At a special commemorative event at the United Nations General Assembly (GA) this week, delegates and members of civil society celebrated the entry into force of the Disabilities Convention. Lauded as “the first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century” and a “significant addition to international human rights law,” the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also marks the first and only UN treaty which includes the term “sexual and reproductive health.”While speakers heralded the rapid entry into force of the Disabilities Convention, several also alluded to the difficulties and obstacles faced during the drafting of the treaty. Over the four years of negotiations, controversy swirled around the proposed inclusion of the term “sexual and reproductive health.” Debate on the term continued until the wee hours of the last day of negotiations and delegations only assented to the inclusion of “sexual and reproductive health” in the Convention with the explicit understanding that it excluded abortion.
When the GA adopted the Disabilities Convention, 15 nations made statements interpreting “sexual and reproductive health” as not encompassing abortion, with no nation contradicting that interpretation. Archbishop Celestino Migliore of the Holy See stated that the Vatican could not sign the Convention since the language which could imply a right to abortion was not removed. “It is surely tragic,” said the Archbishop, “that, whenever fetal defect is a precondition for offering or employing abortion, the same convention created to protect persons with disabilities from all discrimination in the exercise of their rights, may be used to deny the very basic right to life of disabled unborn persons.”
In addition to the Holy See, the Marshall Islands, the United States, Canada, Peru, Honduras, Uganda, Egypt, Iran, Nicaragua, Libya, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Syria, and El Salvador noted their interpretations of the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” either as not including abortion or as not creating any new rights.
The Disabilities Convention entered into force in record time. The Convention was adopted by the GA in December 2006 and over 80 countries signed onto the Convention on the first day its text was opened for approval on March 30, 2007. While the delegations of Poland and Malta were two of the first to sign, both states also made formal reservations stating that the term “sexual and reproductive health” does not confer a right to abortion. Thus far, 129 countries have singed the Convention and it has been ratified by – that is, made legally binding upon – another 25 nations.
During the GA ceremony this week, speakers emphasized that the entry into force of the Convention was merely a first step and that attention would now be placed on implementation. As outlined in the Convention, a new treaty monitoring body called the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as a Conference of States Parties, is expected to be convened within the next six months.