On the 4th of April, I had the opportunity and distinct honour to address the 31st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of its Annual Interactive Debate on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The focus of this year’s debate were the rights of persons with disabilities in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies. People with disabilities continue to lack access to humanitarian services ostensibly in place to serve all people affected by the crises at hand
People with disabilities continue to lack access to humanitarian services ostensibly in place to serve all people affected by the crises at hand
I used this opportunity to participate in this annual debate to raise three issues of urgent concern to me and my colleagues at Handicap International.
First, the greater marginalisation of people with disabilities in crises: radical changes in environment, whether due to conflict or natural disasters, drastically limit access to services and exacerbate their vulnerability.
Second, people with disabilities impacted by humanitarian crises continue to be largely invisible even after a humanitarian response is well under way.
And third, the fact that in spite of documented vulnerability produced by the emergency, and perhaps due to their invisibility, people with disabilities continue to lack access to humanitarian services ostensibly in place to serve all people affected by the crises at hand.
The urgent need for all governments and donors to commit to developing more accessible and inclusive responses to humanitarian crisis persists as a crisis in itself. I also highlighted how the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in May can provide a critical opportunity to advance such commitments.
Starting with my first point about greater marginalization in contexts of crisis: How does marginalization make people with disabilities more vulnerable in contexts of emergencies and humanitarian? The case of Bayan, a 12 year old Syrian girl living with spina bifida, a congenital condition that leads to impaired mobility is a clear example. Bayan wore orthotics and used a walking frame to move around. When she and her family fled, she was forced to leave everything behind apart from her wheelchair. She now struggles to leave her apartment, which does not have a lift; she is no longer going to school.
In addition to the greater marginalization of people with disabilities, humanitarian crises also result in new injuries often leading to further impairments. In situations of crises, we at Handicap International are also witnessing persons with disabilities being targets of violence. For example in Lebanon, our outreach team shared a case where men entered the tent of a man with spinal cord injuries with the intent of raping the man’s wife in front of him while taunting his lack of ability to stop them.
To-date there is no mechanism by which disability-based violence can be tracked and reported
Yet, based on what we hear from people with disabilities in conflict-affected communities, we are confident that if such a mechanism was established, more cases of violence will come to light. Worldwide collection and reporting of cases would help to illuminate the scope of the problem, enhance efforts to ensure protection for survivors, and end impunity for the perpetrators.
The urgent need to bring these human rights abuses out of the shadows brings me to my second point: the invisibility of people with disabilities. When so-called “specific needs” are tracked during UNHCR’s registration process, disability and chronic diseases are underreported. Only the most severe cases are recorded. Improving this process is key for service providers to know the scope and nature of disability-related needs in the early days of a crisis. Handicap International continues to collaborate with UNHCR colleagues, with the specific goal of improving the disability-related questions asked during refugee registration. Additionally, the inclusion of people with disabilities and their representative organisations in the preparation, planning and response to crises by governmental and non-governmental humanitarian actors must also be improved.
In a recent survey conducted by Handicap International in preparation for the World Humanitarian Summit, 46% of humanitarian actors report a continuing failure to consult people with disabilities and their representative organisations during crises responses. We hope that this 31st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council political commitments by Member States that recognise the meaningful contributions of people with disabilities and ensure their full and effective participation across all sectors of humanitarian response.
The third and final concern is that 10 years after the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and in spite of growing evidence of the enhanced vulnerability of people with disabilities in humanitarian crises, their marginalisation persists. 3 out of every 4 people with disabilities responding to the aforementioned survey reported inadequate access to available humanitarian assistance. Activities that ensure accessibility are not prioritised be they ones to ensure access to information; improve physical access to facilities; guarantee full coverage of basic needs; or provide assistive devices which improve participation of individuals in their communities.
Without global guidelines supporting inclusive practices for persons with disabilities, steps to enhance access to services will remain Ad Hoc, relying solely on the good intentions of isolated service providers. This goodwill is to be applauded, but the changes will not be sustainable until the principles of accessibility and inclusion enshrined in the convention are systematically required by Member States and UN agencies, including disability-markers for donors.
There are some promising signs of change. It was encouraging to see so many Member States attending the session affirming the rights enshrined in Article 11 of the CRPD. The adoption and implementation of global guidelines by these Member States is indeed crucial for the systematization of disability-related inclusion. The World Humanitarian Summit in May will offer a unique opportunity for stakeholders to work towards defining these standards that would guide and mandate a more inclusive humanitarian response.
Over the past 10 years we have noticed a welcome increase in awareness of disability-related rights and of the need to enhance access to humanitarian services. For example, through the work of Handicap International and our partners, we have seen Dabaab Camp in Kenya (the world’s largest refugee camp) become a more accessible place for people with disabilities through inclusive education projects, alternative food collection mechanisms, inclusive transportation initiatives and more.
Yet and all too often we still see cases such as that of Aisha, a 93-year old Syrian refugee who, in 2014, was put on a bus to Jordan by her relatives to save her from the bombing. Two years later she continues to live alone, with no reliable assistance except for the goodwill of strangers in her camp block. When caravans were first distributed in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, she was excluded in spite of her severely limited mobility, chronic conditions, and lack of caregiving. In Syria she was in a familiar environment surrounded by her neighbours and 10 children. As a refugee, she arrived without assistive devices, without moral support, without the community she needs around her to cook, clean or even access water.
When the lives of people like Aisha are torn apart by conflict, disaster and displacement, we must make sure that the humanitarian response is able to identify their needs, and that we do not exacerbate their struggles by our inability to provide equal access to support and protection regardless of physical ability, age, gender or the multitude of other factors which continue to stand in the way of a truly inclusive response.
This text is drawn from Myroslava Tataryn’s speech at the Human Rights Council on behalf of Handicap International, where she has been working as Regional Inclusion Advisor in response to the Syrian Crisis. It is also possible to watch the proceedings of this debate online. The recording captures the simultaneous translation into International Sign Language.