A new era begins for the disabled in Asean
The year 2016 marks a momentous milestone for the peoples of Asean and, in particular, persons with disabilities who are our fellow Asean citizens. To begin with, the commencement of the Asean Community guided by the new Asean Vision 2025: Forging Ahead Together brings a greater promise on human rights.
According to the 2025 Vision, Asean is committed to creating an inclusive community that promotes a high quality of life and access to opportunities for all, including persons with disabilities. A more significant development occurred in April when Brunei Darussalam ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), making it the 10th Asean member state that becomes the party to the Convention. This renders the CRPD the third "commonality" of Asean, referring to a human rights convention that all Asean member states are parties to, after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The CRPD commonality strengthens the regional recognition manifested by the Asean Human Rights Declaration that persons with disabilities must enjoy equal rights and liberties with everyone and their disabilities cannot be used to discriminate against them.
The common commitment among Asean governments towards persons with disabilities will facilitate and improve policy-making and implementation on disability issue at the regional level. Effective regional-national cooperation will in turn lead to concrete and measurable successes in the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. However, there are some hurdles that must be addressed.
Firstly, there lacks a comprehensive database system. The number of people with disabilities in Asean countries varies from one source to another. Unescap has estimated that one in six people in the Asia-Pacific are living with some form of disability. Based on this estimate, there could be as many as 100 million people with disabilities in the grouping (out of a population of some 625 million). However, some Asean countries report less than 1% the population who are disabled while others provide no statistics at all. Since effective policy framework must be based on reliable evidence and statistics, identification of people with disabilities is essential for the promotion and protection of their rights.
Also, there exists prevalence of negative or otherwise discriminating perception toward persons with disabilities. People with disabilities face a variety of barriers, the most foundational of which seems to be erected in the public's perception and mindset. In many Asean countries, disabilities are viewed as a curse stemming from bad deeds in the past or present lives. A number of policymakers still consider disabilities as a condition that must be "cured" and disabled people as helpless citizens invariably dependent on social welfare, resulting in medical and welfare model policy orientation.
The stigma associated with disabilities also causes parents whose children are disabled to refrain from allowing their children to participate in community life, further deepening seclusion and discrimination. It is also important to bear in mind that not all groups of disabled people are equal. Some groups including women, children, migrant and LGBTI with disabilities are more vulnerable than others and bear higher risks of discrimination. While perception and practice cannot be systematically changed through legislation, a concerted effort and programme to raise awareness on the issue will foster a more conducive policy environment on disabilities that empower them to be active citizens in Asean.
Finally, we witness a lack of regional awareness and coordination. The rights of people with disabilities are human rights that must be respected and protected by both governments in the 10 member states as well as the Asean Community. Like the rights of other groups, disability rights have bearings in all aspects of the community's lives. Unfortunately, reality still does not match that aspiration. A key message that features prominently in the new Asean Vision is that as a rights holder, persons with disabilities can enjoy their rights in every aspect of the community, including in the political and security as well as the economic arenas.
As citizens, they have the right to vote and run for office and their accessibility to buildings, workplaces, sports venue must be guaranteed. As entrepreneurs, they have access to financial services and economic opportunities. As workers, they are entitled to equal employment and fair wages. The list goes on, but the principle remains unchanged: that the lives of persons with disabilities relate to all pillars of Asean and Asean stakeholders are obliged to respect and protect their rights.
However, for many people at the Asean level, the rights of persons with disabilities seem to fall exclusively under the socio-cultural community and even there they are generally considered as a welfare matter rather than a rights-based issue. It is imperative that to be an inclusive community, Asean and its bodies in all three pillars must fully recognise such relevance of human rights in the planning and implementation of their programmes. The challenge is to ensure that a crosscutting matter like disability rights are effectively mainstreamed in the silo structure of Asean that could potentially emasculate the promise of enjoyment of fundamental freedoms of its peoples.
It is opportune that the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the focal human rights body of Asean established by the Asean Charter in 2009, anticipated the mutual obligations to CRPD by the 10 member states and has paid particular attention to how it can assist in the mainstreaming of the rights of persons with disabilities across the Asean pillars, especially in light of the new Asean Vision. Since 2015, the AICHR has started a three-year programme toward creating a regional instrument on mainstreaming the rights of persons with disabilities in Asean.
This will be developed in parallel with the organisation of three annual regional dialogues which was first heralded in Bangkok in December 2015. The second dialogue, to take place in Chiang Mai later this month, focusses on issues pertaining to education, employment and health of persons with disabilities. It will be followed immediately by a special meeting of the AICHR to discuss concrete ways in which the regional instrument will be developed.
The third regional dialogue will be held in 2017 hopefully to receive final inputs from stakeholders and conclude the draft plan to be submitted to the Asean Summit. If all goes according to this time frame, Asean will make a significant contribution to the rights of people with disabilities in 2017 that will coincide with and commemorate its 50th anniversary.
While it is too early to indicate the structure of the regional instrument, an understanding was reached in the Bangkok Dialogue in 2015 that it should add weight and not merely duplicate the content of the existing Asean instruments on disabilities such as the Bali Declaration 2011 and the Asean Declaration on Strengthening Social Declaration 2013.
Further, it must be based on and compatible with international obligations on disabilities of Asean member states, in particular the CRPD.
Its added value will derive from strategic and concrete measures by regional and national agencies and stakeholders in enhancing the rights of persons with disabilities. Most importantly, the plan will serve as a guiding document on the disability dimension to policymaking and implementation to all Asean sectoral bodies.
Personally, I expect that apart from adopting precise measures on disability rights for Asean community pillars, we can find regional solutions to the broader and more fundamental issues of having a systematic database for persons with disabilities and more tangible awareness-raising programmes that will help steer the hearts and minds of policymakers across Asean to the right path of making Asean a real barrier-free community for our fellow citizens.
Human Rights Representative
Seree Nonthasoot Thailand Representative at ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights