No One Left Behind: Towards More Inclusive Humanitarian Action

By Laura Hamdan
Social Connectedness Fellow

South Sudan

On June 13th, 2017, Canada endorsed the Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action (Charter) during the 10th Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).[i] Many disability rights activists and organizations rejoiced at the news, with more and more countries recognizing the longstanding inadequacies of humanitarian responses.

The Charter, created by NGOs, UN agencies and states, provides effective guidelines for inclusive humanitarian responses.[ii] It expresses the stakeholders’ commitment to “promote the protection, safety and respect for the dignity of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters”.[iii] It does so by ensuring and promoting a non-discriminatory approach, with global guidelines to improve action and encourage collaboration and coordination between actors.[iv]

Over a billion people around the world have some form of disability and an estimated 6.7 million people with disabilities were forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2016.[v] In a video reporting on the conditions in South Sudan, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) worker said: “The people of South Sudan have been at war for the better part of the last 60 years. It should come as no surprise that large numbers of people are either war amputees or have developed disabilities as a result of lack of health services”.[vi] Indeed, many report to have lost the use of their legs due to non-treated polio, or from encountering unexploded remnants of war such as landmines. Such weapons can remain buried underground for years and have injured or killed many — especially children.[vii]

Too often, people with disabilities are overlooked and isolated from humanitarian responses. In HRW reports on refugee or displacement camps in Greece, South Sudan and Central African Republican, individuals with disabilities reported having tremendous difficulty accessing sanitation facilities, food and health care (especially mental health care). Most displaced persons or refugees end up staying in camps for a long period of time; however, little is done for rehabilitation. As much of the testimony highlights, fleeing from conflict is already challenging for, and requires a lot of resilience from, persons with disabilities: some were left behind by their families because they couldn’t run away, while others had to “play dead” to survive attacks. Yet, even after overcoming such ordeals, their hardship and isolation continue in the camps.

Organizations like Handicap International (HI) frequently intervene in the field to provide rehabilitation services, prostheses, and other assistance to address the ongoing isolation these individuals are experiencing. For example, HI is currently working on building an accessible rehabilitation centre in the Kakuma Refugee Camps in Kenya to provide appropriate long-term support to persons with disabilities.[viii]

Canada’s endorsement of the Charter is a great step forward, especially when considering that only 21 states have endorsed it so far. Although it is a non-legally binding document, it represents a growing awareness of issues within the international humanitarian and emergency relief sector, and a commitment to address them. However, as HRW points out, although the Charter was adopted over a year ago, implementation has lagged and the UN and other aid organizations need to do more to accommodate persons with disabilities.[ix]

HI’s campaign to bring about the Ottawa Mine Ban Convention in 1997 was a resounding success. Now the organization wants to pressure non-signatory states to sign it and signatories to fully implement it, demonstrating their commitment to ending the use of indiscriminate explosive weapons. HI is also always looking for volunteers in Montreal to participate in their awareness events. To get involved and sign the petition, please visit: http://sign.handicap-international.ca and http://www.handicap-international.ca/en/volunteer.

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[i] Handicap International Canada, “Canada Endorses the Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action,” GlobeNewswire News Room, June 13, 2017, http://globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/06/13/1018406/0/en/Canada-endorses-the-Charter-on-Inclusion-of-Persons-with-Disabilities-in-Humanitarian-Action.html.

[ii] Human Rights Watch, “People with Disabilities at Risk in Conflict, Disaster,” Human Rights Watch, May 19, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/19/people-disabilities-risk-conflict-disaster.

[iii] “Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action,” Humanitarian Disability Charter, May 2016, http://humanitariandisabilitycharter.org/the-charter/.

[iv] Human Rights Watch, “People with Disabilities at Risk in Conflict, Disaster.”

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Human Rights Watch, “South Sudan: People with Disabilities, Older People Face Danger,” Human Rights Watch, May 31, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/05/31/south-sudan-people-disabilities-older-people-face-danger.

[vii] Handicap International Canada, “Explosive Weapons,” Handicap International, accessed June 29, 2017, http://www.handicap-international.ca/en/explosive-weapons.

[viii] Handicap International Canada, “Together We Build a Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Refugees,” Handicap International, March 30, http://www.handicap-international.ca/en/news/together-we-build-rehabilitation-center-for-disabled-refugees.

[ix] Human Rights Watch, “South Sudan.”