Laws Disenfranchising Minorities, People with Disabilities Rely on Inaccurate Historical Narratives to Justify Exclusion, Experts Tell Third Committee
Representative of Russian Federation Points to ‘Dangerous Contradiction’ in Special Rapporteur’s Appeal for Broad Cultural Recognition, as Views Diverge
Laws that discriminate against minorities, people with disabilities and individuals affected by leprosy violate a range of human rights, at times relying on inaccurate and biased historical narratives, and promoting narrow visions of whom to include in future protections, Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) experts stressed today, as delegates drew attention to situations across the globe requiring action.
Presenting the findings of his report, Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, emphasized the importance of the Security Council resolution 2475 (2019) on the protection of persons with disabilities during conflict. “Peacekeeping operations need to become more attuned to the presence and rights of civilians with disabilities”, he said. Yet, they are seldom factored into conflict prevention strategies and their distinctive voices are rarely heard, a point echoed by fellow mandate‑holder Rosemary Kayess, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of persons with disabilities, who said they must be “at the table” for planning policy responses to COVID‑19.
During the interactive dialogue, several delegates requested examples of best practices to improve inclusion, with the representative of the Republic of Korea stressing that the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in political decision‑making must be a priority. Others were interested in understanding how to overcome the gap in implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with the representative of Mexico calling on the Third Committee to achieve progress for those people in situations of emergency.
Alice Cruz, Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discriminations against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, then shared the findings of her report which counted more than 100 laws that actively discriminate against people with this condition. “These laws not only violate the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons affected by leprosy, but also impact their family members, descendants and entire communities,” she asserted. Compulsory segregation and isolation, exclusion from elections or the holding of public office and restrictions on free movement violate a wide range of human rights.
With the following expert, Fernand De Varennes, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, the conversation moved to rights of minorities. He explained that his report concluded that, despite the pledge to “leave no one behind”, development is prioritized over people. Minorities, indigenous peoples and especially women from these communities, are seldom at the heart of strategies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
The ensuing dialogue heard heated discussions between the representatives of France, on behalf of 43 countries and the United States, requesting further investigation of the violation of the Uyghurs’ human rights in Xinjiang, and several other representatives who rejected such accusations, citing the principle of non‑interference with the internal affairs of another nation. When answering delegates on hate speech targeting minorities, Mr. De Varennes called for global standards to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable populations.
The last speaker of the day, Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, called for greater recognition of cultural mixing and greater respect for mixed and multiple cultural identities, while recognizing that cultures do not always mix from a position of equality. “Diverse examples from all world regions should be celebrated and studied,” she said. Purity and authenticity‑based approaches to culture undermine the reality of cultural heterogeneity, with a range of negative consequences for human rights.
During the dialogue with delegations, the representative of the Russian Federation said the report’s appeal for broad recognition of cultures contains a “dangerous contradiction” that one can delete or dilute a culture but not attempt to retain it, which could give rise to a hateful society. Ms. Bennoune, in response, said it is important to realize who defines traditional values. The report looks honestly at what those values are, how they need to change over time and who is allowed to contribute to tradition.
Also presenting findings today was Rosemary Kayess, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of persons with disabilities.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on 22 October to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
Interactive Dialogues – Persons with Disabilities
ROSEMARY KAYESS, Chair, Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities and called for recovery plans that address their needs. Noting that the Committee adapted its work methods to the online environment as an exceptional measure ‑ dealing with restricted meeting times, time zone differences and connectivity issues ‑ she went on to stress that United Nations policies are inadequate for facilitating the provision of individualized support for experts with disabilities and she called for a reasonable accommodation policy that is transparent and sufficiently funded. As the Committee returns to in‑person meetings in 2022, the inflexibility of budgetary protocols will continue to hamper efforts to strengthen engagement in regional areas, such as holding in‑person regional sessions.
