The South Project
During the 1st Session, the group of people representing Disabled People’s Organizations was still small and we didn’t know each other. It was during the 2nd Session that the International Disability Caucus began to emerge in representation of civil society organizations, to make the voice of people with disabilities heard. Nevertheless, I was really concerned by the under-representation of organizations from developing countries.
The question was: How to increase the participation of people with disabilities from developing countries? The problem was not only the lack of financial recourses. Other details, such as obtaining a US visa, also turned out to become obstacles. This is how the idea of the South Project emerged. It was elaborated in 2005, as the result of a partnership between Handicap International and the Inter-American Institute on Disability and Inclusive Development. The South Project was an extra-ordinary project that left a deep mark on the drafting process. It was implemented in 2006. Between January and August 2006, it finally led to the participation in the negotiation process of over 60 Disabled People’s Organization leaders from many places: Asia-Pacific Region countries, African countries and Arab countries. The quality of these people’s interventions brought new perspectives that really enriched the debates.
When I suggested this idea, I felt that a preoccupation began to arise within the Caucus. My idea was to strengthen the Caucus rather than to weaken it. Nevertheless, there was a fear that the same division between organizations from the North and from the South that had occurred in Beijing during the Fourth World Conference on Women [and women’s rights] would happen again. But, quite to the contrary, the idea here was to enrich the Caucus with a greater number of organizations and a broader geographical representation, in order to increase the diversity of proposals. And, indeed, this proved to be one of the South Project’s main achievements, allowing for greater influence on thematic areas such as development and international cooperation. Never before in the history of United Nations treaties had the theme of international development been addressed in such a way. This is a shift that was brought about by the South Project, and as a result it was possible for the struggle against poverty and the emphasis on development to be included in the Convention as cross-cutting issues.
Luis Fernando Astorga
Around 2004-2005, Luis Fernando and I noted that the participation of civil society was predominantly conducted by organizations from developed countries. We knew that this was not the result of a lack of ideas or intelligence, but rather because resources were limited. Luis Fernando maintained that we had to find a way of increasing the participation of people with disabilities from developing countries. He contacted International Non-Governmental Organizations, and this was when Handicap International decided to support the initiative.
This led to the design of the “South Project” in order to support participation of Disabled People’s Organizations’ leaders from developing countries in the drafting process. And, as the participation of Disabled People’s Organizations increased, the idea that there were also many economic barriers to overcome in order to improve the situation of people experiencing poverty grew in importance. The debate became very interesting. It was supported and picked up by the majority of civil society. If you look at the Convention, basically this debate had an impact upon the issues relating to access to resources, but it also raised the question of international aid to help developing countries reach the standards stipulated by the Convention. This is how international cooperation emerged as a theme. This debate was important, and was even included in the Convention’s preamble.
The original idea came from Luis Fernando and Philippe, who had met in New York during the first sessions of the Ad Hoc Committee. Knowing that human rights violations were so significant in the South, there was a clear demand to have leaders from developing countries make their voice heard within the International Disability Caucus, to represent civil society in the negotiation process. This is how Fernando and Philippe started to design the “South Project”. I personally got involved in the operational and logistical part of it.
The first step in the elaboration of this project was to get sponsorship for the participation of as many representatives from the South as possible. We looked for people with disabilities who already had an influence at a national level in their own countries, who had knowledge about human rights and had shown their commitment. We were quite successful with the selection. The vast majority of the leaders came from Latin America, some of them sponsored by other organizations that we had contacted: Leonard Cheshire Disability, Disabled People’s Organizations Denmark. DFID was responsible for funding the project’s overall coordination, including the workshops during and after the Ad Hoc Committee meetings.
Once the participants had been selected, we sent some materials to them beforehand, to inform them about how the negotiation process was unfolding. They arrived in New York two days before the negotiations would start and received a preparatory training to familiarize them with the UN system, with the Convention and its importance, as well as with the advocacy mechanisms in place within the UN. During the negotiation process, civil society was channeling its advocacy through the International Disability Caucus. Then, leaders would try to influence the representatives of their own countries so that their voices were heard. The participants from the South Project took part in the IDC meetings every day, and also used to have preparatory meetings of their own.
