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Speech by The Rt Hon the Lord Morris to Draft the Charter for the Third Millennium for Disabled People Worldwide

Lord Morris

I find this a very moving occasion. Twenty years ago, in 1981, I addressed, in Kuwait, representatives of the twenty-two Arab nations who came together there to celebrate the International Year of Disabled Persons. I did so as Chairman of the World Planning Group appointed two years earlier to draft RI's Charter for the 80s for disabled people worldwide.

Thus nothing could be more agreeable to me, in the year 2001, than to have been invited to address this important conference on RI's new charter - the Charter for the Third Millennium - the drafting of which I was again asked to preside over. We are met here under the High Patronage of HE The President of the Republic of Lebanon, General Emile Lahoud, and I pay tribute today both to the President and people of the Republic for so warmly welcoming us to what I am sure will be a memorably successful conference.

The World Planning Group chosen to draft the new charter comprised many highly distinguished people from the north, south, east and west of the world. They included HE Chief Emeka Anyaoku, then Commonwealth Secretary-General; Deng Pufang, Chairman of the China Disabled Persons' Federation; Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Anatole Ossadchikh, a Minister in the Russian Federation; HRH Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudia Arabia; Shri DK Manvalan of India; Justin Dart, who formally chaired the US President's Committee on Employment of people with disabilities; Prince Ra'ad Bin Zeid of Jordan, Professor Stephen Hawking of the United Kingdom; and Sir Harry Fang of Hong Kong, a former President of RI. I am most grateful to them all and also to RI's senior officers for their dedication and sustained leadership in promoting the new charter.

The Charter for the Third Millennium updates its highly acclaimed predecessor of twenty years ago, whose impact is seen in the laws of scores of countries across the world and which became the basis of the UN World Programme of Action for the Decade of Disabled Persons. The Charter for the 80s was about the importance f providing basic rehabilitation services at the right time and in the right place; full representation for disabled people on all public bodies making decisions affecting their lives; equal opportunities in education and the workplace; a basic income and access to the built environment in a world where most countries still had no disability legislation of any kind.

By contrast, the new charter is mainly about basic human and civil rights: those of the world's 600 million people with physical, intellectual and sensory disabilities.

Today, millions of people, children and adults alike, more especially among the poorest of the world's poor, live with the effects of disabilities that were easily preventable at minimal cost. Failure to protect them is a problem not of resources but of political will and priorities. In the same way, purposeful action to reduce the handicapping effects of disability is still pitifully inadequate. Indeed, in most of the world the problems of disabled living, far from being reduced, are multiplied by wholly unmerited but still lawful discrimination against disabled people.

RI's new charter offers new hope and a new vision for a new century: one of full empowerment and genuine social inclusion for disabled people everywhere. Its emphasis is on value as well as cost and its plea to governments is for acts not of compassion but of enlightened self-interest and moral right.

The knowledge and skills now exist to enable all countries to remove the barriers which exclude people with disabilities from the life of their communities. It is possible now for every country to open all of its institutions and systems to all of its people. Again, what is too often lacking is the political will to proclaim and translate into action the policies necessary to bring this about. And the Charter for the Third Millennium makes it plain that a nation failing to respond to this challenge fails to realise its true worth.

The new charter states: "In the 21st century, we must insist on the same human and civil rights for people with disabilities as for everyone else". It insists too, that disabled people should have a central role in planning their own rehabilitation and support programmes and that their organisations should be empowered with the resources necessary to share responsibility in national planning for rehabilitation and independent living. It calls on: " Every nation to develop, with the participation of disabled people's organisations, a comprehensive plan with clearly defined targets and timetables for implementing the aims set out in this charter."

Other principal aims of the new charter are, first, to promote action in every country to create on-gong, countrywide programmes to prevent risks that may lead to disability and early intervention programmes for people who become impaired; secondly, to achieve a UN Convention on the rights of people with disabilities as a key strategy; and thirdly, to ensure that international development assistance programmes should require accessibility for disabled people in all infrastructure projects, including technology and communications, to vouchsafe for disabled people full inclusion in the economic and social life of their communities.

The charter poses the question why so many people still acquire preventable disabilities and its authors share the view of UNICEF's report on The State of the World's Children which states: "When so much could be done for so many and at so little cost, then one central, shameful fact becomes unavoidable; the reason that these problems are not being overcome is not because the task is too large or too difficult or too expensive, it is that the job is not being given sufficient priority because those most severely affected are almost exclusively the poorest and least politically influential people on earth."

Look, for example, at the incidence of blindness in the world today. Four out of five blind people live in the third world and four out of five of them are preventably blind. Yet as has been so clearly demonstrated, the cost of saving people in the third world from preventable blindness and other disabilities has been falling as dramatically as the incidence of preventable disabilities in many of the poorest countries has increased.

That is why the charter proclaims the need now for a UN Convention on the rights of disabled people, the case for which has been so well presented both by Lex Frieden and Dr Arthur O'Reilly, his predecessor as President of RI, who, speaking at a service held to celebrate the new Charter in the Church of St Mary Undercroft in the British House of Commons in December 1999, put the point very succinctly in stating, "Disabled people have waited too long for their rights to be fully recognised and protected: it is time now to move on to the UN Convention we are recommending."

What I find so refreshing about working with representatives of disability organisations from across the world, irrespective of where they live, is their readiness always to prioritise the claims of the world's poorest disabled people. That was strongly reflected among those who shared with me the task of drafting the Charter for the Third Millennium, as it has been since in every statement commending the document at presentations to head of state and of government.

The new charter has already been presented, among others, to state leaders in China, Russia, Ireland, Jordan, Greece, Lebanon, South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom. It has also been received with approbation by the United Nations and the Commonwealth and there is a wide growing support for the Charter's call for a UN Convention on disabled people's rights.

Chief Emeka Anyoaku said of the Charter for the Third Millennium: "I am proud to be associated with this humane document. While much has been accomplished, there is very much more still to do, not least in challenging failure to prevent preventable diseases and to treat treatable conditions, I take pride most of all in the Charter's insistence that disabled children everywhere must now share the rights of all humanity to grow and learn, to work and create, to love and be loved."

The Charter for the Third Millennium looks forward to a world where all citizens with disabilities are seen as giving as well as receiving; where their potential is understood and valued; where needs come before means; where, if years cannot be added to their lives, at least life can be added to their years; where disabled people have an undoubted right to participate in the work and life of their communities; and where no disabled person has caused to feel ill at ease because of his or her disability.

That is the precious gift the new charter can bequeath to the new millennium and I commend it to you.

Let us all now commit ourselves with renewed vigour to the task of translating our new charter from words into purposeful action; more particularly, its urgent and compelling call for a UN Convention. The disabled people of this region and the world, in whose service we meet here today, deserve no less.

Go back to the Contents

Asia & Pacific Journal on Disability, Vol. 4, No. 2, December 2001, pp 2-5 L. Morris