World Law Aims to Protect Persons with Disabilities

Article excerpt

On Aug. 25, a committee of the United Nations, after several years of study and discussion, recommended an international covenant for the protection of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.

The General Assembly is expected to recommend the covenant to the 191 U.N. members for ratification. It will enter into force after 20 nations have ratified it. A U.N. committee will monitor compliance of the signatories, who are required to report every fourth year. The Holy See was an active participant in the deliberations that led to the new treaty.

A new and wonderful day has arrived for the 650 million people in the world who are physically or mentally handicapped.

By almost every measure the United States is one of the most progressive countries with respect to the disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, requires, among other things, extensive accommodation in public places for disabled individuals. Recently, the Bush administration proposed $8.6 billion for people with disabilities. This includes funds for improving access to buses, trains and airplanes.

The fifth article of the new U.N. covenant on the rights of persons with disabilities reflects the Americans with Disabilities Act but probably goes beyond it. Provisions for equality and against discrimination are clear and strong. Rights are spelled out in detail, with rights of women and children with disabilities receiving special attention. The needs of blind and deaf people get explicit treatment,

Also, every nation is urged to be involved in comprehensive education so that all disabled persons enjoy "the full and equal enjoyment" to which everyone is entitled. The disabled have a right to "live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life." The press and the public are urged to portray disabled persons in ways that are contrary to "stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices."

Emphasis on Braille and sign language should be basic in those nations that ratify the new covenant. The administration of justice in courts and prisons must follow the new standards, which, after a period when the vast majority of nations ratify the treaty, will become what jurists call "customary international law."

Nongovernmental organizations devoted to the rights of the disabled have worked diligently on the covenant's development. They will continue to be effective forces for the implementation of the rights it guarantees. The impact of the nongovernmental organizations is evident in the text and wording.

One of the most promising features is the inclusion of an optional protocol. This means that in the countries that agree to it, individuals can bring their complaints to the U.N. watchdog committee, composed of up to 18 experts. The machinery to process these complaints is limited but the complaints may receive widespread attention in countries where they originate. …