Handicap International’s participation in the Convention drafting process was made possible by a dynamic that brought together chiefly the “Disability Rights and Policies” Technical Unit and local programmes involved in supporting disability rights movements in their own countries and regions. For example, for projet Sud’s implementation, the leaders were identified by the programmes themselves, and these leaders included Sanna Laitamo for Latin America, Alexandre Cote for Eastern Europe, and Muhanad Al-Azzeh for the Middle East. For the most part, the people involved in this way already had behind them extensive public advocacy for change practises. They were given preparatory training on the convention drafting process before leaving and, once in New York, participated in the International Disability Caucus (IDC) meetings, which took place on the sidelines of the official sessions. In addition, the projet Sud representatives also met regularly. The Southern leaders quickly integrated the global disability rights movement, and their participation undeniably enriched the debates, bringing the notion of development into the discussion agenda. The participation of these leaders was all the more critical as, once back home in their countries, it was up to them to explain this new convention’s content and challenges to civil society.
A New York, j’ai retrouvé Philippe, avec qui nous avons passé un accord : lui n’ayant pas de budget spécifique pour soutenir l’écriture de la Convention, nous avons décidé de dépêcher le personnel du programme Balkans pour participer au processus de négociation. Très rapidement on s’était mis d’accord avec Philippe pour se dire que ce n’était pas notre rôle, en tant qu’organisation non gouvernementale, d’écrire la Convention. Ça, c’était aux organisations de personnes handicapées de le faire. Au départ, il a donc un peu fallu montrer patte blanche, car les organisations étaient très méfiantes par rapport aux organisations humanitaires. Notre façon de la faire a été de se placer en position de soutien. Ainsi, lors de la 3è session, le simple fait de faire toutes les photocopies du 1er draft et du 2è draft de la Convention proposé par l’IDC a contribué à légitimer la participation de notre organisation à l’International Disability Caucus (IDC). Je me rappelle encore porter des cartons plein de photocopies à King’s Cross [rires].
Another important point is that, as there weren’t any special resources devoted to support the participation in the drafting process, we decided to rally staff from the Balkans program. As a consequence, Lisa Adams and then Ana Perrenoud, took charge of the secretariat of The International Disability Caucus from the 4th session. I suggested this idea, because I had noticed that there was something missing in the communication of the caucus, which sometimes seemed to go in several directions. However, the chief negotiator wanted to hear a single and unified voice, representing the interest of civil society. Thus, the publication of a bulletin putting on the agenda the proposals made by IDC greatly contributed to structuring the word of civil society, and to make it speak with a single voice. The fact that Handicap International tried to place itself in a position of support helped us legitimizing our action, knowing that there were initial reluctances from organizations of persons with disabilities towards humanitarian organizations. I think that our Organization has fully played its role supporting the voice of disabled people. We have had a strong impact, but an impact that we never tried to claim. The idea was really to support the visibility of IDC and of organizations of persons with disabilities.
Advocacy towards inclusive development
When you are part of such a dynamic, it is really important that there is a great cohesion among civil society. There can be internal differences, but States cannot notice them because this would weaken the voice of civil society and make it inaudible. We worked a lot with the movement of people with disabilities; we were hand in hand with them. We brought a logistical support through the implementation of a secretariat to facilitate internal work within the group representing the interests of civil society.
Nevertheless, on certain articles, it was Handicap International with IDDC somehow taking an important role within civil society. These were key-articles to get across the message of inclusive development. This has been the case for the negotiations on certain articles, such as article 11 on humanitarian emergency situations, and article 32 on international cooperation. However, this advocacy towards inclusive development was constant, as it had to appear as a cross-cutting issue throughout many of the articles from the Convention, with a special attention to those concerning economic and social rights.
However, in parallel, we were also drawn into coordinating efforts on specific articles, such as Article 28 on social protection. Indeed, on the one hand, Northern NGOs were somewhat reluctant to tackle the subject of social welfare, which they felt was too connected to the charity model of disability; while on the other hand, the southern NGOs were relatively unaware of the subject. This is what led us to take a leadership position in the related discussions. We also participated in the efforts on Articles 11 and 32, not to mention projet Sud. Overall, I think we had a significant influence, that we nonetheless never sought to impose, as our support was provided in a somewhat informal way.