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(Nairobi) – The announcement by the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs on August 21, 2012, of Ghana’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities affirmed Ghana’s commitment to respect the human rights of all its citizens, including those with disabilities, Human Rights Watch said today.

Ghana became the 119th country in the world to ratify the Disability Rights Convention, a landmark international treaty that mandates the protection and promotion of human rights for the more than 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide. More than 5 million people with disabilities live in Ghana, one-fifth of the total population, including 2.8 million people with mental disabilities.

“This is an important first step to ensuring that the 5 million Ghanaians with disabilities will be treated as equal citizens, with equal rights,” said Medi Ssengooba, Finberg Fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Ghana now needs to adapt its laws and practices to allow the promises of the convention to become reality for people with disabilities.”

While Ghana was one of the first countries to sign the Disability Rights Convention, in March 2007, it took the government more than five years to complete the ratification process. During this delay, people with disabilities, and especially people with mental disabilities, have continued to experience severe violations of their human rights, including the rights to liberty, access to healthcare, and freedom from discrimination, Human Rights Watch said.

Under the Disability Rights Convention, people with mental disabilities have the right to make decisions about their own lives, including where and how they live. They also have the right to be free from torture and other abuses, such as forced medication or deprivation of food.

In 2011 and 2012, Human Rights Watch documented abuses against people with mental disabilities living in psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps in the southern part of Ghana. Human Rights Watch found that hundreds of people with disabilities were forced into these institutions without their consent and subject to severe abuse. Details of these findings will be released in an upcoming Human Rights Watch report.

“People with mental disabilities living in prayer camps and psychiatric hospitals in Ghana face abuses ranging from neglect to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” Ssengooba said. “Now that Ghana has ratified the Disability Rights Convention, it should work to end these abuses and ensure access to medical treatment and other services for all people with mental disabilities.”

Funding for mental healthcare in Ghana is a major challenge. Despite the large number of people with disabilities in Ghana, less than 1 percent of the national health budget is spent on mental health services. People with mental disabilities living in the community also reported that there are few support services, including medical care, aimed at helping them integrate into community life. As a result, they lack medication and other basic necessities such as food and shelter.

Ghana has already taken steps to reform some of its laws including the recent Mental Health Act of 2012, which aims to protect, promote, and improve the lives and well-being of people with mental disabilities. This act falls short of the provisions of the Disability Rights Convention, however, because it allows for arbitrary detention of people with disabilities as well as removal of legal capacity rather than supported decision-making, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to becoming the 119th country in the world to ratify the Disability Rights Convention, Ghana also became the 32nd country in Africa to do so.

“Ratification is an important first step,” Ssengooba said. “However, to realize its obligations under the convention Ghana needs to improve its regulation of institutions that house people with mental disabilities and increase its investment and commitment to community-based services.”

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