International Policy Advocacy
Promoting worldwide recognition of abuse as torture
Disability Rights International has engaged in a multi-year campaign to bring about worldwide recognition that the abuse of children and adults with disabilities can constitute torture through our reports on Turkey, Romania, Serbia, the United States and our litigation against Paraguay in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Even though the international community has recently made great strides in the recognition of the rights of people with disabilities, the discrimination and abuse of people with disabilities was historically not viewed as rising to the level of human rights abuses associated with the highest level of international opprobrium: torture. In part, this is because the international human rights community failed to challenge the claims of medical authorities that treatment practices were medically necessary or appropriate. Through careful investigation and fact-finding, Disability Rights International has been able to demonstrate that these practices are painful, dangerous, and not justifiable as treatment.
In 2009, we made major gains in this campaign through our work in Serbia.
When the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reviewed Serbia’s human rights record in 2008, they identified abuses documented in our report – the long-term physical restraint of children with disabilities — as “ill treatment or torture.” According to staff of the UN Special Rapporteur against Torture, this is the first time that the CRC has identified such practices in this manner. In 2009, the European Union adopted the findings of the CRC and recognized these practices as torture. In the Spring of 2009, the European Union invited Disability Rights International to participate in an official conference on torture in Serbia. This not only provided tremendous support for our advocacy efforts in Serbia, it also set precedent within the European Union by treating these types of abuses within the context of its work against torture.
We released a US report in April 2010 which found children and adults with disabilities tortured and abused at a “special needs” residential facility in Massachusetts and filed an “urgent appeal” with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to demand the United States government end the torture immediately.
The report, Torture not Treatment: Electric Shock and Long-Term Restraint in the United States on Children and Adults with Disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), documents the use of electric shocks on the legs, arms, torsos and soles of feet of people with disabilities – for weeks, months and sometimes years. JRC uses punishments as treatment. Residents at JRC are diagnosed with a variety of behavioral, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities such as autism, bi-polar disorder and learning disabilities.
The cruelty perpetrated against children and adults at JRC is psychological and physical abuse, couched in the name of ‘treatment.’ The severe pain and suffering leveled against residents there violates the United Nations Convention against Torture.
On May 11, as a result of receiving our urgent appeal, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, sent a letter to the US State Department asking the government to investigate. “This is torture,” said Nowak on ABC Nightline on June 30, 2010, “I have no doubts about it. It is inflicted in a situation where a victim is powerless. I mean, a child in the restraint chair, being then subjected to electric shocks, how more powerless can you be?” When asked if this treatment would be allowed on a convicted terrorist, Nowak responded, “No, of course not.” Today, due to the work of Disability Rights International, putting a person in a cage or punishing someone with electricity is no longer labeled as “treatment,” and is correctly recognized as torture.
Recognition of international disability rights in the United States
Disability Rights International continues to play a leading role in introducing international human rights principles to the United States. As Vice-President of the US International Council on Disabilities (USICD), Eric Rosenthal is co-chairing the committee on ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Disability Rights International utilizes its expertise in international law and practice in educating the US disability rights community, Obama administration officials, and US legislators about the importance and significance of the CRPD. As a result of our work with USICD, the United States signed the CRPD in July 2009.
Promoting the CRPD in international oversight and enforcement systems
Disability Rights International organized a conference on the use of international human rights litigation to advance the enforcement of the CRPD. This meeting, held last fall in collaboration with the Open Society Institute and the Washington College of Law, American University, brought together top legal experts from Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Dinah Shelton, recently elected to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, gave the keynote address and participated in a strategy session on the use of international oversight systems to protect the rights of people with disabilities. We prepared and presented a detailed case-study of lessons learned from our six-year record of litigation in the Inter-American Human Rights System to protect rights and promote deinstitutionalization in Paraguay. The meeting has led to an ongoing series of collaborative meetings among international legal experts to promote implementation of the CRPD through regional human rights systems.
Working to end international support for new institutions and segregated service systems
Article 32 of the CRPD requires that international development funds be used in a manner that promotes the object and purpose of the convention. Since the CRPD establishes a right to community integration, international funding organizations should no longer be funding institutions that segregate people with disabilities from society.
Disability Rights International has played a major role in shifting US government funds from institutions to support community integration. We have taken a leading role in getting Congressional approval for legislation that would require the United States to use our foreign assistance money in a manner that was accessible and appropriate for people with disabilities. In 2008, MDRI proposed that the US National Council on Disability conduct a worldwide study on the use of funds by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to determine whether they comply with CRPD article 32. In 2009, NCD approved our proposal and has commissioned a world-wide study. We joined a consortium of advocacy groups that were awarded this contract. We have helped design and conduct research for this study, which will be published in late 2010.
Disability Rights International has established a new “Donor Accountability Project.” This project is documenting the impact of international donor funds in rebuilding institutions in Serbia and other countries of the Balkans. It will provide information on US government funding of institutions in the Balkans that can be used for the NCD study.
Over the last five years, we have used our country reports to bring worldwide attention to the use of international donor funds to rebuild institutions. Our report on Romania, which documented this problem, received extensive attention as Romania celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Ceaucescu. In 2009, we assisted the BBC in conducting a follow-up investigation of children formerly detained in Romania’s institutions. The BBC report showed that many children with disabilities once detained in institutions are now languishing in long-term adult facilities.
We recently worked with UNICEF to examine Vietnam’s implementation of the CRPD and present recommendations to international donors about the use of international development funds to advance the rights of children with disabilities. We conducted fact-finding missions to Vietnam in 2009 and conducted workshops for Vietnamese government officials, members of the National Assembly, and international NGO’s operating in Vietnam. We presented our report to UNICEF in November 2009. This report is an important step towards Disability Rights International’s goal of educating international development organizations to implement programs that recognize and protect the rights of persons with disabilities. While this report is directed toward the government and international donors operating in Vietnam, the report is likely the first time UNICEF has recognized its new obligations under article 32 of the CRPD. We can use this recognition to influence the work of UNICEF and other international donors around the world.
The reform of international development policy is essential to Disability Rights International’s goal of ending the worldwide institutionalization of children with disabilities. Please read more about our Worldwide Campaign to End the Institutionalization of Children.