In Hindsight: Persons with Disabilities in Conflict
Last Thursday (20 June), the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2475 on the situation of persons with disabilities in armed conflict. In the end, the resolution—which was an initiative of Poland and the UK—had 68 cosponsors.
It represents the first stand-alone resolution on the protection of persons with disabilities, and was the culmination of five months of negotiations, following the 3 December 2018 Arria-formula meeting on this issue convened by Poland in partnership with Côte d’Ivoire, Germany, Kuwait, and Peru. That meeting featured statements by Vladimir Cuk, Executive Director, International Disability Alliance; Shanelle Hall, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF; Catalina Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (VTC); Michael Stein, Harvard Law School; and Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, Chief of Policy, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
During the open debate on the protection of civilians on 23 May (S/PV.8534), both Poland and the UK discussed the resolution they were proposing. Ambassador Joanna Wronecka (Poland) said that the resolution would “significantly contribute to the protection of that group and ensure that persons with disabilities are recognized as agents in peace processes”, while Deputy Permanent Representative Jonathan Allen (UK) spoke of the importance of supporting “robust protection for the needs of specific groups who are particularly at risk in conflict situations”.
The resolution adopted last week supports one of Poland’s priorities during its membership, shared by the UK and other EU members of the Council. Poland desired to bring attention to the situation of what it believed were the overlooked persons with disabilities worldwide, numbering an estimated 1 billion-plus, of whom the disabilities of an estimated 16% are war- and conflict-related. Challenges and risks faced by populations affected by conflict—such as forcible displacement, hunger, conflict-related human rights violations, and violence—are heightened for civilians with disabilities. This has been flagged in several of the Secretary-General’s reports on the protection of civilians, but Poland and others wanted to expand the attention paid to it.
The resolution uses the Geneva Conventions, their additional Protocols, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as its foundation. Every Council member, except Equatorial Guinea and the US, has ratified the CRPD. Many of the signatories on the Council were looking to this resolution to help increase compliance with the CRPD. It also builds upon references in past resolutions to the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on persons with disabilities, especially in respect of their need for services and information. This was done, according to the penholders, to underline that this resolution is not meant to create new law but to gain compliance with existing laws.
The resolution stresses the disproportionate impact of armed conflict and related humanitarian crises on persons with disabilities and the overall responsibility of parties to armed conflict to protect civilians. It recalls the universality of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people. It also recognises the importance of contributions by persons with disabilities to, among other things, conflict prevention, reconstruction, peacebuilding, and addressing the root causes of conflict. The resolution also notes the particular barriers faced by persons with disabilities in accessing justice.
Some Council members have particularly stressed that the resolution recognises the need for timely data and analysis of the impact of armed conflict on persons with disabilities. This evidence-based approach is outlined in a request in the resolution for the Secretary-General to include in his reporting, where pertinent, information and related recommendations on issues of relevance to persons with disabilities, in the context of armed conflict. This should be done not only in thematic reports but geographic ones as well, within existing mandates and resources.
The resolution takes common aspects of protection of civilians resolutions and reiterates them with a special focus on fulfilling the needs of persons with disabilities. For example, it calls upon all parties to armed conflict to allow and facilitate safe, timely, and unimpeded humanitarian access to all people in need of assistance and stresses the benefits of sustainable and accessible assistance to civilians with disabilities, such as through reintegration and psychosocial support. It also urges member states to ensure meaningful participation and representation of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action, conflict prevention, resolution, reconciliation, reconstruction and peacebuilding, and to consult with experts on disability mainstreaming. It further calls for an end to discrimination against those with disabilities in situations of armed conflict.
Finally, the resolution lays the foundation for future inclusion of civil society briefers with disabilities at the Council. In this regard, the resolution expresses the Council’s “intention to invite persons with disabilities, including their representative organizations, to brief the Council in relevant thematic and geographic areas”. Some are hoping that this will allow for more civil society briefers with disabilities to have their voices heard at the Council. A recent example of such a briefing occurred during the German presidency in April in a meeting on Syria, when Nujeen Mustafa, a Kurdish woman from Aleppo with cerebral palsy, spoke about humanitarian issues facing persons with disabilities in Syria (S/PV.8515).
There were several rounds of negotiations on this resolution over five months. Poland and the UK initially engaged with the permanent members on the draft before circulating it to all 15 members; during these interactions, both China and Russia expressed a preference for a presidential statement instead of a resolution, maintaining that this would be a better tool to address the issue for the first time. During the negotiations with the whole Council, the co-penholders provided a reference document to members that detailed their views on the need for the resolution, as well as past Council and UN work and products relevant to the issue.
After the adoption of resolution 2475, Council members shed some light on their motivations for its adoption (S/PV.8556). Poland said that the resolution had achieved the three goals they sought at the start of negotiations: strengthening data collection and reporting for persons with disabilities; building the capacity and knowledge of peacekeepers and peacebuilders on the needs and rights of persons with disabilities; and empowering and engaging persons with disabilities in conflict prevention, resolution, reconciliation, reconstruction, and peacebuilding.
The US stressed that in the past the Council had not done enough on this topic, given increased marginalisation in times of conflict for a population that already faces difficulties. The US welcomed future briefings by persons with disabilities in connection with armed conflict and said that it looks forward to increased information and recommendations from the Secretary-General in all his reports on how to better protect persons with disabilities in conflict.
France and the Dominican Republic, in a joint statement also made on behalf of Belgium, Germany, Indonesia, Kuwait, and Peru, called for the ratification and implementation of the CRPD. In the Dominican Republic’s statement, Ambassador José Singer emphasised that the issue addressed by the resolution “touches directly on human rights and international humanitarian law and is inextricably linked to peace and security”. He further underscored the importance of addressing the humanitarian needs of persons with disabilities in conflict.
While they supported the resolution, Russia and China expressed some reservations, in their explanations of vote, about the Council’s engagement on this issue. Both countries have ratified the CRPD. However, they disagreed with the subject being discussed in the Council, maintaining that the Council should strive to protect civilians within the UN system’s division of labour and each body’s mandate. Russia explicitly cited its opposition to operative paragraphs 10 and 11 of resolution 2475, which express the Council’s intention to invite persons with disabilities to brief the Council in relevant areas and urges parties to comply with obligations applicable to them under the CRPD, respectively. Russia argued that the Council should not continue to create unending subgroups of persons that need protection, which in its view undermines overall protection. It further maintained that “new international legal concepts” should not be invented by the Council; in response, the UK retorted that new legal obligations had not been created by the resolution.
China maintained that the Council should focus on reducing disabilities resulting from conflict by tackling root causes of conflict. It noted that preventing conflicts through mediation and dialogue minimises the impact on the vulnerable and reiterated its belief that it is the primary responsibility of the government of the countries concerned to protect their citizens.