We write in advance of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ upcoming review of the European Union (EU) to highlight areas of concern that we hope will inform your consideration of the EU’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This submission focuses on inhumane and degrading treatment in institutions in the EU that are violations of articles 15, 16, 17, and 19, as well as violations of the right to political participation within some EU Member States that are inconsistent with articles 3, 5, 12, and 29 of the Convention. This submission is based on Human Rights Watch’s general research on the EU, as well as its specific research on Croatia, Greece and Hungary, although the focus on these member states should not be taken to imply other member states do not also have similar problems. 

 

Inhumane and degrading treatment in institutions

In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented the inhumane and degrading treatment of persons with disabilities in institutions in some EU member states, particularly Croatia, and has called for a transition from institutional to community-based independent living arrangements, in line with the CRPD. Human Rights Watch has also monitored the treatment of persons with disabilities at the Children’s Care Center of Lechaina over the past five years although we have not conducted independent research in the center itself.[1] We echo the call from the European Disability Forum that EU funding instruments, such as the European Structural and Investment Funds, should refrain from funding existing institutions or the creation of new institutions for persons with disabilities, and instead invest in community-based living arrangements.[2] Further, as Member States move towards de-institutionalization, the EU has a role to play in monitoring existing institutions, particularly with regard to inhuman and degrading conditions and treatment.[3]

For instance, as of July 2014, more than 6,500 persons with disabilities continue to live in institutions in Croatia. Human Rights Watch documented cases of people in such institutions being physically and chemically restrained, forcibly medicated, or confined to seclusion rooms for prolonged periods.[4]  

While Croatia has adopted a de-institutionalization plan, which aims to move people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities out of some institutions and into the community where they can live on their own, the plan does not include those people who have been placed long-term, without their consent, in psychiatric hospitals.[5] Further, the plan also does not include persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities who are placed in so-called “family homes” (designed for up to 20 people and run by private individuals), and “foster families for adults” (where adults with disabilities are placed without their consent and with limited interaction with the community), nor does it include people with disabilities placed in the 24 privately-run but state-funded institutions. The Law on Social Welfare considers family homes and foster homes for adults as preferred forms of non-institutionalized community living arrangements, but based on our research, Human Rights Watch considers that they might amount to institutionalization if residents are not placed there by choice, they are closed to outsiders, and they restrict interactions between residents and the community.[6]

 

Some of these concerns are not unique to Croatia, but can be found to varying degrees in other countries within the European Union. For example, in Greece, due to the lack of available places in institutions for adults, people with disabilities remain in the Children’s Care Center of Lechaina after the age of 18 and in some cases for all of their lives. In addition to an insufficient number of doctors and nurses, there have been reports, including by the Greek Ombudsman, of practices such as tying children and adults with developmental disabilities to their beds, the use of wooden cage beds, and systematic sedation.[7] In its 2012 concluding observations on Greece, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child identified concerns with respect to children with disabilities living in the Children's Care Center of Lechaina “under inhuman and unacceptable conditions, including being systematically sedated and subject to practices such as being tied to their beds, and the use of cage beds due to a shortage of staff.”[8] There have also been alarming reports of deaths and allegations of abuse in care centers in Greece.[9] The arbitrary use of physical restraints, the practice of systematic sedation, deprivation of care, psychological support and physiotherapy, and the absence of regular medical or rehabilitation services for residents are in clear violation of articles 15, 16, 17 and 26 of the CRPD.

 

Barriers to political participation

Human Rights Watch has documented instances of discrimination against people with disabilities, who in some EU countries continue to face barriers to the right to political participation, as outlined in Articles 12 and 29 of the CRPD. Article 29 of the CRPD contains provisions that specifically guarantee the right to vote for all people with disabilities, without exception, obliging state parties to "ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others. . .including the right. . .to vote and be elected." The CRPD also stipulates in Article 12 that states parties "shall recognize that persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life," which includes voting and political participation. Given these clear standards, it is important that public officials, including judges, have no role in adjudicating who is fit, able, or worthy enough to cast a vote, and neither is there any valid test that would enable them to do so.[10] Such barriers violate the norms outlined in the “Revised interpretive declaration to the code of good practice in electoral matters on the participation of people with disabilities in elections” (2011) adopted by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission,[11] which is relevant to a number of EU Member States.

Under the Hungarian constitution, for instance, some citizens with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities continue to be denied the right to vote.[12] In particularly, the constitution denies the franchise to people with certain disabilities who are placed under guardianship by a judge, unless a judge determines, based in part on a general evaluation by a psychiatrist, that they have the capacity to vote (previously such disenfranchisement was automatic). Such determinations are themselves highly subjective, arbitrary, and discriminatory since these tests are not required of all other citizens who want to exercise their right to vote. In a September 2013 ruling on behalf of six Hungarian citizens with intellectual disabilities, the CRPD Committee found that Hungary’s voting laws disenfranchise people with disabilities and asked Budapest to change its voting laws.[13]

 

Hungary is not alone in restricting the political participation of people with disabilities. Last year, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted a comprehensive survey to assess the political participation of people with disabilities within the EU.[14] At that time, people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities under legal guardianship in 15 EU countries were stripped of their right to vote completely. Only seven states explicitly guarantee the right to vote for all persons with disabilities. In some EU member states, including Hungary, Slovenia, and Spain, the right to vote is conditional on a case-by-case evaluation by judges.[15] People with disabilities in Europe face other hurdles when voting as well. The FRA survey found that in 11 EU member states, only some television broadcasts conveying instructions on voting or information on candidates provide sign language interpretation. When it comes to audio description of programs (closed captions), it drops to five member states. Yet public service announcements on the elections and information on candidates are integral to making an informed choice.

