The European – Arab International Cooperation: A common agenda for the UN CRPD

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Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends and Colleagues.

Welcome to the European Economic and Social Committee, the public institution representing European civil society in the EU!

I am greatly honoured to be the opening speaker at this conference today. As you will soon gather I am not an expert on disability issues - for that we have a number of colleagues at the EESC who really are experts, such as Mr Meelis Joost who will be addressing you later and Mr Vardakastanis himself. I am in fact a farmer from Sweden and currently President of the EESC. However, the subject of your conference is close to my heart.

For me the situation of people with disabilities is really a matter of fairness; fairness for everyone, wherever you are from, and whatever is your social, economic or cultural background. Disabilities can affect anyone in any part of the world. It could be you, or you, or me or somebody within my family. Unfortunately, not everywhere is this recognised to the same extent and not everywhere are people with disabilities seen and treated as part of the mainstream of life – not even within Europe. Not even within Sweden.

We are actually fighting a universal battle for changes in public perception and norms everywhere towards people with disabilities. But I'm positive that it is a battle that we can win and are already starting to win. Humans have evolved in terms of their perception, their prejudices, their knowledge and understanding in many areas over the past decades and centuries, and I am confident that this will happen also in the future as regards disabilities and equality in general, maybe even faster because we live in a globalised world of easier communication and exchange.

I hope therefore that it is not just during the Paralympics – even if this is an inspiring event - but on a regular, daily basis in all quarters of life, including in public life, in work, in love and friendship that the situation of people with disabilities will start to be seen as something quite regular and usual. And this includes mental disabilities, that are not immediately visible, and which too often are misrecognised or have incorrect stigma attached. I think this is a view that most of the Members of the EESC share. So we fully support your conference.

Speaking about the EESC, I would like to highlight a couple of key points concerning the 'Implementation and monitoring of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by the EU institutions and the role of the EESC'. We have adopted an opinion on the subject at our last plenary session so this is a very relevant topic for us. The opinion sets out a range of recommendations covering a broad scope of areas. For instance:

·      it calls on the Council to revive the negotiations on concluding the Optional Protocol of the UN CRPD in order to ensure Europeans with disabilities fully benefit from the UN CRPD;

·      it urges the Commission to mainstream the Disability strategy into the future overall EU strategy. This  should include the review of existing legislation, policy and programmes and the development of new proposals and impact assessments;

·      the EESC also underlines the need for a systematic monitoring and implementation of the UN CRPD by the EU institutions and commits itself to creating a steering committee on the implementation and monitoring of the UN CRPD;

·      finally the EESC insists that the European External Action Service, the European Commission and the Council ensure mainstreaming of the UN CRPD in foreign relations and international cooperation, as well as in international trade agreements.

These are to name just a few points in the opinion. My colleague Mr Vardakastanis is the rapporteur for the opinion so he can give you a fuller picture. I think this also goes to show how much more work there is still to be done within the European Union on promoting the situation of persons with disabilities.

As regards the Euro-Mediterranean region, the emancipation of the voice of civil society and of marginalised people that we have seen over the past year and a half in the region is a cause of optimism for me. Democracy combined with inclusive and sustained social and economic development will surely also lead to improvements for people with disabilities in the region.

I've seen a statistic that people with disabilities make up around 10% of the population, and that it is likely that there are up to 25 million people with disabilities of some kind living in the Mediterranean partner states. What does this statistic mean? It means that people with disabilities are an important economic and political factor in the region. If you organise yourself, set common objectives, build regional alliances you can become a real force for change in the region.

At this point I should like to draw your attention briefly to the EESC's work in the external relations field. Our main mission is to build ties with bodies like ours in other parts of the world, and in countries where there are no economic and social councils to build direct working relations with civil society organisations.

Why do we do this? There are many different reasons and thematic variations according to the region we are working in, but I think that our central purpose is to help strengthen civil society organisations in the partner countries and in particular to strengthen their voice in relation to their governments - including on economic and social issues, on trade, on human rights-related questions, on equality, and so on.

And in the Euromed region we are doing the same thing. The 'Arab Spring' has opened new opportunities for civil society in the region. As we know from recent events the situations in many countries is far from ideal, but generally speaking organisations today enjoy much more freedom to gather, to hold meetings, to organise themselves.

But there are also many challenges, which include internal organisational challenges for the organisations, and also challenges for the organisations in terms of their relations with their governments.

Coming back to the theme of the conference today, I mentioned the current opinion of the EESC in the field of disabilities. I should point out that the EESC published an opinion on the situation of people with disabilities in the region already in 2010, for which my colleague Mr Meelis Joost was the rapporteur. One of the key recommendations of that opinion I believe, is that governments and civil society need to move towards a rights-based approach, rather than rely on charity, and to create an environment and services appropriate to the needs of all users.

It also calls on the European Commission to promote, through funding, the work of civil society organisations in the region working on behalf of people with disabilities. I believe Mr Meelis Joost will refer to more recommendations later.

I've already spoken a lot so at this point I wish to express a big thank you to the organisers, including to my colleague Mr Vardakastanis, and I wish you a successful conference!

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Staffan Nilsson opening speech at the Joint AOPD-EDF Conference