Ten to eight on a hot August night in New York and we had just finished a marathon sitting at the United Nations and finally cracked it. By the skin of the teeth of several hundred people from everywhere in the world the first human rights treaty of the twenty first century was agreed. I refer here to the draft International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. All going well it should become international law next year.
Later that evening I found myself having a UN moment, exhausted and feeling surreal standing beside a piano played by a deaf blind man from somewhere in Europe in the Korean Mission singing ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean!’
Next day it was back to reality with a vengeance – long haul flight home cattle class, and because I need assistance in airports because of my visual impairment, being bundled into a wheelchair and pushed around like a piece of luggage.
No more hilarious nights with Aussies and others from all over, hiring stretch limos, twice, and drinking the occasional Margaritas and Manhattans. (Please note – None of this came out of my per diem.)
No more all day meetings, starting at around eight thirty and working late into the evenings, wheeling and dealing, persuading, influencing, and drafting. No more working alongside people I had grown to like and respect and who I will miss.
By the time I returned to Wellington the rather small media flurry was over, but the work had just begun.
Once the convention is adopted and ratified by the United Nations, 600 million of the worlds least visible and most disadvantaged people will soon have their human rights recognised under international law. That includes me, along with twenty per cent of New Zealanders.
Today is the International Day of Disabled People (December 3rd) a day to celebrate that achievement. As a document negotiated by the nations of the world in co-operation with NGOs and disabled people it is already giving voice, visibility and legitimacy to disabled people, eighty per cent of whom live in the developing world.
This is significant as it is the first time NGOs, never mind disabled people have taken such a role at the UN.
The International Day of Disabled People this year has the theme of e-accessibility. Electronic communications and technology have been eagerly adopted by disabled people, for many it means the difference between having a life and not having one.
Despite the enormous digital divide within the disability community world wide, electronic communications played an important part in the development of the Convention. Thousands of disabled people worldwide argued, debated and became informed on the issues. They were able to contribute using email and the Internet. The several hundred NGO delegates who attended each meeting were also able to communicate with their constituencies during the meetings via wireless technology, an empowering process.
Meeting the communication needs of this diverse community was a huge challenge for the UN – they had never done it before so there was a steep learning curve. People needed physical access, sign language interpreters, Braille and large print.
In New Zealand e-accessibility issues include access to the Internet and web based applications, access to adaptive technology – hardware and software – and the funding to ensure it is available equitably. We are lucky that some of the most innovative blindness and low vision technology in the world is made right here.
My own experience of e-accessibility, using the Internet before I found the Firefox browser was of great frustration. Nothing was ever big enough or clear enough. Now I can enlarge web sites until they fall apart and bits disappear completely. Ink on the Internet is free so I will never understand why so many sites use grey text which is so hard to read.
The Convention itself includes access to information and technology. After all technology is only a means to an end and the end is full and equal participation as citizens with all the rights and responsibilities that involves.
The average person takes the everyday for granted, things that we have to organise around, or simply miss out on, such as easy access to public transport, being able to drive, being able to communicate with others easily, using the phone, attending the school of our choice and being able to control our physical environment.
The Convention covers all aspects of daily life, such as the right to work, access to education, health and justice, equal recognition before the law, the right to life and freedom from torture, living independently and being included in the community, privacy, and an adequate standard of living, among other basic human rights.
Once it has been adopted by the General Assembly of the UN it needs twenty states to ratify for it to become international law. Hopefully New Zealand will be one of the first.
And New Zealanders can pat themselves on the back. We had a large delegation which included disabled people playing an active role. The first person with an intellectual disability ever to speak at the United Nations was New Zealander Robert Martin, and the last few meetings were chaired by New Zealand Ambassador Don McKay, whose skill was largely responsible for the speedy and generally satisfactory conclusion of the negotiations.
It is also the first time national human rights institutions such as the New Zealand Human Rights Commission have had a defined place in the negotiations; they will also play a role in monitoring the implementation of the Convention.
I am almost the same age as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.
And I hope I have aged as well. As a child of the sixties I still have some idealism left. As a regular visitor to the United Nations I have felt privileged to be part of what is still, with all its faults, an aspirational institution.
Despite the internal shabbiness of the outwardly stunning building on the banks of the East River in New York it is still a wonderful place, full of great artworks. My favourites are the restful Chagall stained glass window in vibrant blues and the sculpture of a gun with the barrel tied in a knot.
I do feel sorry for the poor elephant though. A gift from the people of Burma he is an anatomically correct sculpture. His arrival caused consternation among national delegates of a more sensitive disposition. Consequently he stands forlorn in a remote and unvisited corner of the gardens among trees, with his nether regions tactfully shielded by foliage.
Information about the International day can be found at
and the latest draft text of the Convention is at
For the Human Rights Commission: www.hrc.co.nz