Interview with Ms Catalina Devandas, the Special Rapporteur of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of the Human Rights Council.

We interviewed Ms Catalina Devandas, the Special Rapporteur of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of the Human Rights Council during a luncheon that Finland organizes yearly to discuss current topics related to the human rights of persons living with disabilities. This year’s meeting focused on how to guarantee a disability-inclusive response to COVID-19.

Special Rapporteur Ms Catalina Devandas and Ambassador Terhi Hakala.
Special Rapporteur Ms Catalina Devandas and Ambassador Terhi Hakala.

Finland started these luncheons – now a tradition – in 2015 in close cooperation with the International Disability Alliance (IDA). We have gathered around the table a different mixture of participants now five times. The common thread of these gatherings has been to find an interesting and timely theme within the wider topic of promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. First year we concentrated on post-2015, the second and third year on women and girls with disabilities. Last year we discussed the UNDIS – UN Disability Inclusion Strategy.

Ms Catalina Devandas has acted as a Special Rapporteur of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities since 2014. She is also the very first to hold this mandate. During this time she has made a difference and inspired many people with her example. We are proud to share her interview and would like to thank Ms Catalina Devandas for the excellent cooperation during these years on this important work.

You are a woman, a mother, living with a disability and making your work matter. You have achieved a lot in your life and can be seen as a role model and source of inspiration to many people. How did you get here where you are today?

I was born in Costa Rica in a household with limited financial resources, but where my older sister, that also had a disability, and I were fully supported.  Also, thanks to the Costa Rican strong social security system and public services, I was able to access all the healthcare services that I needed and to get public education from primary school to university.   I grew up in an environment in which the fight for social justice, equality and human rights was central, so since very young, I was engaged with the social movement and found that studying law I could make my contribution.  While in University I was introduced to the disability rights movement where I felt completely home and started to support its work at national, regional and international level.  That lead me to participate in the negotiation of process of the CRPD, a life changing experience! The process allowed me not only to meet the most incredible leaders from around the world, including Finnish Kalle Könkkölä, Liisa Kauppinen and Markku Jokinen, but also to get familiar with the UN work in human rights and more broadly. 

From there I started to work in different international organizations supporting disability inclusion and supporting the processes of capacity building of persons with disabilities.  My personal disability experience was expanded by many years working directly with grassroots organizations of the sector and by advocating at international level for disability inclusion.  I have been lucky to have all these opportunities which allowed me over the last years to connect the needs of the sector with the mainstream international debates, in the UN, at country level and on different issues such development or humanitarian action, but always under the Human Rights framework provided by the CRPD. 

My three daughters have always been giving me the energy and love to continue working for better communities, one where they can see their mother as just any other mother.

During the Covid-19 crisis especially women, girls, young people and persons with disabilities are among the most affected when it comes to poverty, violence, unemployment. How can we change this direction?

The impact of the pandemic on persons with disabilities, in particular on women and girls, is a reflection of the inequality and exclusion this group has always faced; the current crisis has just made it evident at big scale.

Less likely to access health care, education, employment and to participate in the community due to multiple barriers, such as stigma, poverty, inaccessibility to infrastructures, transports and information systems, and lack of inclusive public services, persons with disabilities are among the most marginalized in any crisis-affected community. They are also more likely to experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse; and I have been receiving alarming information about increases in GBV against women with disabilities during confinement.

Basic failures and discriminatory practices in the emergency response have resulted in worse outcomes for persons with disabilities, who have been excluded from the mainstream responses without accessible information, been denied treatment because their lives are considered of less value and are tragically overrepresented among those that have lost their lives.  Structural barriers such as the lack (or informality) of support services to live independently in the community and the perpetuation of long-term care in residential institutions, have also had a toll on those with disabilities across the globe.  

There is an urgent need to address these inequalities by firmly advancing in the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, particularly its article 32 on International Cooperation.  The CRPD is a tool that should guide all efforts at national and international level for the COVID 19 response, recovery and building back better.  The international community and the States need to ensure that persons with disabilities are not be left behind (again) and that their lives will be valued and embraced, to that end it is crucial that all efforts are:  a) accessible to all persons with disabilities, including by using all forms of alternative formats and Braille and Sign Language b) do not discriminate, interventions can’t limit rights, exclude or harm directly or indirectly persons with disabilities, there is a need to acknowledge ableism in our policy making and to combat it; c) participatory:  persons with disabilities and their representative organizations must be consulted and engage in decision making spaces all COVID 19 related processes ; d)  A Twin Track Approach, persons with disabilities must be included in mainstream efforts without excluding the need of developing specific efforts to address their concrete challenges; e) making all international cooperation efforts inclusive of and accessible for persons with disabilities.  In Finland this has been a priority for many years, promoting persons with disabilities themselves, and your experience could serve as a role model for many other countries.

In the current economic crisis, there is a risk that persons with disabilities will not be prioritized as beneficiaries of the COVID19 related funds, there is also concerns about the decrease of existing resources to support disability inclusion.  The international community must remember that excluding 15% of the global population will deter the impact, effectiveness and sustainability of their efforts.  We can’t afford to exclude 1 billion people.  

You have been a Special Rapporteur of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities since 2014. You are also the very first to hold this mandate. How would you describe your most memorable moments during this time and what kind of changes have you seen?

Being the first Special Rapporteur for this thematic has been my greatest honor and responsibility.  It is a fantastic opportunity; it provides a platform to access all stakeholders and promote the rights of persons with disabilities at the highest levels.  The possibility of highlighting challenges and shortcomings in the implementation of the CRPD while at the same time being able to provide guidance to States on how to address the gaps and move forward with human rights-based responses is priceless.

I have been very lucky and have many memorable moments; I tried to make the best out of the mandate and have been very honored by how my work has been well received among human rights experts, civil society, NHRI, member states and the UN family as a whole.  I had the privilege to undertake 9 country visits one of them to the Democratic Republic of North Korea, (the first time a Special Procedures Mandate holder visited the State) and was also able to successfully lead a process that resulted in the adoption by the Secretary General of the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy.  I will always cherish all my engagements with partners and allies, that supported my work and contributed to advancing the rights of persons with disabilities.

How do you see the future of human rights, especially of persons with disabilities?

We are facing difficult times when it comes to the enjoyment of Human Rights, there is a global setback, that affect no doubt, persons with disabilities.  We need to be more and more alert about this worrisome trend and combat firmly any intention to limit the recognition of fundamental rights. For that we need to work together and in solidarity.  It is urgent to join forces a be more mindful than ever of the need to advance the implementation of all human rights to all persons in all regions of the world, we need to remind ourselves that only through a deep intersectional approach we will succeed in leaving no one behind. 

If you could deliver a special message to someone, what would you say?

I would say: Persons with disabilities are a normal part of human diversity, our lives and experiences should be embraced and celebrated as the lives of all other people.  We are proud of who we are and of the contributions we make, let’s work together to ensure that everyone can equally participate in our communities.