Opening Ceremony of the United Nations Regional Training Workshop on the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities


1ST MAY, 2017

Persons with disabilities encounter daily prejudice, discrimination and marginalization. There are embedded barriers that have them endure the negatives rather than enjoy the benefits of society. In every facet of human and social activity, they are denied in part or in whole, be it fulsome access to the school systems, the right to live independently or enjoyment of the social fundamentals which able bodied persons often take for granted.
Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour summed it up decisively when she stated (and I quote), "The celebration of diversity and the empowerment of the individual are essential human rights messages. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) embodies and clearly conveys these messages by envisaging a fully active role in society for persons with disabilities."
Only yesterday, the international community, including the member States of the Caribbean, ended month-long activities which focused attention on and the need for greater advocacy for a developmental disability, that is, persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
I remain optimistic that in Trinidad and Tobago and in developing countries as a whole, greater emphasis would be placed on the rights of persons with ASD in formulating national policies on education and in other spheres of national development in order to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their abilities are able to contribute to the sustainable development of their respective countries.
I am honoured to have been invited to address this regional Workshop on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It is in line with my own efforts locally and abroad, including at activities, held on the occasion of the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, over the past four years, to raise awareness of persons with ASD under the auspices of the organization, Autism Speaks.
In this regard, I must commend the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), as well as the local office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through Mr. Richard Blewitt, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, for their recognition of the importance of hosting such an important event in Trinidad and Tobago. This event brings together officials who are charged with the responsibility of engaging international mechanisms and protocols and those working with persons with disabilities.
The CRPD is the first multilateral treaty, human rights or otherwise, negotiated under the auspices of the UN in the twenty-first century. This landmark legally binding instrument was concluded after many years of lobbying by progressive member States of the United Nations. They included some from our region, as well as representatives of civil society, who were of the view, that notwithstanding the existence of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ( "the ICCPR"), persons with disabilities, whether mental, physical, developmental disabilities  or otherwise, did not enjoy the same rights as other persons despite the provisions of the ICCPR. In other words, persons with disabilities saw, and even now, continue to witness their inalienable human rights being violated, often with impunity.
Consequently, it was advanced that the rights of persons with disabilities had to be codified under a sectorial human rights treaty. In like manner the international community had agreed upon measures to promote and safeguard under special instruments, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CDAW) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination ( CRD), the protection of the human rights of other vulnerable groups, who did not fully enjoy  fundamental human rights and freedoms. This was the case many decades after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was one of the positive developments after the Second World War, where the commission of human rights violations and crimes against humanity, shook the conscience of all right thinking people.
The universality of human rights is the bedrock of any international human rights law regime. In 2017, it is indeed regrettable that we have to legislate humanity, norms and rules when one considers as far back as 1948 Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated, "All human beings are all free and equal in dignity and rights." A recognition of these rights, obviously ought to have triggered since then, on any interpretation, obligations and responsibilities to the demographic of the marginalized and voiceless community of the differently abled. The CRPD did not create or distil new human rights which always existed. What it amounts to really, is rather a universal protective mechanism, to arrest this pervasive decline in our very humanity. Yes I say decline, for in many public and private functions throughout the Caribbean, no provision is made for easy access of the wheelchair bound, guide dogs are blocked, blind persons with superior hearing are shouted at, the signal buttons on traffic lights are out of the reach of the differently abled, no bells at these lights and many times, there are no sign language facilities available at important public and private functions. So ladies and gentlemen, we have a long way to go.
This CRPD Forum is important for an additional number of reasons. It allows experts from our region to work together and learn from each other, as well as exchange best practices to promote, protect and ensure the rights of persons with disabilities and promote equal rights in all areas of life.
At the same time, this Forum also provides an opportunity for capacity building in strengthening national mechanisms aimed at the full and effective implementation of the CRPD through the presentations of officials of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and others. To this end, the issue of the preparation of  national reports on measures on the implementation of the Convention, is of critical importance; more so at a time when there is concern about reporting fatigue, among many States Parties to human rights treaties, not only from developing countries.
I implore both presenters and participants to address the topic of reporting very frontally. For too long, in our region, and further afield, there have been deficits in the submission of national reports to the respective Human Rights Committees. This is at variance with our legally binding obligations to submit such documents, which are used as one of the barometers of national implementation of the obligations, which flow from the respective Treaties. The reporting fatigue often complained of, may be because of the lack of comprehensive data, often an integral part of the reporting mechanism. There must be proper data and properly directed data collecting in the Caribbean. Data informs policy, effective planning, transformational initiatives, holistic philosophes and the necessary human activism.