In her capacity as Chair of the chairpersons of treaty bodies, she pointed to the thirty-third meeting of the Treaty Body Chairs, which took place online from 7 to 11 June 2021 (document A/76/254). The proposal put forward during the Chairs’ meeting supports a common predictable schedule of reviews based on a five‑year cycle. This cycle would consist of a full review of State obligations, followed by a focused review of a maximum of four issues. Noting that the review schedule would need to recognize the specific mandates of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, she said a predictable schedule of reviews would resolve the existing backlog, ensuring equal treatment and general compliance by States with their reporting obligations. It would also provide States with predictability, reducing their reporting burden and respond to States’ legitimate concerns about unnecessary duplication.
She said the Committee’s proposal on the “digital uplift” recognizes that some areas of treaty body work could benefit from moving online and be enhanced by integrated digital platforms. The proposal acknowledges that remote or virtual work must be recognized as part of the core mandate of treaty bodies, she said, calling for a common model that would allow treaty bodies to operate as a coherent system.
When the floor was opened for interactive dialogue, the representative of Australia asked the Chair to expand upon the Committee’s efforts to address the intersecting issues facing persons with disabilities, including as they relate to gender, race and age. Meanwhile, the representative of the United States said that the accessibility needs of delegates with disabilities are not being met. Calling for full participation of delegates with disabilities in meetings, including through an after‑hours exit for delegates, as well as a lift in order to deliver remarks from the General Assembly podium, he asked Ms. Kayess about the Committee’s cooperation with other treaty bodies. On a similar note, an observer for the Sovereign Order of Malta asked about the biggest challenges to implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
On that point, the representative of Ethiopia called for effective implementation of the Convention, adding that article 41 of her country’s Constitution ensures equal rights. Eight national associations have been established and more than 8 million beneficiaries, mainly poor households, now benefit from urban and rural protective Governmental programmes, she added.
Among the delegates outlining national measures was the representative of Iran, who pointed to his country’s inclusive pandemic recovery measures, notably the priority given to COVID‑19 vaccines for persons with disabilities. He highlighted the barriers they face in countries under unilateral coercive measures by the United States, including through a lack of medicine.
Also speaking were representatives of Switzerland, France, Poland, Qatar, the United Kingdom, Morocco and Thailand, as well as on observer for the European Union.
Ms. KAYESS, responding, said women and girls were left out of the planning for COVID‑19 responses, and in terms of data collected on the impact of the virus. She stressed the importance of bringing people with disabilities to the table for planning policy responses, recommending that States take a holistic approach to meeting their needs through strategies that consider the range of disabilities people experience.
She more broadly highlighted the Committee’s cooperation with other treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Disability Alliance, as well as with academia and civil society.
GERARD QUINN, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, presented his report (document A/76/146) on the rights of these persons in the context of armed conflict, explaining that article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was the starting point of his work. He emphasized the importance of the Security Council resolution 2475 (2019) on the protection of persons with disabilities during conflict. Thanking all experts who participated in the consultation process,
“There is no question that the Convention is relevant across every point on the peace continuum,” he said, expressing concern about the uneven visibility of persons with disabilities in this context. “Peacekeeping operations need to become more attuned to the presence and rights of civilians with disabilities”, he said, underscoring that they are seldom factored into conflict prevention strategies and their distinctive voices are rarely heard. Their positive role in peacebuilding also must be acknowledged. Recalling that the Convention is anchored in personhood, voice, human agency and equal treatment, he said the protection and safety provisions under the Convention’s article 11) are consistent with resolution 2475 (2019).
Pointing to the recommendations of the report, he invited States to ensure maximum visibility of persons with disabilities across the peace continuum. He shared his intention to follow up with a report on international humanitarian law in 2022, and a report on peacebuilding and disability, in 2023, which he considered an “untapped domain”. He therefore said he would make his voice heard in ancillary debates, notably related to the draft treaty on crimes against humanity.
When opening the floor for questions and comments, delegates indicated that persons with disabilities had been disproportionately impacted by COVID‑19 and outlined national initiatives to meet their needs. In that vein, the representative of the Republic of Korea stressed that the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities into political decision‑making is a priority. The representative of the United Kingdom praised the Special Rapporteur’s report, recalling efforts by her country and Poland to ensure the adoption of Security Council resolution 2475 (2019).
