I spent a couple of days in Brussels last week at the European Union’s annual work forum on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It was particularly interesting and useful this year as it included presentations and Q&A sessions with the governments, independent monitoring mechanisms and civil society representatives from Spain, Austria and Hungary, all of which have now undergone their initial examinations under the Convention.
What shone out from the presentations was the intensive and coordinated effort that had been put into the process by civil society organisations. They had produced parallel reports in order to influence the selection by the UN Committee of the ‘list of issues’ (priority issues) that would form the focus of each country’s examination, very often the product of extensive consultation and analysis. They had had closed sessions with the Committee in Geneva ahead of the Committee meetings where the list of issues were finalised. Once the list of issues was published they had worked hard both to influence their government’s response and to produce a further report (or reports) which delved deep into the issues, producing evidence and proposing solutions. Ahead of the actual State examination they had met again in private with the UN Committee to discuss in detail key issues. The representatives noted how it was clear that their input had shaped the Committee’s approach to the State examination.
I’m presently involved in a piece of work to assist the European Commission in preparing the European Unions initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the EU has ratified the Convention in its capacity as a ‘regional integration mechanism). The complexity of providing a focused and accurate account of the degree to which the Convention is being adhered to – one which can command the respect of the Committee and which does not allow the State party to reject the assessment – should not be underestimated.
Also of note at the meeting was the indication that where there had been a significant time-lag between the submission of the initial report and the examination, as is the case for the UK, meaning that the first periodic report would be due very soon after, that the Committee may ask that both be rolled into one. I’m not entirely clear what this means in practical terms and will strive to find out. However, it suggests that there will be opportunity to highlight any retrogressive effects of government policy or spending decisions since the UK’s initial report was submitted to the Committee in 2011.
It is anticipated that the UN Committee will agree the list of issues concerning the UK in September 2014, with the examination taking place in Spring 2015. This means that there is under a year to define and build consensus around the priority issues people would like the Committee to consider and make ‘concluding observations’ about.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its capacity (alongside the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland) as Britain’s ‘independent mechanism’ has begun the process of identifying priorities and I encourage people to contribute as the Commission has enjoyed appreciable influence on other such processes related to race, women and socioeconomic rights in the past.
But as, if not much more critical is the independent voice of disabled people and their organisations in this process and I would like to think the efforts of DPO’s in Spain, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere in the world can be emulated and ideally exceeded here in the UK.
Given the time-frame this is a fantastic opportunity to put disability rights and equality back on the political map and to escape the corrosive discourse of welfare reform, to use the process of contributing to the Treaty Monitoring to foster debate here at home about the future of disability rights in a radically different economic and social environment, and to seek to develop ideas and secure commitments for the future as we move towards the 2015 General Election.
To harness this opportunity, three things are required: a coming together of key actors – fragmentation will only undermine impact; leadership and coordination; and resources.
On the final point, resources, the EHRC has played a significant role in supporting civil society organisations in the areas of women’s rights (especially following the government’s decision to close the Women’s National Commission) and race equality to understand and take part in the relevant treaty monitoring processes. I expect that it is keen to do likewise with respect to UNCRPD and I hope that the Government Equalities Office, in dialogue with the Office for Disability Issues and Ministry for Justice, supports the Commission to do so. Other funders also have a key role to play and I hope they will consider investing in a process that could enjoy considerable returns for the future of disability rights in the UK.
As for leadership and coordination it seems to me that the position remains open – who is going to fill it?