life; participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport; access to justice; freedom from torture, exploitation and violence; as well as freedom of movement.
Countries that ratify the Convention undertake to promote, protect and ensure the rights of persons with disabilities, including through the creation of an enabling
environment allowing access to the physical environment, transportation, and information and communications technologies -- for example by building ramps for wheelchair users to access public buildings, creating accessible websites, providing sign language interpretations, etc. There is also an Optional Protocol to the Convention, aimed at strengthening the Convention’s implementation and monitoring process.
Three countries in Asia-Pacific have ratified the Convention; India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. No government in the region has yet ratified the Optional Protocol.
The Asian and the Pacific region -- under the leadership of ESCAP has been at the forefront of the movement to secure the rights of persons with disabilities -- it was the first one to launch a regional decade for persons with disabilities in 1993, which was extended in 2003. The vision of the Second Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, which is the creation of an “inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society”, is enshrined in the Decade’s policy guideline -- the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action and its supplement, the Biwako Plus Five. This much acclaimed Framework has initiated a paradigm shift from a charity-based to a rights-based approach to disability.
The region has also contributed strongly in the drafting of the new Convention, with the Bangkok Draft, which embodied the region’s perspective, serving as a solid foundation for the global drafting process. The Bangkok Draft was the outcome of several years of efforts by many Governments in the region, experts and disabled persons’ organizations.
The entry into force of the Convention is thus the culmination of many years of tireless work. Yet this important development was long overdue.
Figures indeed are startling. More than 10 per cent of the world population lives with a disability. In disadvantaged and vulnerable sections of the population, this percentage may soar to about 20 per cent as disabilities can arise from malnutrition,
maternal under-nourishment and infectious diseases. Conflicts and natural disasters also contribute to the increase in the numbers of persons with disabilities, along with population growth and increased longevity.
Since the disability of one family member impacts his/her entire surrounding, it is estimated that a staggering 2 billion people confront this reality daily.
Most persons with disabilities live on the margins of society. Women and girls are usually in most vulnerable situations as they are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Children with disabilities are also extremely vulnerable, being largely excluded from educational opportunities.
Data from Governments in the region indicate a marked disparity in social and economic status between persons with and without disabilities, irrespective of the country’s development status. As Governments pursue the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, it is crucial that the potential of this vast and expanding section of the population be harnessed.
Today is a chance, in the words of the Convention, to start redressing “the profound social disadvantage of persons with disabilities and promote their participation in the civil, political, economic, social and cultural spheres”.
The entry into force of the Convention brings about new responsibility. While our advocacy work will continue for more countries in the Asian and Pacific region to ratify the Convention, those that have already ratified it will need to take effective actions in order to fulfill its new obligations.
Implementing the Convention implies the formulation of effective policies and programmes which would have a real impact on the lives of persons with disabilities. In this the media can also play a crucial role in combating stereotypes and prejudices and promoting the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.
So many new and exciting developments await which we all together can encourage and accelerate. Today is the dawn of a new age.

1 Defined by the Convention as persons “who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.