Several delegates requested examples of best practices to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities, with the representative of Canada mentioning her country’s candidacy to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Similarly, the representative of New Zealand announced that her country and Mexico would present a biennial resolution together.
On the other hand, other delegations were interested in understanding how the gap in the implementation of the Convention could be overcome, with the representative of Mexico calling on the Third Committee to achieve progress for the rights of persons with disabilities in situations of emergency. The representative of Qatar pointed to the Doha Declaration adopted at the 2019 International Conference on Disability and Development. The representative of Colombia meanwhile drew attention to the partnership between the Government and victims’ associations to further include persons with disabilities in peacebuilding processes.
In the end, the representative of Algeria brought a different perspective by focusing on the situation in the Sub‑Saharan region, calling on the international community to seek lasting solutions to ongoing conflicts.
Also speaking were representatives of Croatia, Philippines, Israel, Hungary, European Union, Ireland, United States, El Salvador, Fiji, Côte d’Ivoire, China, Finland and Poland.
Mr. QUINN, in response, indicated that ensuring greater coherence among existing international laws should be a priority, adding that the Convention has had a ripple effect on all domains, thanks to provisions such as article 4c. He went on to say that bringing development, security and human rights together is essential in order to move forward. A paradigm shift is needed to focus on the human agency to prevent conflicts and rebuild society.
To the question by the representative of Poland, he drew attention to innovative programmes carried out by the World Bank, adding that he considers research by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and the American Journal of International Law as the best in the field. Sharing best practices, he referred to initiatives undertaken by the militaries in Denmark, Finland and Argentina, pointing out that the forthcoming thematic report of the Human Rights Council would focus on artificial intelligence and disability, including autonomous weapon systems.
Persons Affected by Leprosy
ALICE CRUZ, Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discriminations against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, presented her report (document A/76/148), noting that more than 100 laws actively discriminate against people with this condition, also known as Hansen’s disease. Such discrimination exists in States, in both the global North and South, that have ratified international human rights instruments. “These laws not only violate the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons affected by leprosy, but also impact their family members, descendants and entire communities,” she asserted.
She pointed to the wrongful framing of leprosy as a highly contagious disease, noting that States started segregating persons affected by leprosy by force in the late 1800s, with no evidence whatsoever on the prophylactic efficacy of such policy. Many discriminatory laws were enacted long after the discovery of a cure. “Leprosy is not highly transmissible,” she stressed. Yet, with 200,000 individuals affected every year ‑ and up to 5 million people living with leprosy - it also is not a disease of the past. Describing various types of discrimination - such as compulsory segregation and isolation, exclusion from elections or the holding of public office and restrictions on the freedom of movement - she went on to stress that these types of laws violate, directly and indirectly, a wide range of human rights.
Commending States’ efforts, she welcomed the progress achieved over the past few years to eliminate these laws. She also invited them to enhance cooperation with justice systems, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders, reiterating the call for political decisions that do not depend on additional resources. She concluded by urging States to eliminate discrimination actively and urgently.
When the floor opened for comments and questions, delegates denounced discriminatory practices against persons affected by leprosy, with an observer for the European Union noting that stigma or violence based on health conditions is a human rights issue. He asked the Special Rapporteur how the history of leprosy could foster understanding of the condition today and the creation of freer, more just societies. The representative of Portugal said stigma pushes people with leprosy into situations of vulnerability and exclusion. He asked the Special Rapporteur to describe the right to judicial access for people affected by leprosy, particularly women, while the representative of Japan highlighted the isolation of patients with leprosy as a discriminatory law that must be eliminated. The representative of the United Arab Emirates said it is important to raise awareness among young people about the importance of mental and physical health, especially in context of the pandemic.
Ms. CRUZ, responding, said that understanding the history of leprosy would educate societies on the risks to justice and freedom that come from criminalizing public health strategies. Some countries have education programmes about the forcible segregation of people with leprosy by State policies, which helps to generate awareness. “There was never any evidence to support the forced segregation of persons affected by leprosy” she emphasized. Yet, so many people have suffered from this policy, a torment she described as a continuous violation, as it still affects their lives and those of their children. Children were also segregated in many countries and some States enacted forced sterilization of persons with leprosy.
