EU makes limited pledge on disabled rights

For the first time, the European Communities have signed a human-rights charter, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But, in a last-minute move, the Commission refrained from signing an additional Protocol establishing a complaints procedure, which some member states consider too far-reaching.

Shortly before signing the Convention on 30 March 2007, the Commission, representing the European Communities, stepped back from its initial plan to sign the Conventions’s optional protocol, which creates a complaints procedure. 

The U-turn came after the UK, Denmark and Poland expressed concerns that the legal implications would be too far-reaching in the employment field, where the European Communities have competences. They feared an EC signature would be equivalent to them being a party, even when they are not.

The Optional protocol creates two procedures:

  • An individual complaints procedure: An individual who claims to be victim of a violation of the provisions of the Convention can present a Communication to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, established by the Convention. After examining the request, the Committee can then forward suggestions and recommendations to the state party.
  • An inquiry procedure: In case of grave or systematic violations by a state party, the Committee can conduct an inquiry. The findings are then transmitted to the state party.

The Commission holds that: "Before addressing a complaint to the committee, the individual must in any case have exhausted all the available domestic remedies at national level, so resort to the committee does not come lightly."

Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the European Disability Forum(EDF) hailed the convention as "a major success for the 650 million disabled people in the world", but warned that signature was only a first step. 

"The real work starts now," Vardakastanis said. "All signatory states, including the European Community, have committed and must guarantee that the Convention is much more than a piece of paper. We now expect that in these countries disabled people will enjoy the same human rights as non-disabled."

However, EDF also expressed "deep concern" over the EU's failure to also sign the optional Protocol. EDF Director Carlotta Besozzi said: "We were surprised and disappointed that the EC did not sign the Protocol, due to some member states not agreeing. As a result of the shared competences on the EU, this has consequences for people with disabilities throughout Europe. It has to be recalled that the right of recourse that the Prootocol foresees is merely a last resort for disabled people where procedures in coutnries have not worked out the way they should."

The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, initiated in 2002 by Mexico, is the first UN convention to be adopted since the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 1990. The Convention was adopted on 30 March 2007. A record number of 82 countries signed up to it on the first day - more than four times as many as was needed for the Convention to enter into force immediately.

The Convention enshrines the principle that the 650 million people in the world who suffer from disabilities should enjoy the same rights as the able-bodied. It protects disabled people from all kinds of discrimination and covers civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. 

It obliges signatory parties to not just adapt laws and regulations to this principle, but to also ensure that practices change better to integrate disabled people into sociey.

44 countries signed the Convention's optional protocol, which allows petitioning by individuals and groups on alleged violations of their rights to a UN committee of experts once all national recourse procedures have been exhausted.

  • European Conference on Disability and Development Co-operation took place at the Committee of Regions on 20-21 November 2006. 
  • On 27 February 2007, the Commission recommended to the Council to sign the Convention as well as the optional Protocol. 
  • The signature phase for the Convention opened on 20 March 2007 (see constantly updated list of signatories.) 
  • Negotiations on a possible signature of the optional Protocol are currently under way. The issue wil be on the agenda of an upcoming meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper) in the EU Council of Ministers. The Commission and the German EU Presidency are known to be favourable to a signature of the optional Protocol.
  • The Commission will screen Community legislation and EU policies to check if they are compatible with the Convention.
  • The Commission will present a proposal for a Council decision on the ratification of the Convention, most likely in the first half of 2008. 

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