Even though I am in County Galway, I cannot travel for obvious reasons. I am delighted to attend virtually today.
I am the incoming UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Part of the role involves constructive interaction with Governments and, indeed, Parliaments and other key institutions. I see this as by far the most important part of the work, which is another reason I am delighted to be here today with the committee.
In preparation for today I was reminded of the famous publication of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, maybe three years ago, on the role of national parliaments in monitoring the implementation of the UNCRPD. This Parliament is among the first parliaments in the world to do so and is to be highly commended. I believe Iceland will follow soon. It would be nice, in time, to see this committee engage with other committees around the world to share experience and know-how.
I also note a recent consultative report of the Law Reform Commission, LRC, on the implementation of treaties in Irish law. In its report, the LRC highlighted the growing role of the Oireachtas not merely in the ratification process but also in the domestic monitoring process. The committee's work helps to advance that useful trend in the Oireachtas and it is to be commended for that.
At the end of the day, a treaty is just a collection of words - a collection of majestic generalities. They have to be translated into concrete lines of action. There is a world of difference between the law in the books and the law in action. They have to reach the small places where people live in their own lives whether as students, workers, carers or family members. That is where the committee comes in as it is the bridge between the high aspirations of international law and Irish life whether it is in Kinvara, Athy or Crossmolina.
In the time available I will focus on three things very briefly. First, I will say something about the core foundation pillars of the treaty. To me, they are a commitment to personhood and equality. This goes to what the witnesses who attended here last week described as the "attitudinal" changes that the convention seeks to bring about.
Second, I will say something about how to characterise the many rights in the UNCRPD. There are many ways to slice and dice them but I will put forward a simple way of doing that.
Third, I will say something about a core distinction in the treaty. Some of the committee's witnesses in previous testimony have touched on the distinction between obligations of immediate effect and obligations of so-called progressive realisation. That may sound very academic but, believe me, it will become a core part of the committee's work in the months and years ahead.
First, I will discuss the core of the treaty. We all thought when drafting the treaty that it would be another equal opportunities act, like the Americans with Disabilities Act or the British Disability Discrimination Act. It is to a large extent but something happened during the negotiations. Civil society began asking why is it that we are treated unequally in the first place and insisting that we deal with the underlying cause and not just the symptoms. To me, that is why the personhood provisions of the treaty are front and centre. To use a bit of jargon, they go to the very object and purpose of the treaty. We have made a lot of headway in Ireland on the two key personhood rights: the right to autonomy, legal capacity and supported decision-making; and the right to independent living. What the committee heard last week was that although some progress has been made, much more remains to be done. It is key to remember that the reason these rights are so important and central is that they carry the essential message of the treaty, which is that persons with disabilities are not objects to be managed and are subjects with rights just like everyone else.
Second, I will discuss how one characterises the rights in the treaty. Obviously one starts with the personhood rights, with the foundational, and then builds outwards. The drafters of this treaty did not want to create new rights. There is no such thing as disability rights. There are human rights that apply to everybody. What they wanted to do was find ways to give equal, effective access to exercise these rights by and for persons with disabilities. That is why the concept of equality in the convention is absolutely central. This is not equality in a traditional, narrow or legalistic sense. This is a concept of equality that takes account of accumulated disadvantages. It seeks to correct for those disadvantages and build a more inclusive future. The treaty takes this broad conception of equality and applies it to all of the usual rights of education, employment, health, the right to life and so forth.
It innovates by emphasising multiple disadvantages or discrimination based on gender, age, indigenous groups and so forth.
Lastly, the committee in its work needs to be aware of a key distinction in international law and this treaty is no exception. All obligations associated with civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression, are to be immediately achieved - no excuses, no delays. There is no excuse for not providing the right to a fair trial. On the other hand, obligations associated with economic and social rights are to be progressively achieved over time with appropriate resources. This is very important to the committee's work because many of the more important obligations in the treaty are of this character. Most of the rights in the treaty blend the two sets of obligations. For example, it is obvious with respect to inclusive education that it is not going to be achieved immediately in a lower income country, but there are some important limiting principles. States are expected to use the maximum available resources and to be mindful of the impact of retrogressive steps. Retrogressive steps should never intrude on the inner core of a right. What really matters is the forward dynamic of change, that is, measurable progress over defined timelines with dedicated resources. Measuring this progress – this is what the committee's guests were talking to it about last week - and judging whether enough has been done or more can be done is the essence of the committee's job.
Most people focus on the substantive rights in the treaty, such as education, employment and independent living, and rightly so. The process innovations, however, are really key, as some guests of the committee mentioned last week with respect to Article 4.3 of the convention, and will be key to the committee's future work too. Unlike most similar treaties, the UN disability treaty envisages, sets out and maps a domestic institutional architecture for change within particular states involving: power, which is governments and parliaments; voice, which is civil society; and ideas, which concerns the providers of innovative ideas for change. It is this co-production of change that really counts in the long run. I would add that this goes to legitimacy, for sure, but also to deficiency. For example, if people with disabilities had been consulted at the beginning of the Covid crisis, many of the predictable problems probably would not have happened. Parliamentary committees like this one have a key role to play in bridging abstract ideals, bringing them home and giving them reality in people's lives. After all, our Republic was founded on the idea of equal rights and opportunities for all our citizens, and I like to think the treaty is a spur for us to think more deeply about our national conversation and what equality means for all our citizens with disabilities.
The committee's work will become even more important as the world recovers from Covid. The World Bank recently emphasised the need for a resilient and inclusive recovery. What it had in mind was the sheer fragility of support systems for many different vulnerable groups, including in particular people with disabilities, and the need to build in more robust and continuous modes of service into the future. For these and many other reasons, I greatly welcome the establishment of the committee and wish it every success in its work.