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How the International Disability Caucus worked during negotiations for a UN Human Rights Convention on Disability

Maria Veronica Reina

February 6, 2008

Before starting, I want to point out that I recently joined the Global Partnership on Disability and Development (GPDD). While the central focus of the GPDD is social and economic development, it will be developed to conform to basic human rights and the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. GPDD partners will work to strengthen respect for the rights of persons with disabilities and their families in parallel with development efforts. 

I want to thank the organizers for putting together this panel today. I think it’s extremely timely and I appreciate being asked to participate. I want to speak from two perspectives. First, from the standpoint of somebody who has been heavily involved in the International Disability Caucus, especially in the coordination of its two different constituencies. But I would also like to talk briefly from the point of view of someone that wants to share her personal experiences and own questions about how we, civil society members, contribute to change while transforming ourselves. 

It is commonly accepted that the extent of NGO participation and involvement in the drafting and negotiations of the CRPD has been unprecedented. Realization of the paradigm shift in the Convention was a major achievement of this participation (of persons with disabilities). But, why did that happen, what factors intervened to configure such phenomena? What was the process behind this achievement, particularly the activities of the International Disability Caucus? What lessons can be learned from it? Because of time constraints and because it is too early for a deep analysis and great detachment, my characterization will be partial and incomplete. On this foundation, I hope my statement can be useful for those who advocate for elder rights. 

One of the important factors I need to mention today is the organization of work Ad Hoc Committee. Even NGO participation in the work of the Ad Hoc Committee was basically regulated. The Committee decided for itself how to organize its work in view of the flexibility of the rules of the United Nations. When the Convention Process started, formals (scheduled committee meetings for delegates ) were held in the plenary room. 

Governments could comment on each topic and/or agenda item, after which international organizations, national human rights institutions and finally NGOs could comment. On the other hand, informals, meetings where agreements and more contested negotiations are supposed to take place, were held in smaller rooms with no interpretation. It was decided that informals would be held in the plenary room, with language translation and the participation of NGO delegates who would be allowed to listen, but not speak. During the 5th and the 6th AHC meetings, which were predominantly informals, the sessions were interrupted to allow national human rights institutions and NGO’s the opportunity to take the floor. During the last two meetings, we NGOs could participate in the so called “‘informal-informals” as observers (and sometimes we could even intervene at these meetings, maybe due to the mistakes of the coordinators). Such levels of interaction within the drafting process and with governmental delegates gave us the opportunity of maximize the quality and quantity of our interventions. 

Other factors were the composition, internal organization and strategy of the International Disability Caucus. The IDC was the representative voice of persons with disabilities in the process of the Ad Hoc Committee, made up of government delegates. The IDC was composed of more than 70 world-wide, regional and national Disabled People’s Organizations (and allied NGOs) who had decided to work together and coordinate their efforts. The IDC included all the different disability groups and had organizations from all regions of the world. It was open and inclusive to all Disabled People’s Organizations (DPOs) as well as other organizations which recognized and accepted the leadership role of DPOs. The IDC was established by disability organizations during the first Ad Hoc Committee meeting in order to ensure that the views of people with disabilities would be taken into account in all stages of the negotiation process of the Convention. 

Our shared objective was to obtain a Convention which would ensure the human rights of all people with disabilities, regardless of the type of disability, and the part of the world where we live. The IDC embraced a series of principles. However, these principles were never defined, and it is my personal observation that different people within the Caucus had different conceptions about those principles.

The IDC undertook intensive consultation amongst its members and their global and regional networks in order to arrive at common positions on all issues. Decisions were made by consensus. When an issue was exclusive to a specific group of people with disabilities, the organization that represented that group played a determining role in defining the IDC position. For the Caucus it was important to ensure that all organizations were part of the discussions so that all views could be taken into account. Once a decision on a position was made, all IDC members had to support this position. Opposing positions of IDC members had to be discussed within the IDC, but not in front of Government delegates.

Among other techniques, the IDC prepared its own consensus draft text, provided comments on the interventions of the delegates, and prepared information and position statements that had been approved in advance, through the email list or in New York, by members present. In between official meetings, members of the IDC collaborated to address specific articles of the Convention with each other and within their home countries and regions. Especially at the last meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee, speakers intervened on behalf of the IDC members from other non-member NGOs and to demonstrate IDC unity to the government delegates. Precisely, the high incidence of civil society parameters in the final text and the concomitant realization of the paradigm shift are often attributed to the extensive advocacy efforts of the International Disability Caucus and mainly to the fact that it kept united.

And how did this happen? How was this Unity a tool for the Caucus’s advocacy? I think it happened because it was assumed that the whole (IDC) was more than the sum of its parts; over time individuals and organizations found identity in the Caucus which led us to “negotiate meanings” among ourselves and with other members of the Ad Hoc Committee, even to “sacrifice” points of view, and to advocate for issues related to other organizations on IDC’s behalf.

I believe the development of a more or less common vision of the future Convention catalyzed alignment as a condition in which people operated as if we were part of an integrated whole: thus our sense of relationship, and even our concepts shifted, channeling high energy and creating great momentum. We also achieved some attunement or harmony among the Caucus members, and between the members and the IDC as a whole. As the concept of alignment refers to will, so that of harmony calls up the sense of empathy, understanding, caring, nurturance and mutual support. In addition, there was mutual empowerment as Caucus members often supported each other rather than trying to put each other down. Creativity was also a key to foster a strategic Unity leading to good outcomes. Creativity in this context many times meant the ability to transcend polarities and apparent incompatibilities.

However, I must say that success was not so much about one’s own individual effort or creative initiating and planning but to openness and consistent response to a commitment to common values and agreements. Of course, some people were more open than others; some were more consistent than others.

But achieving unity in diversity presented several challenges that could be summarized in the dichotomy of uniformity-fragmentation. In exercising Unity, some groups struggled to gain tolerance to their presence, acceptance of their membership, and respect for their influence. Mechanisms were created to overcome these challenges. I cannot say all of them were solved. Actually, we had to learn how to live with them, and there were painful moments. Yes, we have to learn how to live with unsolved problems and most at all, with ambiguity.

The issue is that encouraging a diversity of individuals and organizations characterized by very different cultural backgrounds while at the same time maintaining certain unity of purpose requires tolerating Ambiguity. I am convinced that Ambiguity is an inevitable consequence of being simultaneously different and unified. Unity cannot be immutable or perfect if adopted as a strategy.

A strategic Unity leads to adopt Ambiguity, as well. For example, having a general statement of core values without every definition, sometimes allowed us to maintain individual interpretations while at the same time sustaining (partial) agreements. Or, for example, when differences could not be overcome, we suspended our difference as a temporary and deliberate resort.

I think Unity and Ambiguity probably were the two faces of the same winning card of the IDC. Probably there are many other things to conclude, many other lessons to be shared, but this is all that I can say so far with regard to the International Disability Caucus.

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