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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL DISCUSSES EMPOWERING CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES, INCLUDING THROUGH INCLUSIVE EDUCATION

4 March 2019

The Human Rights Council this morning held the first part of its annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child, with a panel discussion focusing on empowering children with disabilities for the enjoyment of their human rights, including through inclusive education.

In his opening statement, Coly Seck, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that in its resolution 7/9 on the rights of the children, the Human Rights Council had decided to dedicate at least one full day a year to the rights of children.  As confirmed by resolution 37/20, the debate would be focusing on how children with disabilities could be empowered, including through their right to inclusive education.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that as the world celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it had to be acknowledged that millions of children worldwide continued to have their rights denied each and every day.  The world’s estimated 93 million children with disabilities were more likely to have their rights violated from the moment they were born.  Millions of them were left out of education because no one was adequately measuring their numbers or needs.  The only way to deliver Sustainable Development Goal 4 on ensuring inclusive education for all by 2030 was to ensure that children with disabilities were a central focus of national plans and actions.

Ricardo Gonzalez Arenas, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office at Geneva and panel moderator, emphasized that children with disabilities had the right to be protected from abuse and violence, to have a decent standard of living, and the right to be heard on issues and decisions that affected them.  However, they continued to be among those with the lowest probability of accessing education, and too often they were not included in national policies.

Jorge Cardona, former member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and panellist, stressed that it was only by recognizing children with disabilities as rights holders that they could be empowered.  Empowerment was a process through which children with disabilities could strengthen their capacities and confidence, and it should allow them to participate in the promotion and protection of their rights, on an equal footing with other children.

Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities and panellist, reminded that both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities demanded a human rights approach in dealing with disability.  Disability was a social construction which was evolving; it was thus the obligation of States to remove barriers, ensuring that children with disabilities had the same rights as other children.

Dumitriţa Cropivnitchi, Children’s Rights Advocate at Lumos Foundation and panellist, noted that inclusion meant being part of a group, even when children were different.  Inclusive education for children with disabilities had a positive influence: they were not afraid to interact with others, they were more independent, and they smiled more.  Yet thousands of children with disabilities remained without the necessary support services, separated from their families and sometimes were not even registered.

In a video produced by the United Nations Children’s Fund, Emmanuel aged 17 asked the panellists how they tried to help children with disabilities who faced discrimination in their countries, and about steps to ensure that a person with disabilities received a fair chance.  Eldar aged 14 asked the panellists about what could be done to create easier access to the playground for people like him who used a wheelchair.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that the marginalization of children with disabilities was compounded by the dominant perception of disability as a disadvantage, stressing that denying children with disabilities the right to education reinforced commonly held attitudes and assumption of their diminished capacity.  Inclusive education empowered all children and equipped them with competences, knowledge and skills to be independent and to make decisions about their lives.  It allowed them to develop their personalities, talents and abilities, and provided them with means to fully participate in the society.  Some speakers called on schools to be beacons for inclusion by addressing the educational needs of all children in the same setting.  They expressed concern about the use of restrictive practices, including unregulated use of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities in schools.  Other speakers warned that children with disabilities, especially girls and adolescents, had been forced to undergo treatments, including forced sterilization, forced contraception and forced abortion.  That was commonly based on misconceptions and discriminatory attitudes about the ability of women with disabilities to take care of children.

Speaking were Iceland on behalf of Nordic Baltic States, Barbados on behalf of the Caribbean Community, Thailand on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Angola on behalf of the African Group, Bahrain on behalf of the Arab Group, European Union, Seychelles, France, Austria, Botswana, Lesotho, Romania, Myanmar, Iraq, Australia, Japan, Bulgaria, Israel, Montenegro, Pakistan, Uruguay, United Kingdom, El Salvador, and Brazil on behalf of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries.

Also taking the floor were the following national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations Australian Human Rights Commission, Center for Reproductive Rights, Inc., International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education (OIDEL), National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia (Komnas HAM), International Volunteerism Organization for Women, Education and Development – VIDES, and Plan International (in a joint statement with several NGOs1).

The Council will next hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and with the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing.  It will hold the second part of its annual day-long meeting on the rights of the child at 4 p.m., with a panel discussion on including children with disabilities in education settings: good practices and accountability.