 

 

Recommendations

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee urge the EU to ensure that:

  • all Member States take basic steps in order to address the disenfranchisement and other forms of discrimination against people with disabilities. These should include:
    • designating adequate budgets to ensure that resources, including voting materials and information, are produced and widely distributed in easy to read formats and braille; closed captions and sign language interpretation of televised voting ads and public service announcements, as well as tools and equipment at polling stations to make the process of casting a vote physically accessible
    • establishing awareness-raising efforts within government institutions on the right to an inclusive, non-discriminatory political process
  • all EU funding instruments, such as the European Structural and Investment Funds, support Member States in the transition from institutional to community-based services, and that they refrain from funding the institutions that exist or the creation of new institutions for persons with disabilities

 

We hope that the research, observations, and recommendations presented in this submission are useful to the Committee, and we are happy to answer any questions and be of further help to the Committee as it carries out its work.

 

[1] Human Rights Watch, “Greece: Olympic Host Failing on Disabilities,” June 2011, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/27/greece-olympic-host-failing-disabilities; Human Rights Watch, “Open Letter to Mr. Loverdos, Greek Minister of Health: Regarding the Living and Care Conditions at the Children’s Center of Lechaina,” June 2011, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/14/open-letter-mr-loverdos-greek-minister-health; Human Rights Watch, “Updated Submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Greece,” April 2012, https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/25/human-rights-watchs-updated-submission-committee-rights-child-greece; Human Rights Watch, “Updated Submission to the United Nations Committee against Torture on Greece,” April 2012, https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/25/updated-human-rights-watch-submission-united-nations-committee-against-torture; Human Rights Watch, “Dispatches: Greece—No Excuse for Caging Children,” November 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/18/dispatches-greece-no-excuse-caging-children.

[2] On the role EU funding instruments can play in supporting Article 19 of the CRPD on living independently and being included in the community, see European Disability Forum, “Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” March 2015, http://www.edf-feph.org/Page_Generale.asp?DocID=13854&thebloc=30214, pp. 36-38. The EDF recommendation calls for “The involvement of persons with disabilities and their representative organisations in the monitoring of the use of the Funds, by calling on Member States to respect Article 5 of EU Regulation No 1303/2013 stating the obligation to involve civil society in all the phases of the use of the Funds” (p. 37). Member States that currently use EU structural funds to support institutions include Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Exceptions may be made to ensure the necessary funding for institutions used to provide emergency, short-term and temporary accommodation for people, including children, who need to access special protection and assistance.

[3] The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report in 2012 that deals comprehensively with how EU Structural Funds can be used to achieve the goals of Article 19 of the CRPD. See OHCHR, “Getting a Life—Living Independently and Being Included in the Community: A Legal Study of the Current Use and Future Potential of the EU Structural Funds to Contribute to the Achievement of Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” April 2012, http://www.europe.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/Getting_a_Life.pdf. Similarly, Open Society published a report, also in 2012, on this same topic: “The European Union and the Right to Community Living: Structural Funds and the European Union’s Obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” May 2012, http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/europe-community-living-20120507.pdf.  

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Dispatches: Tied to a Bed in Croatia,” March 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/03/25/dispatches-tied-bed-croatia.

[5] Human Rights Watch, “In Croatia, Locked Up and No Way Out,” November 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/04/croatia-locked-and-no-way-out.

[6] Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Watch Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding Croatia,” March 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/03/30/human-rights-watch-submission-united-nations-committee-rights-persons-disabilities-r.

[7] Chloe Hadjimatheou, “The disabled children locked up in cages,” November 2014, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30038753; Human Rights Watch, Updated Human Rights Watch Submission to the United Nations Committee against Torture on Greece, April 2012, https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/25/updated-human-rights-watch-submission-united-nations-committee-against-torture; Human Rights Watch, Open Letter to Mr. Loverdos, Greek Minister of Health: Regarding the Living and Care Conditions at the Children’s Center of Lechaina, June 2011, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/14/open-letter-mr-loverdos-greek-minister-health.

[8] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 44 of the Convention, Concluding observations: Greece, August 2012, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/co/CRC_C_GRC_CO_2-3.pdf.

[9] The Greek Ombudsman, “Summary of Findings: Functioning Conditions of the Social Care Center for Children with Disabilities, “Children’s Care Center of Lechaina””, March 2011, http://www.synigoros.gr/resources/docs/kepeplechaina2011.pdf; Human Rights Watch, “Open Letter to Mr. Loverdos, Greek Minister of Health: Regarding the Living and Care Conditions at the Children’s Center of Lechaina,” June 2011, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/14/open-letter-mr-loverdos-greek-minister-health.

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Europe: Protect the Right to Vote for People with Disabilities,” September 2011, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/28/europe-protect-right-vote-people-disabilities.

[11] European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), “Revised interpretive declaration to the code of good practice in electoral matters on the participation of people with disabilities in elections,” December 2011, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?ref=cdl-ad(2011)045.

[12] Human Rights Watch, “Dispatches: Democracy Disabled in Hungary,” March 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/03/27/dispatches-democracy-disabled-hungary.

[13] Ibid.

[14] European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), “Indicators on the Right to Political Participation of People with Disabilities,” 2014, http://fra.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/data-and-maps/comparative-data/political-participation.

[15] Human Rights Watch, “Dispatches: The Hope of an Inclusive Europe,” May 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/28/dispatches-hope-inclusive-europe.