Going forward, she said there are good practices for addressing formal and substantive discrimination against people with leprosy, underscoring the importance of cooperating with civil society groups, which have been instrumental in ensuring rights are respected. On access to justice, she said there are many barriers, with women in particular subjected to violence, denied access to education and dependant on third‑party authorization to access health care.
FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, presenting his report (document A/76/162), said that it underlines the priority of a regional approach to the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues to make it even more accessible and better reflect regional expertise, concerns and contexts. What started in 2019 with three regional forums has in 2021 expanded to four, for Africa and the Middle East, the Americas, Asia‑Pacific and Europe and Central Asia, thanks to the support and coordination by the Tom Lantos Institute.
Unfortunately, the report’s main conclusion is that, despite the pledge to “leave no one behind”, development is still prioritized over people. There is insufficient focus on the most marginalized communities. While many States have made commendable efforts in a number of social and economic development areas, the failure to disaggregate data by key dimensions beyond the basics of age and gender, and in particular ethnicity, masks what the report refers to as “lopsided development”, where not everyone shares equally the benefits. The benefits of a development agenda for minorities, and indigenous peoples in particular ‑ including access to education, health care, electricity and safe water - remain elusive, as they are frequently determined by ethnicity, or even in some cases, religion. Without the provision of data, the scale of inequalities is masked.
He expressed his concern that minorities, indigenous peoples and especially women from these communities are seldom at the heart of strategies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The report makes recommendations to redress the fact that there is little or no attention in the measures and indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals to how minorities are treated or impacted in social and economic development terms.
When opening the floor for questions and comments, the representative of France, on behalf of 43 countries, expressed concern about the systematic violation of human rights in the Xinjiang region, where the freedom of religion is subject to severe restrictions. He requested China to authorize unfettered access to United Nations envoys to assess the situation. Similarly, the representative of the United States stressed that his country will continue to protect the human rights of minorities globally, notably in Afghanistan, China and Myanmar.
Reacting to the statement, the representative of Cuba, on behalf of 66 countries, rejected the accusations made against China, citing the principle of non‑interference with the internal affairs of another nation, with the representatives of Kuwait, Pakistan, Syria, Madagascar, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Belarus, Ghana, Iran and Cambodia endorsing those remarks. In the same vein, the representative of China requested the United States and France to stop violating the scope of the Committee.
On the other hand, the representative of the Russian Federation expressed his concerns about discrimination against Russian‑speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia, requesting actions to recognize ethnic minorities.
Also speaking were representatives of Syria, Austria, Maldives, Tajikistan, Eritrea, Liechtenstein, Sri Lanka, Hungary, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Ethiopia, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Nicaragua, India, Japan, Grenada and Burundi, as well as an observer for the European Union.
Mr. DE VARENNES responded by stressing that collecting data is essential to ensure greater social development. Recommendations would then be drawn, “building on the facts”. He welcomed the mention of the thirtieth anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Pointing to hate speech and social media, he underlined the need for global standards to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable populations.
He added that good practices to prevent conflicts were identified during the regional forums. Solid human rights protections could also be implemented to address the rising number of victims of conflicts. He concluded by mentioning the issue of stateless individuals who are the least able to benefit from human rights, regretting that no solution has yet been found.
KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, presenting her report (document A/76/178), said it focuses on cultural mixing and mixed cultural identities. “In recent years, increasingly monolithic notions of culture and identity and purist views of the interrelationships of diverse cultures have taken hold in various sectors across the political spectrum around the world,” she said, including as advocated by some Governments. She called for greater recognition of cultural mixing and syncretism [the combining of different beliefs and schools of thought], as well as for greater respect for mixed and multiple cultural identities, while recognizing that cultures do not always mix from a position of equality. “Diverse examples from all world regions should be celebrated and studied,” she said. She pointed to creolité or creolization as one prominent example, which subverts an originally colonial notion and instead emphasizes the composite nature of cultural and other identities. A human rights framework firmly grounded in equality, participation and consultation of all affected constituencies must be applied.
