Britain faces UN investigation over systemic violations of disability rights

Causing uproar amongst the Coalition, the likelihood of a UN investigation is not only deeply shameful, but a testament to the rapid regression of disabled rights and quality of life that the government has overseen.

Stuart Weir
2 September 2014

The United Kingdom has become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nations committee responsible for oversight of disability rights into charges of “grave or systemic violations” of disabled people’s rights – a UN investigation which has provoked “fury” among Tory MPs, according to a pretty furious report in the Mail. The committee has the power to launch an inquiry if it receives “reliable information” that such violations have been committed by a country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its optional protocol.

These investigations are conducted “confidentially”, so the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—which is due to carry out the inquiry—has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. But in a video posted on the internet, Professor Gabor Gombos, a former CRPD member, has revealed that the inquiry has been launched. He told the Sixth International Disability Law Summer School at the National University of Ireland in Galway in June that inquiries are only used where there are suspicions of “grave” violations of human rights in a country.

“Where the issue has been raised and the government did not really make effective actions to fix the situation,” he said, “it is a very high threshold thing; the violations should really be grave and very systemic.”

The Disability News Service has now reported that the UN committee appears to have postponed the routine public examination of how the UK has been implementing the disability convention that it carries out every four or five years until after next year’s general election. Why it has done so is not clear. It may be in response to the “fury” reported by the Mail. But it may also be because the members are clearing the way for the emergency scrutiny that they are undertaking, triggered under the optional protocol.

Either way, there is a danger that the government will be able to avoid having to justify a clear regression in disability rights since the 2010 election, and charges that there have been grave and systemic violations of, among others, key articles in the Convention  - Article 19 (on living independently and being included in the community and Article 28 (on providing an adequate standard of living and social protection).

Last month, the Just Fair coalition published a report, Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the Rights of Disabled People in the Austerity Era, laying bare the coalition’s failure to meet its international human rights obligations under both UNCRPD and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The coalition suggested that the UK had gone from being an international leader in disability rights to risking becoming a “systematic violator of these same rights”.

The Department for Work and Pensions is officially making no comment on the proposal to hold the inquiry, but you do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the hidden hand of ministers and officials in the orchestrated “fury” with which the news has been greeted.  Governments of all colours in the UK loathe the UN’s supervisory machinery and reject their criticisms out of hand; the ‘British way of doing things’ is sacrosanct. The Conservative Party is increasingly prone to rejecting outside oversight or criticism, and dangerously for us all, even the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (while simultaneously planning our self-congratulatory celebrations of Magna Carta which we will be asked to venerate next year on its 800th anniversary.)

The Mail relishes the controversy that has been stoked up, reporting one MP as describing the likely inquiry—not a done deed!—as a “politically motivated loony left decision [sic]”, and drawing attention with astonishingly insular and jingoist arrogance to the fact that presumably inferior nations in the Mail’s view, Uganda, Kenya, Thailand and Tunisia are represented on the 18-strong committee. So too are nations that the Mail might regard as suitably qualified to judge us, like the vice-chairs from Australia and Germany, and representatives of Denmark, Hungary, Spain and... oh dear, the UK.

Indignation spills over into a savage summary of previous violations by UN bodies of sacred UK territory, the criticism of the government’s welfare reforms by a “group of UN poverty ‘ambassadors’” earlier this year, and the criticism of housing benefit restrictions and the bedroom-tax by Raquel  Rolnik, “a former Marxist dubbed the ‘Brazil Nut’”. Amazing that the Mail still doesn’t get it; the bedroom tax is widely recognised to be an unworkable innovation, as well as being a cruel and unjust imposition on ordinary family life.

It is easy enough to scorn the reactionary attitudes on display. However the outrage is also symptomatic of a dangerous development in British politics. The right in the UK has become increasingly intolerant of any criticism or points of view that don’t conform to the market fundamentalism that now rules in this country, let alone being open to any kind of public deliberation. The outraged reaction to the UN’s critical appraisals is explicable in part because criticism in the UK is largely contained by the mass media. But it is also a sign that the ground is moving below our feet.


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