(Brussels) - The agreement by European Union member states to remove the last legal barrier to EU accession to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an important step forward, Human Rights Watch and the European disability movement said today. The EU should ensure that accession takes place as soon as possible, the groups said.
"The disability movement wants the EU to join the UN Convention immediately," said Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the European Disability Forum. "There are no more legal barriers to prevent the EU from going ahead. This will represent a major policy shift toward enforcing human rights obligations and putting disability on top of the human rights agenda."
At the Council of the EU session on December 2, 2010, the member states agreed on a common code of conduct, a document that will regulate member state interaction with the European Commission concerning the Disability Rights Convention. When the disability movement met with the vice president of the Commission, Viviane Reding, earlier this year, she said, "If the code of conduct between the EU and its member states is adopted in the coming months, the European Union will deposit the Convention at the United Nations during the Belgian Presidency," a step that will make the treaty binding law for the EU.
The Disability Rights Convention, which entered into force in May 2008, is the first United Nations human rights treaty specifically related to the rights of people with disabilities. It became a reality largely due to the active mobilization of people with disabilities, who participated in negotiating the text. The EU would become the first regional government body to accede to the Disability Rights Convention or any other international human rights treaty.
"EU accession sends a clear signal to member states: it is time to make a commitment to uphold the rights of people with disabilities by ratifying this convention and putting it in effect," said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. "It will also raise the profile of disability rights in the EU's relationship with other countries, including those that want to join the EU."
As of November, only 16 of the 27 EU members had ratified the Convention: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Among other European countries seeking EU membership, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey have ratified the convention, while Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, and Kosovo have not.
Under a system of revolving leadership, Belgium currently holds the EU presidency, and it has made accession to the convention a priority. Jean-Marc Delizée, Belgian Secretary of State for Social Affairs, closed the European Day of People with Disabilities on December 3 by announcing, "I want to conclude the UN convention under the Belgian presidency as quickly as possible. If it is concluded without waiting for all the member states, then the EU will send a strong signal."
In addition to joining the Disability Rights Convention, the EU is required to establish a "focal point" responsible for coordinating implementation within the EU. The European disability movement and Human Rights Watch call on the EU to designate the office of the European Commission's Secretary General as this focal point, to ensure that disability rights will be mainstreamed in all aspects of EU policy.