AGENDA Disability Rights Adviser Yusdiana visited Geneva on June 11 to attend the 23rd Session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. Her attendance marks growing recognition and appreciation of AGENDA and its work not just in the Southeast Asia, but globally. Yusdiana sat down with us to discuss her visit.
Can you tell us a little bit about the event you attended in Geneva?
The event was the 23rd regular session of the Human Rights Council. Members of the Human Rights Council meet each March, June and September to discuss issues pertaining to human rights principles around the world. A special session is sometimes held to respond to an emergency or unique situation.
Civil society representatives were given the opportunity to deliver their statements on topics related to four panels and I was given the opportunity to deliver my statement in one of the panels. I spoke on a panel about democracy and rule of law from a human rights perspective. Around 25 countries participated in the panel discussion.
The panel I joined discussed challenges facing States in their efforts to secure democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective, as well as lessons learned and best practices in engaging the State with the international community to support such processes. I represented AGENDA to speak about the political rights of persons with disabilities – the challenges we face in the democratic process and recommendations on how to solve these problems.
How did you get invited?
The original invitation was extended by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. They had funds available for a representative from a Southeast Asian country. They contacted the International Foundation for Electoral System (IFES), AGENDA’s lead partner, and IFES extended the invitation to me as the AGENDA Disability Rights Adviser.
What made you want to speak at the session?
I was there to speak on behalf of persons with disabilities on issues related to political rights. When we talk about democracy, everybody should be equal and entitled to the same set of rights and protection. However, there are still groups of people who do not enjoy their rights fully, whether due to neglect, ignorance, discrimination or other factors – and this includes persons with disabilities. A democracy can never fully achieve its potential if this continues to happen.
Speaking here will have more impact because people saw that I have a disability, and I spoke about the barriers persons with disabilities experience in enjoying their political rights.
What were some of your remarks? Were there any other highlights from the panel?
I pointed out some of the barriers related to the right to vote include inaccessible polling stations –gravel areas, no ramp, the space is too narrow so wheelchair users have difficulties moving easily and independently. For deaf persons, polling stations might lack information with pictures explaining voting procedures or poll workers do not know how to communicate using sign language. Blind persons cannot vote in secret since there is no Braille ballot template available. They have to sacrifice the secrecy of their vote by telling poll workers or others their choice. Persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities are rejected by election officers when they try to register, because the officer thinks persons with such disabilities do not have the ability to make a decision about whom to vote for and that it is the officer’s role to make a judgment about this.
I was really happy hearing the opening speech from Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. She called for countries to pay more attention to the protection of minority and vulnerable groups.
Who did you meet? What did you talk about with them?
I met with Elena Kountouri Tapiero from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and also Ellen Walker from the International Disability Alliance (IDA). Elena, who is the focal point on accessibility issues for OHCHR, also asked my opinion about the accessibility of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. I think this shows how the United Nations is increasingly committed to the rights of persons with disabilities. I met with the Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations, who was really interested to learn more about AGENDA and the work we are doing.
I had a discussion with Ajith Sunghay, from the OHCHR for the Asia Pacific Region. He was really interested in AGENDA’s work and how the network is influencing governments in Southeast Asia to ensure the political rights of persons with disabilities.
What are your expectations from your involvement there?
I believe having persons with disabilities attend and speak at these events will have an impact and better ensure the political rights of persons with disabilities. I believe this is a really important issue in democracy – the political process should be accessible to persons with disabilities.
In my statement, I also recommend that States should take appropriate, necessary action in guaranteeing persons with disabilities their political rights, such as providing reasonable accommodation and eliminating barriers that prevent or limit effective and full participation. All processes should be accessible, easy to understand and use, regardless of the type of disability. This is necessary to real democracy, which must be of and for all the people.