Joint statement by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders & UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.
(29 November 2022) Human rights defenders who have disabilities face multiple and distinct forms of risk. They can be targeted or excluded because of their disability, for being human rights defenders (HRDs), or both.
It has been 16 years since the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted, re-affirming that all persons with disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
But the environment for HRDs with disabilities remains challenging. Human rights defenders on every continent face severe retaliation for their work and those with disabilities who advocate for human rights find themselves particularly marginalised. Their work is often ignored, misunderstood, or regarded as separate from broader human rights issues. Human rights defenders with disabilities often have to advocate for rights in spaces and processes that are ableist, with stakeholders who do not understand, or are not willing, to provide resources for ‘reasonable accommodation.’
“Breaking barriers: Stories from Human Rights Defenders with Disabilities” is a new project by UN experts* Mary Lawlor and Gerard Quinn. It features testimonies from human rights defenders with disabilities peacefully advocating for the rights of others.
Defenders with disabilities are active across a wide range of human rights issues. It is a myth to assert that they only get engaged to advise their own rights or interests. They are fighting discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity, they are advocating for housing rights, they are calling for justice for killings, they work on the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of migrants, of indigenous people or for the rights of persons with disabilities. They work too on the climate crisis, racial justice, against torture, conflict and on many other human rights issues.
Their right to do so is further confirmed and clarified by Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) which obliges States parties to ‘promote actively an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs’ and on an equal basis with others. Undisputedly, this covers activities in defence of human rights by persons with disabilities for the benefit for all. Indeed, the European Fundamental Rights Agency has concluded that persons with disabilities are even more likely to be actively engaged in public affairs and in defence of human rights engaged than are many others.
Some defenders with disabilities report that their work puts them at risk of attack, and that their activities in defence of the rights of others often goes unrecognised. Ableist and paternalist attitudes and narratives perpetuate this risk because they deprive persons with disabilities of spaces to communicate their experiences and contribute to the formulation appropriate solutions.
Some HRDs with disabilities are tortured while serving long jail sentences for their human rights work. Others are attacked, their homes and offices are raided, and they are subjected to smear campaigns and vilification.
Defenders with disabilities note that while there are 185 states parties to the UN CRPD, 21 of those states have signed but not ratified it.
In States party to the Convention there are still major gaps in the protection of human rights of persons with disabilities. Only 45 countries have anti-discrimination or disability specific legislation. And even for those countries that promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities, defenders say many states prefer to deal with the rights of persons with disability in a silo defined by the medical category of impairment, not taking into account overlapping rights concerns, and excluding or targeting those who advocate for a broader approach.
For example, women human rights defenders who have disabilities experience exclusion and abuse on account of their gender and their disability. In addition to ableist barriers to participation many confront risks associated with their gender, including gender based violence, smears, stigmatisation and patriarchal norms.
Participation of human rights defenders from historically marginalised groups is a valuable asset in building more inclusive and sustainable societies. However, they are hampered by structures that deny them the opportunity to engage in public affairs and put them at risk. For example, societal attitudes towards albinism in some regions puts them at additional risk of attacks and stigmatisation. Lack of understanding and discrimination inhibits the ability of human rights defenders with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) or persons with psychosocial disabilities from participating in consultations and meetings, including in decision-making about their own rights.
Human rights defenders with disabilities are among other groups, including refugees, asylum seekers and migrants’ rights defenders, and defenders of domestic abuse survivors, who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdated practices like institutionalization have heightened their risks. Restrictions on movement during COVID-19 further limit security options for defenders, whose freedom of movement was in many places already inhibited by inadequate infrastructure and resourcing. States that have kept human rights defenders detained in overcrowded prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic are in some cases gambling with their lives.
Human rights defenders with disabilities face multiple additional risks in places of detention. The denial of ‘reasonable accommodation,’ hours-long interrogations, absence of assistive technologies or lack of medical or physiotherapeutic attention in prison can constitute a form of discrimination, and in severe instances, a form of torture or ill-treatment. The 2015 Guidelines provided by the UN CRD Committee on deprivation of liberty ought instead to animate reform in this regard.
Judicial harassment can also be more severe for human rights defenders who have disabilities. Requests for ‘reasonable accommodation’ in the courtroom are often ignored or denied. Defenders report that the burden of making hearings accessible often falls on them. The experts have received reports of prosecutors who exploit disability to hinder the defendants’ case; plaintiffs have at times objected to defendants joining via webcast, or who give written instead of verbal testimonies. The 2020 International Principles of Access to Justice for Persons with Disabilities should instead guide change in this sphere.
Lack of consultation is conducive to lack of participation and increased risk. One example of where states should urgently consult with human rights defenders with disabilities is in the formulation of HRD protection initiatives. Actions that have little or no impact on some defenders may have a far more significant, detrimental impact on defenders with disabilities. Risk assessment should be individually tailored, providing reasonable accommodation and accounting for risks which may be unique to them, their disability or their overlapping rights concerns.
Some defenders with disabilities report that the increased use of video-conferencing since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to smoother access to human rights fora that were previously difficult to reach. But videoconferencing should not be a replacement for facilitating persons with disabilities at in-person events.
Some defenders also report that a lack of accessible software for persons with disabilities prevents HRDs from accessing some online events. Technology companies, in particular video-conferencing platforms, should make greater effort to provide reasonable accommodation options to persons with disabilities. Recent studies demonstrate the balance of risks and opportunities faced by persons with disabilities through the unregulated use of Artificial Intelligence. Governments should instead focus on appropriate uses of emerging technologies that will actively facilitate participation.
States have a responsibility to cultivate an environment where civil society can operate freely, where defenders’ rights to civil and political participation are respected, and everybody can enjoy their human rights.
That responsibility includes repealing discriminatory laws and policies putting persons with disabilities and rights defenders at risk, and not persecuting them for their peaceful work on any human rights issue. It also requires broad consultation in the establishment and proper resourcing of protection programmes and focal points within governments and other institutions to accommodate HRDs with disabilities, with specific awareness and education programmes tailored to their needs.
In spite of all the hostility, adversity and challenges, HRDs with disabilities continue their work on a range of human rights all over the world. They contribute to the building of just, fair and inclusive societies and deserve unhindered access to all areas of their work. They have an instinct for inclusion born of their own experience and this instinct is an asset for the whole of society.
The campaign “Breaking Barriers” will consist of a series of video interviews with human rights defenders with disabilities. It will feature defenders working on a broad range of rights issues and the unique challenges and risks they face in those environments as persons with disabilities.. The series will launch in November 2022 and will run until the end of the year.
Mary Lawlor was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in May 2020. The UN Special Rapporteur has a mandate to promote the work of Human Rights Defenders and protect defenders at risk. She does this in the context of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by consensus in 1998. She serves in a voluntary capacity and is independent of the UN, States and non-governmental organisations.
Gerard Quinn was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, appointed in October 2020. Mr Quinn holds two research chairs at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute on Human Rights in the University of Lund (Sweden) and Leeds University (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). He was the lead focal point for the global network of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) during the negotiations leading to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and was head of delegation for Rehabilitation International during the UN Working Group (2004).