Documentation

The Council has before it the Empowering children with disabilities for the enjoyment of their human rights, including through inclusive education - Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/40/27). 

Opening Statement

COLY SECK, President of the Human Rights Council, said that in its resolution 7/9 on the rights of the child, the Council had decided to dedicate at least one full day a year to the rights of children.  As confirmed by resolution 37/20, the debate this morning would be focusing on how children with disabilities could be empowered, including their right to inclusive education.

Keynote Statement

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that great strides had been made since the Convention on the Rights of the Child had been adopted in 1989.  It was the most widely ratified of all human rights treaties.  But even as the international community celebrated the Convention’s thirtieth anniversary, they had to acknowledge that millions of children around the world continued to have their rights denied each and every day, and a disproportionate number of them were children with disabilities.  The world’s estimated 93 million children with disabilities were more likely to have their rights violated from the moment they were born.  Their birth might not be registered, they could be placed in institutions, they could be at risk of violence or abuse, and their voices might not be heard.  As a paediatrician, Ms. Bachelet recalled that earlier when she was working as a doctor, people were denying such conditions of their children.  There was only one response to such situations: redoubling the commitment to empower all children, including those with disabilities.  At the heart of empowerment was inclusive education through strengthening their voices to participate in their communities, lifting themselves out of poverty and safeguarding them from exploitation.  As emphasized by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, this entailed a transformation in culture and practice to accommodate diversity and identities of all students.  Some barriers were of a practical nature, when schools were not adequately equipped.  Adapting systems, teaching methods and facilities ensured that students could be fully included.  Stigma and discrimination were another type of barrier.  Data, or rather the lack of it, was another significant roadblock.  Millions of children with disabilities were left out of education because no one was adequately measuring their numbers or needs.

In the Office of the High Commissioner’s recent report to the Council, concrete recommendations were outlined on how children with disabilities could be empowered to decide for themselves and be placed on an equal footing with all children.  That required upholding their rights in national laws, policies and strategies at all levels and ending harmful stereotypes.  The only way to deliver Sustainable Development Goal 4 on ensuring inclusive education for all by 2030 was to ensure that children with disabilities were a central focus on national plans and actions.  Children with disabilities were among the most likely to be left behind and the least likely to be heard.  Everyone had to foster an enabling environment and provide appropriate support so these children could speak for themselves.

Statements by the Moderator and the Panellists

RICARDO GONZALEZ ARENAS, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Panel Moderator, reminded the Council that this year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an instrument which had been practically universally ratified.  However, for many children, particularly those with disabilities, enjoying their rights, including their access to quality education, was still not a universal reality.  The rights established by the Convention should be applied equally to all children, including those with disabilities.  Children with a disability had the right to be protected from abuse and violence, to have a decent standard of living, and to have the right to be heard on issues and decisions that affected them.  However, Mr. Arenas said that children with disabilities continued to be among those with the lowest probability of accessing education, and to have their rights denied throughout their lives.  Too often, these children were not included in national policies.  Making inclusive education a reality for children with disabilities was one of the best ways for them to achieve their rights by being empowered through knowledge, and could help them reclaim their rights throughout their lives.  The debate held today would grant the Council the opportunity to focus on the necessary actions and approaches to overcome the existing challenges, and make the rights for children with disabilities a reality.

JORGE CARDONA, Former Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, stressed that children with disabilities were foremost children.  He reminded that the Committee on the Rights of the Child had changed the paradigm: children had ceased to be considered objects of protection and had become rights holders.  All the rights contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child must be recognized as rights pertaining to children, based on the four core principles: non-discrimination, best interest of the child, participation, and the right to life, survival and development.  Mr.  Cardona underlined that it was absolutely vital for children with disabilities to establish self-perception at an early stage of their lives in order to build self-esteem and interact with their environment.  The second idea was that children with disabilities were even more vulnerable than other children.  There were a number of factors leading to their exclusion due to multiple and cross-cutting barriers that they faced.  Children with disabilities were doubly vulnerable.  Accordingly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be read in conjunction with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The third idea was that it was only by recognizing children with disabilities as rights holders that they could be empowered.  Empowerment was merely a process through which children with disabilities could strengthen their capacities and confidence, and it should allow them to participate in the promotion and protection of their rights, on an equal footing with other children.  It started with their right to be heard and with their active participation in the achievement of their rights. 

