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Special Fund for the Disabled: new Board member a champion of outstanding UN convention

26-07-2010 Interview

The latest Board member of the ICRC’s Special Fund for the Disabled is no stranger to disability. Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo has an extraordinary background, including playing a key role in the development of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She explains why the convention is remarkable in so many ways, and talks about the specific and significant role the Special Fund has to play.

©ICRC/M. Kokic 
  Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo    

 Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo led the delegation for national human rights institutions and was thus their representative in the negotiations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which came into force in May 2008. The convention had many firsts, including being the first convention in which human rights institutions and persons with disabilities had a voice. This led to the convention having a very strong national monitoring mechanism, also a first.  


 How did you come to be involved with the Special Fund?  


 I've been working in the area of disability and development for the last 15 years, and I assume that it is for this reason that I was approached by Special Fund Board members to join the Board.  


 Initially started as a researcher working on children's rights with a particular focus on marginalized children which included children with disabilities. I then went on to policy issues and was one of the principle authors of the South African integrated national disability strategy which looked at how to include disability in policy development in the country. From there, I joined UNICEF, working on child protection issues, but within that focusing extensively on children with disabilities. I was then appointed to the South African Human Rights Commission as a Commissioner focusing on social and economic rights, but also with regard to marginalized groups, which includes people with disabilities.  


 You had a central role in the development of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What are some of the distinguishing aspects of this convention?  


 I think the convention has been a phenomenal achievement because of the unprecedented process of inclusion in its development. I think it is important to highlight that during the negotiations in New York. for the first time ever in the history of the UN, the beneficiaries of a convention were part of the negotiations. In this case, people with all kinds of disabilities participated in the negotiations. This is an important point because I think the participation of persons with disabilities in the negotiations can actually be seen in the texture and complexity of the convention. The CRPD is very nuanced, it's a human rights convention that really speaks to the issues that pertain to people with disabilities.  


 Another very important aspect of the convention is that it was pushed by member states from the South. For example, Mexico was very much at the fore in terms of leading the push for the CRPD. South Africa was very involved as well. So there was a very strong initiative from countries from the South for the advancement of a convention, which is not what I think a lot of people expected. People typically say that the development of such a convention is an expensive endeavour. ‘We can't afford to include all persons with disabilities.’ But in this case you had governments from low income settings saying we need this, we recognize that this group of people have rights.  


 The third aspect that stands out is that this convention, again unlike any other, brings both the human rights and the development component together. It clearly articulates what the rights of persons with disabilities are, but it also recognizes that there needs to be a development aspect to support the implementation of these rights. So there's an article in the convention, article 32 on international cooperation, which speaks to the issue of how we can begin to support the actual inclusion of persons with disabilities at a programmatic level and how we can foster south to south learning.  


 Another very distinguishing feature of the convention is that it has specific requirements for national monitoring mechanisms. Once again, this is a first. Article 33 concerns the national monitoring mechanism, which I think is important in that it allows for monitoring at country level, which is where violations take place. That's where change takes place. The convention speaks to where people with disabilities live.  


 How does the CRPD affect the lives of people with disabilities around the world?  


 Can we see a difference? It's only been two years. But within those two years, I've seen the convention act as a catalyst for law reform and certainly for galvanizing organizations of persons with disabilities.  


 I think the recognition that that 650 million disabled people have rights is huge. So I do see it as a catalyst. We've already seen legal reform in China based on the convention and this is happening in many other countries. We increasingly see a lot of countries looking at how they can align their national legislation with the convention framework.  


 Indeed, there has been a lot of progress, but a lot more has to happen. There needs to be a concerted effort to raise awareness and educate duty-bearers, i.e. governments about what their obligations are in relation to the CRPD. Because at the end of the day, it is the countries, the State Parties that ratify the convention – and 88 governments have now ratified this convention -- that have the responsibility to fulfil the obligations of the treaty.  


 Therein lies a huge task -- how we can begin to develop capacity within governments about what their responsibilities are with regard to the obligations of the convention.  


 What should the Special Fund focus on in your view?  


 I preface this by saying that I've just joined the board. My view is that the Special Fund has a niche, a niche that hasn't been exploited by any other party, entity or agency. For me that is the strength of the Special Fund. If you look at the countries it works in, it is the only agency that provides those kinds of services in that country.  


 I think if we take a rights-base approach to development or to inclusion we need to look at who are the most marginalized and neglected in society, and see that category as our priority and I think that is exactly what the Special Fund has been doing. It's been able to focus on a category of people that are typically not included in general policy and programmatic advancements at country level. I wouldn't want the fund to change its mandate.  


 The Special Fund has an important niche, but it is also important that it recognize that there are other players, and thus other aspects of disability that need to be taken into account. For example, it is important to work with people in the education sector, with the transportation sector, with people who are involved in job placement. So that it's not just about a prosthesis but ensuring that people can then be employed or go back to school. We need to look at development as a seamless process.  


 On a more personal level, how important is mobility, or restoration of mobility?  


 For me mobility is, apart from breathing, the most important thing. It is absolutely essential. If we're serious about inclusion, we have to ensure mobility. It's something that people who don't have mobility challenges take for granted. It's essential because you can be really smart, very enthusiastic, you can be totally motivated, but if you can't move from point A to point B, you’re no further ahead despite your qualities. This is particularly true in low-income settings. In countries where you just can't stay at home and work on the internet, your mobility becomes an essential aspect of your human engagement. Mobility allows you to participate, to socialize and be included in society.  


 Fortunately the convention speaks to the issues surrounding mobility and accessibility.  


 There are different types of mobility. I require mobility in the form of a wheelchair. But there are people who have different needs in relation to mobility. For me that's an absolutely essential aspect of my day to day life.  


 That said, we also need to look at the broader issue of accessibility, to ensure accessible transportation and a built environment that is more accessible, if we are to advance the inclusion of persons with disabilities.   


 The interesting thing about the convention is that it introduces accessibility both as a principle but also as a right, and then specifically speaks to the issue of mobility.  

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