The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Disability Action


  1.  Disability Action is a pioneering Northern Ireland charity working with and for people with disabilities. We work with our members to provide information, training, transport, awareness programmes and representation for people regardless of their disability; whether that is physical, mental, sensory, hidden or learning disability.

  2.  In Northern Ireland, more than one in five of the population (300,000) has a disability and over one quarter of all families here are directly affected by disability issues.

  3.  As a campaigning body, we work to bring about positive change to the social, economic and cultural life of people with disabilities and consequently our entire community. In pursuit of our aims we serve 45,000 people each year.

  4.  Disability Action has recently established a Centre on Human Rights for People with Disabilities. The Centre aims to secure the human rights of people with disabilities across Northern Ireland and to foster a culture of human rights for people with disabilities through education and capacity building within the sector, and the use of lobbying, influencing and legal challenge.

  5.  The Centre on Human Rights for People with Disabilities welcomes the opportunity to submit a response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.


  6.  The Centre on Human Rights for People with Disabilities welcomes the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ratification of the Convention by the UK, without reservations, is vital if rights are truly to become a reality for people with disabilities. The human rights abuses that continue to be experienced by disabled people throughout the UK should not be underestimated.

  7.  Despite assurances from the Minister for Disabled People, the Centre on Human Rights for People with Disabilities remains concerned that the current timetable for ratification by December 2008 is unrealistic given the range of issues still under consideration. We note from the previous Minister's correspondence to the Committee (dated 24 September 2008) that a further announcement on progress and expectations for ratification timetabling is expected.

  8.  The Centre on Human Rights is disappointed at the lack of information from Government regarding the ratification process and the outcome of its review of the compatibility of domestic legislation and administrative practice with the UN Convention. The information available to the public about these processes and the precise form of reservations and interpretative declarations is currently extremely limited. This has a freezing effect on the public debate of highly significant issues. It clearly serves the interest of the public that more information should be disclosed to further this debate about fundamental rights and freedoms. The weight that this consideration carries is considerable at a time when the government itself is promoting a wide-ranging debate about human rights in contemporary British society.

  9.  Disability Action is deeply concerned that the UK Government is planning to enter reservations and/or interpretative declarations against certain Convention rights. Anne Maguire, the previous Minister for Disabled People, has in a public statement made it clear that the UK is considering reservations of much greater range and impact than any other state which has so far ratified the Convention (Letter to Joint Committee on Human Rights, 24 September 2008). This sends out the message, both to disabled people and to the international community that the UK is willing to accept less than the agreed international standard for the protection of the human rights of disabled people across the UK.

  10.  Article 2(d) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties defines a reservation as "a unilateral statement, however phrased or named, made by a State, when [consenting] to a treaty, whereby it purports to exclude or to modify the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty in their application to that State" (emphasis added).

  11.  Any decision to enter reservations to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will have an effect on the lives of over 10 million people within the UK and on many more when families and carers are taken into account. Although Article 46 of the Convention permits reservations, Article 50 of the Convention does not allow for reservations which are incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. Reservations which defeat the object and purpose of the treaty are necessarily invalid as is the State's consent to the overall treaty. A reservation could also trigger an enquiry by other States as to the compatibility of a reservation with the object and purpose of a treaty.

  12.  Many of the articles of the Convention do not introduce new rights, but rather explicate the meaning of existing obligations under international human rights law with respect to people with disabilities. Entering a reservation to certain articles within the Convention could create problems for the UK's existing obligations under other international human rights treaties. Meeting the minimal obligations of a reserved right under UNCRPD could well be at the same time to fail to meet certain of the UK's "unreserved" obligations under CESCR, for example.

  13.  The Centre on Human Rights is further concerned that the UK is actively considering interpretative declarations and that these would in fact constitute "disguised reservations". Any reservation would, in effect, be an attempt by UK Government to validate existing practices which negatively impinge upon the lives of people with disabilities. In particular, the Centre on Human Rights is disappointed that a reservation is being proposed to "ensure that disabled children whose educational needs are best met through specialist provision which may be some way from their home can continue to receive it". The Centre on Human Rights believes that such a reservation would be incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty as set out in Article 1 of the Convention, restricting opportunities for greater inclusion. This has particular implications for some children and young people in Northern Ireland who are required to move away from their families at a young age in order to avail of specialist services in England or Scotland. This is contrary to the ethos of inclusion to which Government has proclaimed to be committed. Any reservation and/or interpretative declaration on Article 24 would simply be an attempt to validate those segregative practices which persist.

  14.  The detail of proposed reservations and/or interpretive declarations on Articles 12 (exercise of legal capacity), 18 (immigration and nationality) and 30 (cultural services) have not been forthcoming, limiting the transparency of government activity on issues which should be subject to wide ranging public scrutiny.

  15.  We further draw your attention to the answer given by the Prime Minister to Gerald Kaufman MP on 14 December 2006, in response to a written question about the Convention (Hansard col 1288W) that: "The UK is committed to supporting comprehensive and enforceable rights for disabled people and wishes to see those rights enjoyed by disabled citizens everywhere." The reservations currently being considered by the government represent a withdrawal from this strong statement and such a change of position should be subject to wide ranging public scrutiny. If the UK is truly committed to disabled people's human rights it cannot pick and choose which Convention rights it is willing to support.

  16.  The Centre on Human Rights strongly argues that UK Government must adhere to the spirit of the Convention by ensuring that, in the lead up to ratification, it actively engages and consults with people with disabilities. There has been no engagement with disabled people by the Northern Ireland devolved administration, or UK Government more generally to date.

  17.  The Centre on Human Rights strongly believes that UK ratification of the Convention is not dependent on ratification by the European Community. Indeed, the Convention has already been ratified by three member states; Hungary, Spain and Slovenia.


  18.  The Centre on Human Rights for People with Disabilities has welcomed the opportunity to make a submission. The Centre on Human Rights looks forward to continued dialogue on this and other issues of major significance to people with disabilities throughout Northern Ireland.

November 2008

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