CATALINA DEVANDAS, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, welcomed the Council’s decision to devote today’s debate to the rights of children with disabilities.  She was born with spinal bifida, and had faced difficulties as a result during her childhood.  Childhood was a decisive stage in life.  Children with disabilities faced stigma in childhood, which reduced their opportunities in life.  One in three children with disabilities did not attend school, and they were more likely to suffer exclusion.  A child with an intellectual impairment was four to six times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than a child without such a disability.  These were examples of discrimination that resulted from the societal barriers that they faced.

She outlined the two widely ratified Conventions that addressed these issues, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both of which demanded a human rights approach in dealing with disability.  Disability was a social construction which was evolving, therefore it was the obligation of States to remove barriers, ensuring that children with disabilities had the same rights as all other children.  The themes of inclusion and participation were important.  In terms of inclusion, she stated that children with disabilities should have access to the same rights as others.  However, services for children with disabilities continued to be segregated even today.  Countries should remove such segregation to ensure that these children were included in the community.  States must create an enabling environment to ensure that children with disabilities were included and allowed to participate in society.  These children should be given age sensitive assistance.  Children with disabilities must be allowed to dream of a full and positive life. The opportunities for children with disabilities must not be restricted by the errors of the past.     

DUMITRIŢA CROPIVNITCHI, Children’s Rights Advocate Lumos, said she was a member of the Lumos Youth Advisory Board in the Republic of Moldova, and a volunteer in an inclusive school close to her village.  She was delegated by her peers to speak at this panel discussion, on behalf of other members of the youth advisory board and other children, with and without disabilities.  The focus of her presentation would be on how the rights of children with disabilities were protected in practice.  During childhood, children were dependent on adults, but children with disabilities could remain dependent for their whole lives.  Ms. Cropivnitchi said neither she nor her parent had the right to choose, so at the age of five, because of her disability, she was sent to an institution.  It was a huge, cold building, smelling of porridge, filled with people with unknown faces, where rooms were shared with dozens of children.  Parents were replaced with an educator who looked after another 25 children.  It was not difficult to understand how children’s rights could not be respected in such an institution.  This was happening to millions of children around the world.  As part of the Republic of Moldova’s reform of residential institutions, inclusive schools had been developed, including one in a village that Ms. Cropivnitchi had started to attend.  Inclusion meant being part of a group, even if you were different.  How many children with disabilities ended up living in institutions, because of the lack of inclusive education, and the lack of support to families?  Ms. Cropivnitchi said that inclusive education for children with disabilities had a positive influence, both on children and on society as a whole.  They were not afraid to interact with others, they were more independent, and they smiled more.  Yet thousands of children with disabilities remained without the necessary support services, were separated from their families, and sometimes were not even registered.

Interactive Dialogue

EMMANUEL, 17, in a video statement, told the Human Rights Council that he had received services on how he could be more independent and had acquired certain skills that could benefit him in the long run, despite some challenges he faced.  Emmanuel asked the Council: in their countries, if there was any discrimination that children with disabilities faced, how did they try to help those children?  What steps were they taking to ensure that a person with a disability received a fair chance?

ELDAR, 14, in a video statement, said that his father taught him to play chess, and he loved it very much.  He had wanted to teach his peers how to play chess in the playground outside his house, but because there were not ramps, he could not get his wheelchair over the curb and he could not access the playground.  Eldar asked the Council:  what can be done to create easier access to the playground for people like him that used a wheelchair?

Iceland, speaking on behalf of Nordic Baltic States, stressed that the empowerment of children with disabilities depended on the realization of their rights, through active participation and inclusive education.  It was important for civil society to be involved in that work.  Barbados, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community, voiced commitment to the realization of the fundamental right of all children to education, without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity.  To that end, the Community had developed the first Regional Framework for Action for Children.  Thailand, speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said that the Association had further enhanced regional cooperation to empower children with disabilities at the national level, to eliminate discrimination against them, to remove barriers, and to ensure accessibility.  The Association had also convened the annual dialogue on the mainstreaming of the rights of persons with disabilities in society. 

