This page deals with some of the main United Nations international declarations and treaties relevant to disability discrimination in the UK, other than the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). To put international instruments in context, see the introduction.
The ‘Enable’ section of the UN website, focusing on the rights and dignity of those with disabilities, is at www.un.org/disabilities/.
The International Bill of Human Rights
Various UN declarations and conventions commonly contain a pretty standard anti-discrimination clause. This is along the lines that the rights and freedoms set out in the particular document are to be enjoyed without discrimination on various grounds “or other status”. Disability is very likely included in “other status” as a prohibited ground (the Strasbourg court has held disability to be included in Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights). However, this wording does mean that the anti-discrimination clause is limited to areas encompassed by the other rights dealt with in the particular document (see similarly Article 14 ECHR, link above.)
The International Bill of Human Rights (link to wikipedia) consists of the following three major human rights documents, plus two optional protocols.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
This fundamental declaration dates from 1948. Article 2 is the anti-discrimination provision. The Universal Declaration sets forth general principles or standards of human rights.
The Universal Declaration is not intended to be legally binding, but is nevertheless a ground-breaking document which has had a dynamic effect on international human rights law.
To define specific rights and their limitations, in 1966 the UN went on to adopt the following two treaties (“Covenants”) which are binding in international law on states which agree to them. The UK has ratified both Covenants, subject to certain reservations.
This contains the most fundamental rights, such as life and liberty, and freedom of conscience and expression.
Article 26 is particularly important in our context. It seems to be an unusually broad anti-discrimination provision, not limited to the areas encompassed by the other rights in the Covenant, and prohibiting discrimination – at least direct discrimination – on any ground unless a reasonable and objective justification can be established by the defendant Contracting State. Furthermore, Article 2(2) arguably places an obligation on Contracting States to extend this protection to relations between private parties, not just activities of the State.
Article 2(1) is a more standard, limited anti-discrimination provision.
The Covenant is binding in international law on countries which have signed up to it, including the UK. An optional protocol enabling complaints to be made by individuals has not been ratified by the UK. Other legal means for ensuring its implementation are limited, mainly based on monitoring of reports submitted by the individual countries. The UN Human Rights Committee (link to ohchr.org) monitors implementation of the Covenant, including dealing with complaints under the protocol.
Article 2(1) is a standard anti-discrimination provision. The Covenant includes economic rights such as, in Article 6, “the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts”. Articles 12 and 13 deal with health and education respectively.
Obligations of States to implement most of the rights are less absolute than under the other Covenant. A State undertakes to take steps “to the maximum of its available resources” “with a view to achieving progressively” the full realization of the rights. This get-out clause might however be argued to have only limited effect as regards discrimination.
The Covenant is binding in international law on the parties, but compliance is based on monitoring of reports submitted by the individual countries. Monitoring is by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (link to ohchr.org). The Committee’s (non-binding) General Comment No. 5 in 1994 relates to persons with disabilities, and views discrimination broadly:
“For the purposes of the Covenant, “disability-based discrimination” may be defined as including any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference, or denial of reasonable accommodation based on disability which has the effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of economic, social or cultural rights… In order to remedy past and present discrimination, and to deter future discrimination, comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in relation to disability would seem to be indispensable in virtually all States parties.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes children, but are also specifically covered by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (link to ohchr.org). There is also a child-friendly version of the Convention (pdf, link to unicef.org).
This 1989 convention has strong provisions when viewed in the context of a child who stammers. Article 2(1) is an anti-discrimination provision relating to any “other status” (eg disability) of the child or his/her parents or legal guardian and is again limited to the provisions of the Convention. However, these provisions give wide-ranging rights, including a declaration that the best interests of the child are the primary consideration (Article 3(1)), and freedom of expression (Article 13).
Article 23 deals specifically with disabled children: under the first part of this the contracting states “recognize that a mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community”.
Article 24 deals with rights to healthcare, which presumably includes speech therapy. Articles 28 and 29 deal with educational rights.
The Convention is binding in international law on its parties, and the UK has ratified it (subject to certain reservations). The obligations as regards economic, social and cultural rights are limited by reference to available resources. The Convention is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (link to ohchr.org) on the basis of reports from individual countries.
Wales is introducting a legal duty on Welsh government ministers to have due regard to the CRC. In major respects the duty takes effect in May 2012. See: Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 (link to legislation.gov.uk). ‘Due regard’ does not mean ministers are bound to comply witth the CRC: see the equivalent ‘due regard’ wording inn the Public Sector Equality Duty. However, the fact that the CRC binds the UK in international law may strengthen what ‘regard’ is appropriate to be paid to the Convention. In whatever way ‘due regard’ is interpreted, in practice the significance of the provision should be to increase the profile of the CRC in decision-making.
Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for People who Stutter
Not a legal document but sponsored by the International Stuttering Association (ISA) and the International Fluency Association (IFA). It is available on the ISA website