Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: A Compelling Urgency


By Dr. Sakui W. G. Malakpa

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 23, 2007


It is estimated that between 600-650 million people live with disabilities worldwide (NCD, 2002; ISAAC, 2007). Eighty percent of these people live in the developing world (NCD, 2002). “More compelling, however, than the sheer magnitude of this population, is the appalling lack of respect for even the most basic human rights of people with disabilities in both the developed and the developing world” (p.1). This view is reinforced by Leandro Despouy, the first UN Special Rapporteur on Disability who observed in 1991 that people with disabilities “frequently live in deplorable conditions, owing to the presence of physical and social barriers which prevent their integration and full participation in the community. As a result, millions of children and adults throughout the world are segregated and deprived of virtually all their rights and lead a wretched, marginal life” (p.1). This marginalization includes, among many others, limited access to education, housing, basic social services, and employment as well as limited social and political participation. Moreover, “as is true with all socially disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged groups, people with disabilities generally have little or no influence in the public policy process or the decisions that affect their daily struggle for survival” (NCD, 2002, p.1).

Cognizant of the deplorable social, cultural, political, economic and overall human rights condition of people with disabilities (PWDs) throughout the world, the United Nations sought to adopt a human rights treaty on the rights of PWDs. After four years of negotiations, the CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES (hereafter, The Convention), was adopted on December 13, 2006 during the sixty-first session of the General Assembly by resolution A/RES/61/106. “In accordance with its article 42, the Convention and its Optional Protocol opened for signature by all States and by regional integration organizations at United Nations Headquarters in New York on 30 March 2007. The opening began with a solemn ceremony in the United Nations General Assembly hall” (Convention on the rights …, 2007, p.1). On the opening date, eighty-one (81) nations signed The Convention, including Liberia. This was the largest number of countries that signed a human rights convention on the opening date. Since March 30, 2007, this number has risen to ninety-nine, including twenty-eight African countries (United Nations, 2007). However, to come into full force, The Convention must be ratified by twenty (20) nations.

This Convention is the first human rights treaty being negotiated the 21st century by the United Nations. It is to be a binding treaty and, if ratified, will become the latest of eight core human rights instruments. It addresses issues for disabled people that have been seriously neglected internationally (New Zealand’s …, 2007, p.1) (Sic).

The Convention is the eighth international human rights Treaty in history and the first human rights text adopted by the United nations in the past 16 years (ISAAC, 2007). The Convention does not create new rights; rather, it prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of life. The aim of The Convention is to “guarantee an effective protection of disabled people and ensure that they can enjoy the full range of human rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural” (ISAAC, 2007, p.1) (Sic).

The Convention begins with a 25-point preamble which, among others, recalls “the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations which recognize the inherent dignity and worth and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (UN Program, 2007, p.1). It acknowledges previous UN human rights declarations and covenants. It emphasizes indivisible human rights, independence, full societal participation, and inclusion of persons with disabilities in policy making (especially policies that affect them). The preamble further recognizes that disability is an evolving concept and that people with disabilities, diverse in number and need, should not be targets of any form of discrimination. This point is emphasized as the preamble underscores that people with disabilities “continue to face barriers in their participation as equal members of society and violations of their human rights in all parts of the world” (p.2). The preamble stresses the promotion of human rights and full participation of persons with disabilities as this “will result in their enhanced sense of belonging and in significant advances in the human, social and economic development of society and the eradication of poverty” (p.2). Likewise, the preamble recognizes the existence of people with disabilities subjected to multiple forms of discrimination. Also recognized are the rights of the child and consequently, children with disabilities should not be deprived of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Recognized further is “the fact that the majority of persons with disabilities live in conditions of poverty” and this poses a “critical need to address the negative impact of poverty on persons with disabilities” (p.2). The preamble therefore accentuates “the importance of accessibility to the physical, social, economic and cultural environment, to health and education and to information and communication, in enabling persons with disabilities to fully enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms” (p.3).

