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A Call to Protect People with Disabilities in Armed Conflict

Disability Rights Advocate Nujeen Mustafa Urges Governments to Act

Nujeen Mustafa speaks at the United Nations Security Council briefing on April 24, 2019.  

“I have become disappointed. From what I see, nothing has practically changed for people with disabilities in Syria and other places where there is war or a humanitarian crisis.”

These were the words of Nujeen Mustafa, a disability and refugee rights defender, last week during the 13th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The event, organized by the permanent missions of Poland, Germany, and Mexico, the International Disability Alliance, and Human Rights Watch, aimed to overcome challenges around implementing Resolution 2475.

The resolution, which the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted in June 2019, is the first dedicated entirely to the impact of armed conflict on people with disabilities. It passed after an April 2019 briefing by Mustafa, the first person with a disability to brief the Security Council.

At 16, Mustafa fled the war in Syria and endured a harrowing escape to safety in Germany. She did all of this in her wheelchair; her older sister pushing her every step of the way. In her 2019 address to the Security Council, Mustafa described what it was like when the bombs hit, her mother hiding her and knowing their only escape was carrying her down five flights of stairs. “Every day, I feared I could be the reason my family was one or two seconds too late.”

Mustafa’s experience is like that of many people with disabilities in armed conflicts. Human Rights Watch has documented the situation in the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gaza, South Sudan, and  Syria, where people with disabilities risk being abandoned for days or weeks following attacks. Those who reach safety often face difficulties accessing food, sanitation, and medical assistance.

Resolution 2475 is a groundbreaking document. It calls for the protection of people with disabilities, including them in decisions regarding humanitarian action and peacebuilding efforts, and increasing data collection to better understand their experiences.

The implementation of the resolution, however, has been slow. Lack of action on the ground, including by the UN, has continued to leave people with disabilities disproportionally impacted and largely invisible.

Mustafa’s message last week to the Security Council and UN agencies was clear: collect data and provide targeted funding to protect and ensure people with disabilities are heard. “Without it, sentiments and declarations, as good as they may sound, are useless, and are nothing but empty promises.”

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