On Monday, 25 October the International Disability Alliance, CBM-Global/Ireland, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) , International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Professor  Gerard Quinn organized a webinar to present the thematic report on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Armed Conflict to civil society. Launched at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, the report assesses the protection of persons with disabilities in the context of armed conflict and examines the current application of the specific obligations enumerated in Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and in Security Council Resolution 2475 (2019).

Parallel to the launching of the thematic report Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) in collaboration with the International Disability Alliance (IDA) shared their report on Tigray refugees with disabilities in Eastern Sudan camps. The report showcases the persistent exclusion of persons with disabilities from the humanitarian response, which further exacerbates the situation of refugees with disabilities, contributing to the violation of their rights. It is based upon field research in two refugee camps in Eastern Sudan, fleeing from the Tigray conflict.

Facilitated by Sarah O’Toole from CBM Ireland the webinar began with presentations of the two reports.

First, Rahma Mustafa shared IRW New evidence from the ground: report on the situation of persons with disabilities affected by conflict in Tigray. Rahma is an alumni of CRPD/SDG Bridge training and was one of the two researchers who contributed in this report. In her presentation, Rahma shared an in depth look into the Eastern Sudan refugee camps and Tigray refugees with persons with disabilities. The findings in the report identified the challenges faced by refugees with disabilities in accessing:

  • Identification & registration
  • Barriers around access to information
  • Shelter
  • WASH
  • Food
  • Cash assistance
  • Health
  • Camp management

This report concludes with urgent and mid-term recommendations to humanitarian actors, as well as recommendations to governments, the UN, and organizations of persons with disabilities.

William Pons who iscurrently serving as Senior Legal Advisor and Researcher to the UN Special Rapporteur presented the thematic report. William shared the main points of the report including the process, purpose, conclusions and recommendations. According to William, his thematic report on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Armed Conflict is the first of three in a series on advancing disability inclusion on the peace continuum. The forthcoming reports to the UN General Assembly will be in 2022 on the conduct of hostilities and disability and in 2023 on peacebuilding and disability.

Rosemary Kayess, the Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sent a video on the CRPD Committee supporting recommendations of report. “This utilization and application of the standards and principles of CRPD, the specialist law in the area of disability, is a welcome contribution to the broader efforts to ensure coherence and reduce the fragmentation of international law.”

Following the presentations, a panel, moderated by Professor Gerard Quinn, discussed how the report can be utilized by organizations of persons with disabilities, NGOs, and other civil society actors in their work.

Haitham Al Saqqa, Community Programme officer with Medical Aid for Palestine, as someone with a disability, living and working in Gaza, shared the impact of many of the issues raised in the report.  Haitham also worked closely with Human Rights Watch to document the experiences of people with disabilities in Gaza.  He spoke at the Human Rights Council in 2017, three years after the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza. I spoke then about Israel’s violations of the rights of people with disabilities highlighted in conversations with people with disabilities through my work at MAP.

“Our experiences in Gaza illustrate the harm that can be caused where persons with disabilities are not adequately protected, and international law not followed in conflicts.”

One of the recommendations in the report is that “states and militaries should undertake to develop specific protections for persons with disabilities during the conduct of hostilities.” Haitham shared firsthand experiences as to why this is crucial:

  • First, the blockade and closure of Gaza means that civilians, including persons with disabilities, are unable to freely move to and from the Strip. In times of hostilities, when Israel’s approval rate for exit permits drops significantly, there is no escape.
  • Second, many advance warning and evacuation procedures are inaccessible for people with different disabilities, which often means they cannot flee.
    • In the May 2021 attacks on Gaza, Israel used warning missiles – people with hearing disabilities were unable to hear these warnings and uncertain of what areas were safe for them to approach.
    • Preliminary warnings are often not effective or advanced enough for people with disabilities to evacuate safely. For people who use technical aids or devices, there is little time to gather those necessary items before fleeing their homes – many of which were destroyed. In some circumstances people with disabilities had to be left in their homes, as family members were unable to evacuate them.

Next in the panel were representatives of ICRC. Michael Mwendwa is the Disability Inclusion Adviser at the Operation Directorate of the ICRC. Michael recognized the ability to use this report within the ICRC in ways of developing capacities of persons with disabilities, especially when engaging with militaries. In line with the report is the ICRC Vision 2030 in invoking persons with disabilities in processes, services, and programs.

Alexander Breitegger ICRC legal adviser, appreciated the report as a “great tool in its analysis and also in its diagnostic of the current state of international humanitarian law as it applies to persons with disabilities in armed conflict.”  Applying existing protections applies to both states’ parties and non-states parties to armed conflict as well, International Humanitarian law is, in that sense, complementary to the CRPD. Following the recommendation of integrating disability perspective in military doctrine training and practice offers a practical way forward. Indeed, forward to the process leading up to the next report in 2022.

Diane Richler, past president of Inclusion International and former chair of IDA, reflected on the comment from the UN Secretary General referring to the three pillars of the UN being human rights, development, and security. “Often when you are able to focus on the common identification of problems, on the common identification of needs, you can actually break through some of those entrenched political positions and political identities.  And it's only when that starts to happen, and people start to develop common goals and common perspectives that you can really ensure a lasting peace. “People with disabilities, regardless of political affiliation or history, may share similar kinds of objectives, that disability may be a rallying point and a way of bringing people together in ways that other identities don't.”

The closing remarks was provided by IDA’s Inclusive Humanitarian Action and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Advisor, Elham Youssefian, suggested a few action points from today:

  • First, make sure to understand the report.  Read the report.  And include the report in any capacity-building activities.
  • Consider changing the assumption that this report is just for organizations or civil society working in conflict situations.  Every country has a military, and where there is a military, there is opportunity for implementation of this report and other pieces of the report and those coming in the next two years.
  • To civil society and organizations of persons with disabilities, consider including advocacy with the military, with those who are responsible for the evacuation, rehabilitation, and support to those who are affected by conflict. make sure that their activities and their implementation is inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities. 
  •  Research and evidence gathering. 
  • Welcoming the work of democratization, it would be a very strong tool to prevent war and conflict.  persons with disabilities, as 15% of the world population, can participate and play an important role in prevention of conflict or preventing the escalation of the conflict by including the understanding of democracy and democratization in future action plans.

You can find the recording of the webinar here.