Finally, the preamble expresses conviction that a “convention to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities will make a significant contribution to redressing the profound social disadvantage of persons with disabilities and promote their participation in the civil, political, economic, social and cultural spheres with equal opportunities, in both developing and developed countries” (p.3). Based on this conviction, the convention outlines 50 articles. Articles 1-33 point out the key issues of concern; these range from the purpose of the Convention to equal rights and opportunities, and to. education, and from employment to full and non-discriminatory social, cultural, and political participation. Articles 34-50 deal with logistical issues: the establishment of a monitoring committee, the role of the committee, ratification and subsequent obligations, reporting procedures, and amendments (UN Program, 2007).

The convention has been applauded by many nations and organizations around the world. Unfortunately, since its adoption on march 30, 2007, only one country (Jamaica) has ratified it (United Nations …, 2007). Nineteen other nations are needed to bring this historic and long over due treaty into effect.

In many ways, Liberia-an opening-day signatory of The Convention-has played leading roles on the world scene and with international organizations: the League of Nations, the United Nations, the OAU, now AU, ECOWAS, the Mano River Union, etc.. Once more, as Africa’s first republic and a prominent actor in the adoption and ratification of other human right conventions and treaties, Liberia is challenged to ratify this Convention. Ratification is not to be a mere political gesture that becomes an end in itself. Quite the contrary, ratification ought to lead to implementation thereby symbolizing another bold move by Liberia that she indeed intends to, and will definitely, extend human rights to all her citizens, irrespective of gender, ability or disability, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and the like. Can and will Liberia make this audacious but necessary move?

Liberia is made up of its dynamic children and patriotic citizens. It therefore takes all Liberians who truly believe in the universality of human rights to rise up and urge the Liberian government to ratify this Convention. This includes Liberians in the Executive and the Legislature, in the Judiciary and in business, in academia and on the farm, in the market place and everywhere; no one person or group can do it.

It also behooves Liberia and her sister nation, Sierra Leone, to ratify this Convention. This is because these sisterly nations have been devastated by brutal civil wars that left a large number of their citizens with various types and degrees of disabling conditions. It is important not only to ensure the human rights of these people but also to extend to them, opportunities that will make them independent, productive, and consequently contributive to socio-economic development. Otherwise, they will remain dependent on the rest of society, thereby reinforcing myths and misconceptions about disabilities and fostering a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worse still, this exacerbates poverty and impedes the nation’s socio-economic development.

It need be emphasized that whether in Liberia, Sierra Leone or anywhere else, ratifying The Convention is not to be a show of sympathy for that defeats the purpose, letter, and spirit of The Convention. Rather, it must be a matter of human rights. Likewise, ratifying The Convention is not to be seen only as a matter of supporting people who currently have disabilities; it must be seen also as supporting those who will become disabled later and only god knows them. Thus, we implore every human rights loving person in Liberia, Sierra Leone and indeed anywhere else to urge their governments to ratify this Convention. As there are positive signs to this end in various countries, including the United States (NCD, 2002) and New Zealand (New Zealand’s …, 2007), please strongly support ratification of The convention in the name of the huge number of people with disabilities currently deprived of basic human and social rights as well as in the name of those who will become disabled later. Remember what has been said before, “an able-body person is one who is not disabled YET.” Similarly, Robert Frost’s warning against stonewalling and building fences is poignant:

Before I build a wall,
I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense
(Frost, 1917).

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved July 11, 2007 from

Frost, R. (1917). Mending Wall. In: North of Boston, 2nd Ed. New York: Henry Holt.

ISAAC (2007). UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled. Retrieved June 13, 2007 from http://www.isaac-online.org/ie/articles/110/1/UN-Convention-on-the-Rights-of-the-Disabled

NCD (National Council on Disability) (2002). A White Paper--Understanding the role of an international convention on the human rights of people with disabilities: An analysis of the legal, social, and practical implications for policy makers and disability and human rights advocates in the United States. Retrieved June 12, 2007 from

New Zealand’s active contribution to the development of a United Nations convention on the rights of disabled people. Retrieved June 12, 2007 from

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Social Policy and Development (2007). UN Enable - Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - Signatories. Retrieved July 11, 2007 from

UN Program on Disability (2007). UN Enable - Text of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved June 13, 2007 from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/rights/convtexte.htm

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