And how do we achieve the full and effective implementation of the CRPD in the region?  I submit, that in order to do so, we must take action to enable the operationalization of the provisions of the Convention in each national territory. There is almost universal participation in the Convention by CARICOM States to this important Human Rights Treaty. Although the Caribbean is well represented among the 173 States Parties to the Convention, only a limited number have taken action to enact legislation and the necessary administrative regulations, to give effect to the provisions of the treaty in their national jurisdictions. Such would effectively protect the differently abled.
It is my hope that one of the legacies of this Workshop would be the universalization of the CRPD in this part of the world. This is why there is a sense of great hope and anticipation in this scholarly gathering to come up with an immediate action plan to give real and inclusive credence to this Convention. It would entail timelines for decreasing unemployment and improving social mobility among the differently abled in the public and private sector and addressing the preponderance of negatives that simply do not give the differently abled a fair shake.
I am of the view as well that this Forum in Port of Spain can be utilized to assist national delegations to plan for their  meaningful participation in the Tenth Session of the Conference of States Parties to the CRPD which will take place at UN Headquarters in New York from 13 to 15 June, 2017, and which has as its theme: "The Second Decade of the CRPD: Inclusion and full participation of persons with disabilities and their representative organizations in the implementation of the Convention".
The theme of the upcoming Conference implies that after 10 years of the adoption of the Convention, there is still a lot of work to be done, to put persons with disabilities, at the centre of policies and programmes geared towards the enjoyment of their human rights as enunciated in the Convention. These rights are sacrosanct.
I feel confident that the wind of change is coming as recognised by an initiative of the First ladies of the Caribbean at our recent meeting in Guyana hosted by the First Lady of Guyana under the umbrella of the United Nations initiative "Every Caribbean Woman, Every Caribbean Child." We addressed many challenging social issues in the Caribbean like human trafficking, NCDs, teenage pregnancy, the differently abled, HIV/AIDS and of course the devil in the pack, Child Marriages. This vanguard movement of Caribbean First Ladies was reflected in a statement I gave, "As First Ladies, we must not be seen or perceived to be metaphorically, simply walking behind our husbands, remaining silent and reticent when there are challenging social issues impacting negatively on our girls, women and even our men-folk. Ours must be seen as a female empowerment agenda that is transformational and progressive." We Caribbean First Ladies, in positions of influential advocacy, must therefore not only shake hands but rather hold hands with a view to creating sustainable, transformational solutions in our societies.
As you engage in each session of this Forum, I am requesting that you also reflect on whether your national policies aimed at implementing, for example, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda adopted at the UN by world leaders in September 2015,  have benefitted from the inputs of persons with disabilities and/or their representative organizations. This is imperative as the 2030 Development Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and numerous targets, indicate that "No one should be left behind", if we are to achieve our noble objectives.
I am encouraged that there are a growing number of countries in the Caribbean which have sought to include the involvement of persons with disabilities in prominent positions in national and regional governance.
Differently abled persons can assist our societies in their progressive development. There is however one constant cry from the differently abled. We want opportunity, not charity, the opportunity of jobs, yes real jobs that do not patronize one’s competence, qualifications and capacity, one that will facilitate the differently abled person becoming the CEO of any company or the member or Chairman of a Board in the public and private sector. The message is a clear. By our actions and words, we must not embarrass but empower.
Penultimately, this Forum should recognize that the fight to give just due to the differently abled will not be only won in the legislative and Parliamentary Chambers of countries but, in the classrooms of the world. The student of today is the executive of tomorrow. It will be those school children, taught and informed by enlightened teachers that will eradicate those entrenched dysfunctional attitudes to the differently abled found in our populace.
This Forum must therefore become the engine room that drives this basic human philosophy and need of the differently abled to be genuine part of the whole. It is my humble suggestion that this forum may even see it fit to encourage our Caricom leaders to declare a Caribbean Decade for Disabled Persons 2018- 2028 following the UN Decade for Disabled Persons 1983-1992 and the African Decade for Disabled Persons 1999-2009. Such a Caribbean initiative will invariably encourage and augment initiatives, policies and culturally sensitive programmes that can result in the full, genuine participation of the differently abled in Caribbean society. It will trigger behavioural change towards that differently abled demographic alleviating their poverty and marginalisation and will implement in spirit and fact, genuine inclusivity, equal opportunity and mutual respect in the Caribbean Region.
I thank you.