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Getting a Life - urgent call for independent living

On 7 May 2012, the Regional Office for Europe of OHCHR hosted a colloquium entitled “CRPD and EU Structural Funds: the right to independent living”. The aim of the colloquium was to explore the legal implications of the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), particularly its Article 19, on the use of European Union Structural Funds in EU Member States. The colloquium was attended by representatives of Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the European Commission as well as by representatives of civil society organizations. Adolf Ratzka from the Independent Living Institute presenting on Independent Living in Sweden, with James Conroy of the Centre for Outcome Analysis, USA and Kirsi Konola of the Service Foundation of People with Intellectual Disabilities, Finland ©  OHCHR Regional Office for Europe

The CRPD is the only UN convention that has, to date, been ratified by the European Union as well as by 20 of the 27 EU member states. Article 19 of the convention deals with the right to independent living and being part of the community for persons with disabilities. EU Structural Funds have been used to invest into residential institutions to house persons with disabilities, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Two studies that were presented at the event (“Getting a Life – Living Independently and Being Included in the Community” commissioned by the OHCHR Regional Office for Europe and “The European Union and the Right to Community Living” commissioned by the Open Society Mental Health Initiative) found that such use of Structural Funds would constitute a breach of Article 19 of the CRPD.

Professor Gerard Quinn of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy of the National University of Ireland in Galway, who is the author of the OHCHR study, spoke of “joint and several liability” of Member States and the EU in cases where a breach on the part of the Member State could be found to be admissible under EU regulations for the use of such funds.

Other participants of the colloquium provided examples of inappropriate use of EU funds on institutions in countries such as Romania but also of instances where the European Commission and a government were able to work together to initiate a programme of independent living as was the case in Slovakia. Participants all agreed that Structural Funds and their judicious use could present an opportunity to promote positive change and progressive realization of the right to independent living.

The colloquium took place 2 weeks after the General Affairs Council of the European Union had voted on a compromise text which removed so-called ex ante conditionalities from the draft “Common Provisions” Regulations which govern the use of EU Structural Funds. The European Commission, in its legislative package on Cohesion Policy had proposed the inclusion of ex ante conditionalities regarding disability, non-discrimination and gender equality in the Common Provisions Regulations, a fact that had been lauded by disability and human rights campaigners. Their removal in the compromise text was regarded by all participants of the colloquium as a great step backwards. However, this might not be definitive, as the outcome will depend on negotiations between the three EU institutions (Commission, Council and Parliament).

There was general agreement that a lot would need to be done to raise awareness of the issue. Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum, spoke of the need to undertake a political discussion with Member States as “the question is political, not only technical”. “We have to use adequately the European funding instruments at our disposal.  The Structural Funds are a fundamental tool for taking the EU and disabled people out of the financial crisis”. Carsten Rasmussen of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Regional Policy stressed the importance of making sure this was a priority for Member States. He pointed out that the coming year provides “a window of opportunity to get the issue on the agenda for negotiations of partnership contracts and operational programmes. What is required is ownership at a central level in each country”.

In his closing speech, Professor Quinn summed up the issue of the CRPD and Structural Funds: “The CRPD is the carrier of a moral vision - that explains its power. It is powerful because of the compelling ethical vision it contains. Everyone has a stake in it. …A golden opportunity exists to marry principle and power. How Structural Funds are used to fulfill the EU’s and Member States’ obligations under the CRPD is a test case in this marrying of principle and power”.

Presentations from the colloquium can be downloaded here.

The OHCHR publication: Getting a Life - Living Independently and Being Included in the Community can be downloaded here.

8 May 2012