The Council of Europe launched Monday its new Disability Strategy for the period 2017- 2023, during a high-level meeting, in Nicosia, with participants expressing hope it will become a catalyst for additional measures to support Europeans with disabilities.
The Strategy was presented during a conference, titled “Human Rights: A reality for all”, in the framework of the Cypriot Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Cyprus’ Minister of Labour Zeta Emilianidou, who hosted the event, CoE Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks and CoE Director of Human Dignity and Equality Marja Ruotanen addressed the opening.
Emilianidou told participants that the Strategy must become a safety net for people with disabilities, as well as for policy makers, in order to make the right decisions.
We hope this new Strategy, launched in Nicosia, will inspire you and provide you with additional knowledge and new ideas, which you will bring back to your own countries, the Minister added.
The aim, she went on, is to promote among the public the principles, necessary to guarantee that disabilities are a feature which is respected and recognised as part of human diversity.
According to Emilianidou, the Republic of Cyprus, as a member state of the UN, the CoE and the EU, treats the rights of people with disabilities as part of the fundamental human rights, safeguarding them in accordance with international treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The CoE Strategy focuses on five priority areas, including equality and non-discrimination, awareness raising, accessibility, equal recognition before the law and freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.
We should be far more ambitious when it comes to protecting the human rights of people with disabilities, said Nils Muižnieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the CoE, and urged states who didn’t already ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to do so.
“The additional support required by persons with disabilities is not optional, it is not a luxury” that can be given in good times and taken away when budgets are tight, Muižnieks noted, adding that this support is necessary to neutralise the barriers to full participation on an equal basis.
While referring to the impact of austerity on human rights, the Commissioner cited the examples of Greece, Spain and Estonia noting that “people with disabilities were very hard hit by the economic crisis” in these countries.
He remarked that obstacles exist even in countries that did not have to undergo austerity, such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Belgium and others.
“I really hope that this Strategy catalyses more work on disability rights in the Council of Europe context” Muižnieks went on, noting that “we haven’t done enough, but there are some hopeful signs”.
Talking about measures to promote equality and non-discrimination, in particular through inclusive education, the Commissioner reminded states of their obligation, deriving from the UN Convention, to include children with disabilities in mainstream education.
We need to remember that the life-long exclusion of people with disabilities starts with segregation in “special” schools or “special” classes. He also referred to the mixed picture prevailing in various member states, from separate education being the norm in the Czech Republic to the inclusion of the majority of children in Spain.
“I hope that the voice of persons with disabilities will be heard loudly and often in the Council of Europe,” said Muižnieks.
Building an inclusive society and making human rights a reality for all is not possible without the involvement of persons with disabilities and their representative organisations, he concluded.
The new Disability Strategy aims to support and complement the member states efforts to build a barrier-free Europe, where persons with disabilities can enjoy their fundamental rights, Marja Ruotanen, the CoE Director of Human Dignity and Equality said.
She noted that, unlike the UN Convention, the new CoE Disability Strategy does not create legal obligations for member states. Member states’ governments are the ones to drive the implementation of the Strategy, in close cooperation with relevant stakeholders, the CoE official said.
Ruotanen noted finally that the Ad hoc Committee of Experts on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will prepare biennial reports for the attention of the Committee of Ministers, to measure progress.
During a round table discussion that followed, with the participation of member states’ officials, Andreas Assiotis, the Permanent Secretary of Cyprus’ Ministry of Labour, said that Cyprus has a wide legal framework in its disposal to regulate the rights of people with disability. This, however, does not mean that there is no room for improvement, he added.
Assiotis said that accessibility in Cyprus’ airports is quite satisfactory, while there is quick progress in other areas as well, such as web accessibility. He added that some public buildings are old and have issues with adequate parking space or lifts for the disabled.
Demetrios Karellas, the Secretary General of Greece’s Ministry of Labour, referred to the difficult situation in Greece’s public finances. In statements at the margins of the conference Karellas also said that assistance towards refugees with some form of disability, currently stranded in Greece, is provided with the help of UNHCR and NGOs.