Promoting the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Statement

EU Disability-inclusive International Cooperation and Humanitarian Action

High-level exchange for the EU Disability Intergroup, identifying recent
policy developments on disability inclusion in international cooperation and humanitarian action, and highlighting priorities relevant to MEPs

26 March 2021, 11-12h30 CET

EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore



Commissioner Dalli, Commissioner Lenarčič, Members of the European Parliament (…), Dear participants, 

Good morning. It is a great pleasure to be with you all today, albeit virtually – our modus operandi in this protracted fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, live with disabilities. Persons with disabilities have been among those the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Persons with disabilities find themselves in situations of heightened risk, including in segregated institutions. The pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities, exposing the extent of exclusion and highlighting that work on disability inclusion is imperative. 

In crises like the one we face today, persons with disabilities are often left behind, and treated as if they are invisible. Their rights – our common human rights – are often disregarded, undermined or outright violated. More than 14 years after the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a human rights-based approach to disability is still far from being a reality – in the minds and attitudes of very many people but also in policies and laws. And every crisis exposes those gaps.     

As a party to this ground-breaking Convention, the European Union is committed to promoting the rights of persons with disabilities also in its external action, the area for which I am responsible as the Special Representative for Human Rights.

In our external relations – in Human Rights Dialogues, through our leadership in multilateral fora, through our development assistance, or trade agreements – we promote the active inclusion and full, effective and meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in society and economic life on an equal basis with others. It is important to recall that disability is a human rights issue – in Europe and everywhere in the world.

The EU’s commitment and ambition is reflected in our new Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for the next decade (of which the Commissioners spoke in detail) and in our Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024, which was agreed by all our Member States last November. This Action Plan aims to step up the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities in our global action. I have been tasked to guide the implementation of the Action Plan and I pay great attention to the overarching priority of advancing the non-discrimination agenda, including for persons with disabilities.     

Through the Action Plan, the EU is set to assist in preventing and removing attitudinal, institutional and environmental barriers, which persons with disabilities face on daily basis. In our external action, we are working to ensure accessibility to infrastructure, transport, information and communication technologies as well as ensuring inclusive services, such as quality education, including distance learning, and healthcare, justice and employment.

Harnessing the potential of new technologies is one of the five priorities of the Action Plan. It is key that persons with disabilities everywhere can reap the benefits of digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence and that they are involved already at the design stage of new technologies.       

Both the new Strategy on disability and the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy seek ways to tackle multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that often affect persons with disabilities. In 2019, we have adopted Human Rights Guidelines on non-discrimination in external action to reinforce our global efforts in combating discrimination, including based on disability. 

Now, how do we translate the Action Plan into a sustained foreign policy practice worldwide? 

First, the role of the European Union Delegations and Member States embassies is indispensable. They are not only our eyes and ears; they are our brains and arms in the world involved in project management and diplomatic work alike. We should fully use the enormous combined assets we have at our disposal.    

Second, we have a rich human rights toolbox – we engage in some 60 Human Rights Dialogues with states and regional organizations; we have the world’s largest programme dedicated to human rights and democracy to disburse around EUR 1.5 billion in the next seven years; we have trade agreements and preferential trade schemes underpinned by human rights; last December, we have adopted a new global human rights sanctions regime with the first broad package of sanctions against human rights violators approved this Monday.

We must deploy these instruments fully and in a concerted manner. Sometimes, it is rather challenging but the Action Plan should make us more pro-active and our action more joined up.   

The rights of persons with disabilities feature on the agenda of our Human Rights Dialogues with partner countries, for example consistently so with Central Asian countries. We always make sure that civil society organisations are engaged in these bilateral Dialogues.

Soon, we will be launching a strategic dialogue with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her office. It will be an opportunity to discuss various issues, including cooperation on promoting rights-based approach to disability.

As the first and so far the only major international human rights treaty ratified by the EU as distinct from our Member States’ ratifications, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities must be part and parcel of our human rights foreign policy.

We need to step up our advocacy for the ratification and effective implementation of the Convention. I am glad that a reference to this Convention will be included in the revision of our Generalised Scheme of Trade Preferences regulation (GSP+). I am also glad that the Commission will be proposing that the EU puts forward a candidate for the elections to the Committee monitoring States’ compliance with the Convention.

In closing, let me underline that the Commission’s vision of a Union of Equality is key for our global vision of a world of equality, the world where human rights, the rule of law, and multilateralism prevail. Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must “build back better” but we must not forget to “build back better” for everyone with all human rights front and centre.         

Thank you.