Angola, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted that the marginalization of children with disabilities was compounded by the dominant perception of disability as a disadvantage, stressing that denying children with disabilities the right to education reinforced commonly held attitudes and assumption of their diminished capacity.  Bahrain, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, underlined the importance of ensuring the right to education to children with disabilities in order to promote their abilities, creativity and innovation.  In order to provide inclusive education, developing and least developed countries needed to receive technical assistance.  European Union said that inclusive education empowered all children and equipped them with competences, knowledge and skills to be independent and to make decisions about their lives.  It allowed them to develop their personalities, talents and abilities, and provided them with the means to fully participate in the society. 
 
Seychelles was determined to ensure that no child was denied their fundamental right to education and that all children were provided with the building blocks to a future that was based on dignity and on a pathway to equal opportunities.  France stated that children with disabilities were too often left behind and called on States to set up educational systems that took disabilities into account.  The goal of these would be to guarantee equal access to opportunities and personal, social and professional development.  Austria stressed that children must be able to meaningfully participate in all aspects that affected their care arrangements, including on where they were cared for, and by whom.  Children with disabilities were 17 times more likely to be placed in institutions than other children, which could impede their inclusion in society.  Botswana outlined its inclusive National Policy on Education which committed to provide 10 years of basic education to every child.  This included the provision of education for children with specific disabilities or difficulties, both physical and mental.   

Lesotho stressed that children with disabilities were confronted with compounded challenges due to their disabilities.  When States fully implemented their responsibilities under conventions they had ratified, children with disabilities would eventually assume full autonomy, independence and inclusion.  Romania shared the view that the prevention of exploitation, abuse, stigma and prejudice had to be at the basis of empowerment of children with disabilities.  As a President of the Council of the European Union, Romania had placed the rights of the child at the centre of its priorities, particularly children with disabilities. 

Australian Human Rights Commission said that inclusive education empowered children with disabilities to claim and realise their human rights, and it called on schools to be beacons for inclusion by addressing the educational needs of all children in the same setting.  The Commission was concerned about the use of restrictive practices, including unregulated use of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities in schools.  Centre for Reproductive Rights, Inc. said that children with disabilities, especially girls and adolescents, had been forced to undergo treatments, including forced sterilization, forced contraception and forced abortion.  This was commonly based on misconceptions and discriminatory attitudes about the ability of women with disabilities to take care of children.  International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education (OIDEL) said that education was vital for the realization of human rights, particularly in fighting discrimination, which was why inclusive education was important.  Children belonging to indigenous communities and minorities, and migrant children were the target of racism and xenophobia, which was why special measures needed to be taken to address this.

Myanmar said that an investment in education was the best investment in the future for children with disabilities.  Myanmar noted that while inclusive education had been embraced by Member States, there needed to be a focus on translating commitment into concrete action.  Iraq regretted the violence and abuse faced by children in general, and children with disabilities in particular.  Iraq noted that its Ministry for Social Affairs strove to ensure that it had effective partners to benefit from their expertise and provide better care for children with disabilities.  Australia said it was committed to empowering children with disabilities, and emphasized that education was a fundamental right which must be realized without discrimination.  Australia also recognized the fundamental need for accessible and affordable assistive technologies and reasonable accommodation to enable equal participation by children with disabilities.

Japan noted that it had been taking various measures for children with disabilities, with the aim of building an inclusive educational system.  In addition to empowering children with disabilities, Japan emphasized that it had been working to promote and protect the rights of children more generally, and promised to take further measures to promote and protect the rights of all children.  Bulgaria noted that the rights of children, of people with disabilities, and access to education were three key aspects of its common work with the United Nations.  Bulgaria highlighted that, over the last few years, it had undertaken systematic steps towards ensuring that all persons with disabilities were given the possibility to fully exercise their rights.  Israel noted that its Special Education Law entitled all persons with disabilities aged between 3 and 21 to receive free special education services to allow their full integration into society.  Moreover, the country’s Equal Rights Law dictated that schools must be made accessible on an individual basis for any child or parent with disability. 

