I thank the sub-committee for its invitation to attend this meeting and for the opportunity to inform it of the negotiations which are taking place in relation to the proposals for a UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. I also apologise that I was unable to attend the previous meeting on 27 May 2003.
At the outset, I want to clarify a number of matters In relation to these negotiations. As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I and my Department have responsibility for disability equality policy. I continue the work of previous Governments in making the promotion of equality for all and the elimination of discrimination a priority. My Department has taken an active role in promoting equality and protecting against discrimination as well supporting positive action measures in relation to people with disabilities. In fact, lreland now has some of the most comprehensive equality legislation in the world.
Key policy and legislation initiatives undertaken include the enactment of the Employment Equality Act 1998, which prohibits discrimination in employment and vocational training on nine grounds, including the ground of disability; enactment of the Equal Status Act 2000, prohibiting discrimination in the provision of goods and services; the subsequent establishment of the Equality Authority and Equality Tribunal - the infrastructure to support implementation of the provisions of both enactments and to provide an individual right of redress in the event of discrimination; the establishment in June 2000 of the National Disability Authority to develop and monitor the implementation of standards and services for people with disabilities and to advise in relation to disability policy and practice and, at the same time, the introduction of the policy of mainstreaming services for people with disabilities.
The balance of rights which emerged from the parliamentary legislative process is one of the hallmarks of the equality legislation and has, to a great extent, shaped the parameters of our present understanding. This balance has created an all inclusive approach to promoting equality and eliminating discrimination.
However, I know that further work is required if we are to have a truly inclusive society and the Government is committed to pushing the equality agenda further. My colleague the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will shortly publish the education for persons with disabilities Bill, which aims to identify the special educational needs of children with disabilities and provide for an education appropriate to their needs as early as possible in their lives. The Government is also committed to bringing forward a disability Bill which will be published at the earliest possible date. That Bill will underpin the principle of mainstreaming and provide for positive action measures to remove barriers to equal participation for people with disabilities.
In relation to the proposed UN convention, in recent negotiations at EU level there has been a determination to develop a common position with regard to the second meeting of the UNad hoc committee established to consider proposals for a comprehensive and integral international convention to promote and protect the dignity and rights of persons with disabilities. I am on the record of Dáil Éireann, in reply to a parliamentary question on 16 April requesting details of opposition to a proposed UN convention, as stating that I am not opposed to such a convention. In so stating, I indicated that I have been consulted on and fully agree with the position being taken by Ireland on this matter.
I am also on record as stating that there is a need for further positive action measures to remove the particular barriers which are faced by many people with disabilities and to provide specific supports to facilitate participation In society by persons with disabilities. The removal of barriers to equal participation and the provision of broad ranging supports and advocacy for people with disabilities are necessary to ensure equality of opportunity and participation. I thank members of the sub-committee for allowing me the opportunity to set the record straight in this regard.
I would also like to outline some recent developments for the sub-committee. On 19 December 2001, the General Assembly of the UN decided, on foot of a proposal by Mexico, to establish thead hoc committee to consider proposals for an international convention for people with disabilities. Members of the committee will be aware that the first meeting of the ad hoc committee took place in New York in the summer of 2002.
At the meeting, the committee concerned itself mainly with procedural matters. The second meeting of thead hoc committee is taking place during this week and next week in New York, and the expectation is that this meeting will begin the task of examining the possible content and scope of what any proposed convention or other instrument might contain. In preparation for this meeting the UN Secretary General asked for the views of all member states about the proposals each would like to see included in his report to the committee. In accordance with normal practice, the EU decided to co-ordinate a common response to the UN Secretary General. Following receipt of the request from the UN Secretary General, the Greek Presidency took action to co-ordinate a common EU response.
Consultations were necessary domestically, both at ministerial and interdepartmental level to co-ordinate Ireland's position in regard to the work of thead hoc committee, and these consultations took place as quickly as possible. As the Department responsible for disability equality policy, my Department had to satisfy itself that any common position was entirely compatible with Government policy in this area. Equally, the Department of Foreign Affairs had to satisfy itself that Ireland’s position and the EU common position which eventually emerged was consistent with Ireland’s policy in relation to human rights internationally, including existing obligations under international human rights instruments to which the State is party. Discussions between the two Departments took place to ensure that the common EU position would be consistent with Government policy in all its aspects.
These discussions have resulted in the adoption of an agreed policy position by the two Departments which fed into the negotiations at EU level. Negotiations took place among EU member states and a common position subscribed to by all member states, including Ireland, has been adopted and forwarded to the UN Secretary General. Briefings supplied by the Department of Foreign Affairs and my Department outline the position in this regard. The committee will note that the EU position paper states that "The European Union is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities". It goes on to say that "the European Union is prepared to work on a new legally binding instrument on the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities". In addition, the paper states "a fundamental principle in elaborating any such new instrument is that it should have a rights-based approach".
Ireland believes that the guiding principle of any new legal instrument in the area of disability should be to ensure that persons with disabilities can better enjoy their human rights. Ireland, with its EU partners, will aim to ensure that the processes and outcomes of the ad hoc committee meet that principle. During the current meeting of thead hoc committee in New York in June, Ireland continues to work with its EU partners in refining and developing our approach to the forthcoming negotiations. More work is required and the committee can be assured that Ireland will participate fully in EU preparations and in the work of the ad hoc committee.