Promoting the human rights of people with disabilities

December 3, 2019

Photo: Foundation for the Blind Thailand

By Kazuyuki Uji, Policy Specialist, and Håkan Björkman, Regional Health and Development Advisor and Team Leader, Health and Development Group, UNDP in Asia and the Pacific

Like all of us, persons with disabilities are entitled to the universal human rights to knowledge, education, employment, as well as political, social, and economic participation in society – with dignity and without discrimination.

People with disabilities also play a special role in society as an inspiration to all of us for their strength and courage, as well as their important contribution to promoting a diverse, tolerant, and inclusive society, without discrimination, which in turn benefits other groups and individuals who are also perceived as different and often marginalized.

Today on 3 December, we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with this year’s theme: “Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda.”

Yet, accessibility to so many things, which many of us take for granted, is woefully lacking for persons with disabilities, hindering them to fully participate in society, pursue their dreams, access knowledge, and become leaders, and a force for change.

Examples range from the seemingly easily remedied absence of physical access, such as ramps, elevators, wheelchair-accessible toilets, and transportation, to the unacceptable lack of access to education, health care, jobs, information, and political participation.

It is indeed jarring that people with disabilities, because of all these obstacles, are often not participating in developing policies and laws that affect their own lives and needs.

Very importantly, the lack of equitable, timely and affordable access to books and other published materials in accessible formats, such as braille, audio or e-books, prevents people who are blind, visually impaired, or with other print disabilities from being empowered with knowledge, information, and education.

This ‘book famine’ is a silent violation of the human rights of people with disabilities, where less than 1 percent of published books are ever made into accessible formats in developing countries, according to the World Blind Union.  

This ‘book famine’ restricts or excludes persons who are blind or have other print disabilities from education, employment, health care and culture, and participation in just about any aspect of political, economic, cultural social spheres of our societies. The result is an unacceptably high level of social exclusion, lack of political power, and poverty among persons with disabilities – as high as 80 percent according to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Across the world, persons with disabilities remain among the poorest of the poor.

But progress is being made.

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, which came into force in September 2016, aims to remove legal and copyright barriers that are hindering the reproduction of published works in accessible formats and their cross-border sharing. The Marrakesh Treaty paves the way for countries to achieve the goal of ending this ‘book famine’ while ensuring that authors’ interests are protected within reason.

In partnership with governments and disability communities, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is strengthening the capacity of civil society groups for advocacy and providing legal and technical advice to countries to join and benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty.

Thailand, one of the countries where UNDP provided support, acceded to the Marrakesh Treaty in January of this year, with benefits expected for people who are blind or with other print-disabilities.

“The Royal Government of Thailand understands the benefits of disability inclusion and continues to make international commitments to advancing the rights of persons with disabilities,” said Renaud Meyer, Resident Representative of UNDP Thailand, in a newspaper op-ed jointly published at the time with Monthian Buntan, a member of the National Legislative Assembly of the Royal Thai Parliament and a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Creating an enabling legal environment and partnerships to ensure the right to books and knowledge among persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled were the central themes of legal training recently organized by UNDP in Cambodia and Viet Nam.

The legal training aimed to build technical capacity of local legal professionals on the Marrakesh Treaty and nurture partnerships. An eminent intellectual property lawyer from the US who was engaged in the negotiation of the Marrakesh Treaty acted as the main resource person.

In Cambodia, the training was opened by the Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and attended by legal professionals from various government ministries. By the end of the meeting, several ministries concerned agreed to work together to move the country towards the ratification and implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty.

Legal training in Cambodia. Photo: UNDP Cambodia.

“We want to implement the Marrakesh Treaty soon because it can help people with disabilities and contribute to improving Cambodian society. This treaty is very important, especially for Cambodia because a high percentage of people with disabilities suffer from visual impairments,” said H.E. Em Chan Makara, Secretary General of the Disability Action Council, Cambodia’s nodal government agency for disability affairs.

“The Marrakesh Treaty embodies the aspiration and guiding principles of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind and reach the furthest behind first.  The Treaty provides practical legal frameworks to turn the Sustainable Development Goals principles into action,” said Nick Beresford, Resident Representative of UNDP Cambodia.

In Viet Nam, the training was organized by UNDP Viet Nam, spearheaded particularly by its staff with visual impairment, in partnership with the Viet Nam Blind Association and the Ha Noi Bar Association.

Local intellectual property lawyers and legal professionals were introduced to the Marrakesh Treaty for the first time and learned how intellectual property laws can hinder or promote the rights of persons with disabilities and how they as legal professionals can play a critical supporting role. Many participants expressed their commitment to support the effort in the future, strengthening the whole-of-society approach to advance disability rights in Viet Nam.

Legal training in Viet Nam. Photo: UNDP Viet Nam.

“The Marrakesh Treaty provides an effective legal tool to help Viet Nam accelerate its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which UNDP has been supporting in partnership with other UN agencies. Advancing disability rights moves us closer, faster, and surer to an inclusive, equitable and sustainable future envisioned by the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development,” said Caitlin Wiesen, Resident Representative, UNDP Viet Nam.

A growing number of countries are recognizing the benefits and potentials of the Marrakesh Treaty and taking action towards ratifying it. Over the last one year alone, for example, the United States, European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines among others have joined the Marrakesh Treaty, expanding the global collection of accessible format materials in many languages and the number of people to benefit from this historic international treaty.

The human rights of persons with disabilities continue to be violated. But significant progress is being made in improving the access of people who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled to books, education, and knowledge. People with disabilities are already contributing to the transformation of our societies to become more tolerant and diverse. With the Marrakesh Treaty ratified by more and more countries, thus giving them universal access to knowledge and information, they are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

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