Montenegro stated that education was the most important tool for empowering children with disabilities, and the country had strengthened their educational system to enable this.  In cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund, Montenegro had developed special support services for parents of children with disabilities.  Pakistan outlined that education was a powerful tool for empowering children with disabilities and to protect them from discrimination.  Pakistan’s national policy for persons with disabilities aimed to ensure the full inclusion of children with disabilities.  Uruguay outlined the steps it had taken to adopt protocols to prevent and deal with discrimination against children, particularly by including them in the education system.  A network of national crèches called the Mandela Network had successfully promoted the integration of children with disabilities in schools.  United Kingdom had implemented a number of programmes to ensure that all children with disabilities were included in society and had access to quality education.  Globally, a key challenge to ensuring quality education for children with disabilities were poorly resourced and poorly implemented plans.

El Salvador believed that inclusive education required concerted work from different stakeholders through a more sensitive, flexible and respectful approach.  Inclusive education in El Salvador strove to ensure the right to an open and non-discriminatory education, ensuring that all children were on an equal footing.  Brazil, speaking on behalf of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, said that children worldwide faced abuse, a condition that worsened in armed conflicts and natural disaster situations.  Children were even more exposed to the risk of abuse, and transforming this condition was a gigantic challenge, but States had to make this commitment on the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia (Komnas HAM) said that Indonesia was yet to establish a standard performance guideline pertaining to the child protection system that could be used as a reference by all government and law enforcement stakeholders.  With the support of the Council, countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were encouraged to adopt the standard performance.  International Volunteerism Organization for Women, Education and Development - VIDES said that children with disabilities were completely excluded from the educational system, discriminated against, and segregated away from their peers.  States were called on to prioritize legislation, provide funding for inclusive education, and effectively implement policies that truly empowered children with disabilities through accessible infrastructure.  Plan International, Inc, in a joint statement with several NGOs1, noted that girls with disabilities were less likely to attend schools than boys with disabilities.  They were also denied access to comprehensive sexuality education, which was crucial for the realisation of their reproductive health rights and to enable them to better negotiate relationships and make informed decisions.

Concluding Remarks

JORGE CARDONA, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said that Member States had to listen to children in order to empower them truly, and to recognize them as rights holders and not merely as subjects needing protection.  Mr. Cardona highlighted the video question from the child from Kazakhstan, who wanted to teach his colleagues to play chess but could not because he could not reach the playground because he was in a wheelchair.  Architectural barriers must be removed so that access to school facilities and playgrounds was available to all.  By doing so, this child would be empowered to enjoy his rights and contribute to school life by teaching his peers.  Mr. Cardona said that inclusive education did not mean just putting all children in the same school, but rather changing the educational system to recognize difference as something that enriched all boys and girls.  It was noted that while 196 Member States had ratified the Convention on Rights of the Child, only one State was on the path to having quality inclusive education.  The system had to be changed to ensure diversity was recognized as an enriching feature.

CATALINA DEVANDAS AGUILAR, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, said that children with disabilities had the same expectations and needs as others: love, play, family and friends.  They did not understand the way in which they were looked upon and which did not recognize their potential and rights.  The right to live in a family and in a community was, thus, absolutely essential.  The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had raised the protection standards for persons with disabilities: they needed to live in their family and community.  The segregation of children with disabilities was no longer acceptable.  The United Nations General Assembly therefore had to revise its guidelines on alternative care for children with disabilities.  Classrooms had to reflect the reality of our societies; there should be no exclusion of children with disabilities. 

DUMITRIŢA CROPIVNITCHI, Children’s Rights Advocate at Lumos Foundation, instead of offering answers, asked all present in the room to close their eyes and to imagine that they were not able to see.  There were people who felt like that during their entire lives.  Was it necessary to change anything, or should they leave the situation as it was, she asked them. 

RICARDO GONZALEZ ARENAS, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office at Geneva and panel moderator, thanked Ms. Cropivnitchi for having shared her personal experiences, adding that the protection of the rights of children with disabilities had to rest on equal participation and inclusion.  There was also a strong emphasis on quality and inclusive education where infrastructure, curricula and learning methods were adapted to the needs of children with disabilities. 


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1Joint statement on behalf of: Plan International, Inc; Save the Children International; Center for Reproductive Rights, Inc., The; Defence for Children International and International Planned Parenthood Federation.


For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC/19/15E