She went on to stress that purity and authenticity‑based approaches to culture undermine the reality of cultural heterogeneity, with a range of negative consequences for human rights. “The insistence on cultural purity can lead to the decimation of those deemed to taint that purity, to obliteration of individuals and groups”, she said, emphasizing that the refusal to respect cultural mixing or mixed cultural identities leads to many human rights violations. For example, rejection of syncretism has led to attacks on religious sites and relics important for some Afro‑Brazilians, such as the destruction of terreiros from Umbanda and Candomblé. Under the control of the Taliban, the rich cultural diversities in heritage, women’s dress and music now banned in Afghanistan, are threatened with obliteration. The international community must offer asylum to Afghan cultural workers forced to flee, and equally importantly, support those who remain, while resolutely demanding the Taliban respect cultural rights without discrimination.
Cultural mixing cannot be taken for granted in a world where it is often under attack, she said. The only way to guarantee cultural rights without discrimination is to “creatively and vigorously” defend open and multiple understandings of culture and identity, and rights‑respecting cultural mixing and syncretism.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of the United States expressed concern over the suppression of cultural right defenders, indigenous persons and members of minority groups, citing ongoing repression by the Chinese Communist Party against the ethnic, religious and cultural identities of minority groups in China. She called for protection and promotion of the human rights of Uyghurs from Xinjiang, as well as Tibetans, asking the Special Rapporteur about best practices for fostering accountability.
Echoing the Special Rapporteur’s emphasis on the need for a human rights‑based approach to issues of mixed cultural identities, cultural mixing and syncretism, an observer for the European Union reiterated the bloc’s commitment to the universality and interdependence of human rights. It is essential to respect the cultural rights of everyone without discrimination, she said, warning that claims of “purity” and a restricted view of other cultures fail to reflect the complexity of the human experience. The insistence on “cultural purity” can only lead to vicious cycles of conflict, which in turn, provide fertile ground for racism and xenophobia. She asked about policies that should be given priority towards achieving intercultural solidarity.
“We are a proudly mixed nation,” noted the representative of Cuba who stressed that his country devotes great resources to cultural rights. However, cultural rights have been blocked by the United States embargo against Cuba for more than six decades. He asked the Special Rapporteur to investigate the impact of these measures on the enjoyment of cultural rights.
The representative of Egypt, drawing attention to remote areas and groups most in need, said cultural and environmental patterns of local communities should be considered in drafting and implementing the economic and urban development plans of unprivileged areas. Egypt gives special attention to maintaining cultural diversity, promoting arts and literature, as well as sponsoring creations in all fields, he said, pointing to support for cultural centres and non‑governmental cultural activities.
Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation said the report’s appeal for broad recognition of cultures contains a “dangerous contradiction” that one can delete or dilute a culture but not attempt to retain it. This might give rise to a hateful society, he warned.
Also speaking were representatives of Ukraine, Morocco, Cameroon, Qatar, Cyprus and Algeria.
Ms. BENNOUNE responded to the representative of the Russian Federation that it is important to realize who defines traditional values. The report is not antithetical to traditional values. Rather, it looks honestly at what those values are, how they need to change over time and who is allowed to contribute to tradition. On intercultural solidarity, she pressed the international community to enhance cultural sharing and mobility, by addressing both the obstacles that arose during the pandemic and those that precede it, such as xenophobia. To address these issues in keeping with cultural rights, she stressed the need for a systematic plan.
She went on to caution that without accountability for violations of cultural rights, it will be difficult to fulfil the Human Rights Council’s vision. She therefore advocated for including more cases under the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights related to Article 15. It is crucial that perpetrators of these violations are brought to justice at the national level in accordance with international law.
Highlighting specific Sustainable Development Goals focused on culture, she said the enjoyment of cultural rights can lead to fulfilling other goals, such as those related to climate change. On cultural heritage, she urged the international community to build bridges rather than walls, and to avoid focusing selectively on cultural heritage.