By Craig Brewin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Like all but three countries in the world (Western Sahara, South Sudan, and Somalia), the UK has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The Convention represents a global commitment to ensure that persons with disabilities can live as full members of society, free from discrimination, and not be left behind in education or employment. But unlike the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which the UK has also ratified, the CRPD does not apply to the Overseas Territories.
In response to the UN’s concerns about this, the UK’s Office for Disability Issues has stated: “The protection and promotion of human rights (including those of disabled people) in the UKG Overseas Territories are primarily the responsibility of territory governments”. In other words, the OTs don’t comply with the CRPD, and therefore the UK won’t extend the CRPD to them. Problem solved. We will “continue to encourage all the OTs to plug the remaining gaps on Conventions” said the FCO in 2019. It is a difficult position to understand. Pursuing human rights issues in small islands is widely recognised as difficult, and this is why the UN has been encouraging support.
There is no suggestion that the children’s convention is universally complied with, despite its adoption over 30 years ago, but the UK takes a different approach with that one. As a consequence, the UN has been calling for action on disability for several years. It’s a bigger issue in some territories than in others. For example, the Turks and Caicos tourism website contains a page outlining the problems visitors with disabilities will face when visiting the island. There are, for example, parking bays for the disabled, but no legislation to enforce them and no way of identifying who is eligible to use them.
Montserrat has a similar problem, and an attempt to introduce a concessionary fares policy for the ferry failed for similar reasons. It was meant to enable passengers to travel with a subsidised companion to ensure their safety on a difficult crossing, but there is no clear definition of what a disability is in Montserrat, and if people are coming from abroad then it gets even more confusing. Consequently, there is no mention of the policy on the website and no move to address the issue in advance of the ferry being recommissioned.
At least Turks and Caicos has disability as a protected characteristic in its constitution. Montserrat does not. The Falklands constitution also has no reference to disability, but an Equalities Portfolio holder has been appointed from among the Assembly members to lead on a response to all forms of discrimination on the island. The constitution of St Helena which, like Montserrat, is dependent on UK aid, does have disability as a protected characteristic. It is difficult to see how all this happened.
Montserrat is currently embarking on a programme of infrastructure development but has no disability framework to guide it. This is leading to inconsistencies between projects and strategies. For example, some new buildings have high standards of accessibility, but for others it is poor. Some new strategies have a strong focus on disability, but some don’t mention it at all. A recent social impact assessment produced by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) also highlighted the lack of legal protection in employment and other areas.
The UN General Assembly has resolved that the UK should provide annual updates on its support to Montserrat on the issue. But human rights advocates and disability organisations in other overseas territories have also been raising the issue. This is even in the more affluent territories. For example, in Gibraltar, where the Government has already stated its intention to incorporate the CRPD into domestic law, a new alliance has been established to campaign for this to happen.
Some OTs openly refer to this as a human rights issue, particularly the Cayman Islands, where disability legislation was passed in 2016. Their Act, named after Solomon Webster, a Special Olympic Gold medallist murdered in 2014, was passed unanimously. The then Premier, Alden McLaughlin, said at the time: “My administration is committed to fostering a culture of respect for human rights, including strengthening legislative protections for persons with disabilities.” The Act makes discrimination against persons with disabilities illegal.
The incongruity of the UK’s attitude to the OTs on this issue is emphasised by the FCDO’s own annual Human Rights and Democracy report. In this, it states that “without including people with disabilities in our work, the international community will not eradicate poverty, deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD)”. While this is undoubtedly true, it fails to mention the issue at all in the section on the overseas territories.
But it does describe the initiatives it has taken in other parts of the world to promote disability inclusiveness. These include Myanmar, Ghana, Sierra Leone, North Macedonia, Kenya, and The Gambia. It has even funded “a United Nations Development Programme project to promote employment opportunities for people with disabilities” in Turkmenistan and supports North Korea to comply with the Convention.
And here is another awkward thing. Although the British Government does not require aid-dependent territories to comply with the CRPD, the other aid donors, particularly the EU and the CDB, do. This is why it was the CDB that raised the issue of disability discrimination in Montserrat and the EU that stated that its aid must be spent in compliance with the requirements of the Convention.
The UN sees disability as a human rights issue, but the UK’s White Paper, which sets out the relationship between the OTs and the UK, does not. If the UK agrees that disability issues are central to the sustainable development goals, then it must be time for it to reconsider its approach. Many of these issues will become harder to fix as time passes.
As the UN said in its recent flagship report on disability and development: Some things need to be “urgently addressed.” These include ”discriminatory laws and policies, lack of accessibility in physical and virtual environments, negative attitudes, stigma and discrimination”. The UK may have devolved its responsibilities in this area, but it can’t abdicate on its accountability. Other European countries have done far better.