Opening statement by Minister Soini at the expert seminar on the right of persons with disabilities to participate in political and public life

Opening statement by Minister Soini at the expert seminar on the right of persons with disabilities to participate in political and public life

Opening Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland Timo Soini, Expert Seminar Our right to participate - promoting the participation of Persons with Disabilities in political and public life. Helsinki 31 October 2016.

On behalf of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Government of Finland I would like to warmly welcome you to Helsinki and to this high-level expert seminar, organized in cooperation with the Finnish Human Rights Centre and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

Here at the Finnish Parliament - in the very core of freedom of expression, assembly and association - today’s theme could not be more relevant.

We all - no matter where we come from, what is our social or political background or who we are as individuals – have the right to speak and be heard. We all have the right to participate in the decision-making processes concerning our lives. We should all have the right to seek and achieve change in our societies.

It goes without saying that these rights belong to all people. Unfortunately, it is still the case that many persons with disabilities do not fully enjoy them.

In the worst situation are persons with disabilities – women, men, girls and boys – that are living in the middle of conflict areas or other humanitarian catastrophes. For example, in Ukraine, many persons with disabilities have been forced to leave their homes and are living as IDPs (Internally displaced persons).

We cannot even start to imagine how persons with disabilities in Aleppo are able to survive at the moment. The situation there is completely intolerable for all human beings, but especially for those in the most vulnerable situation, such as children and persons with disabilities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It would, however, be wrong to think that today’s theme concerns only conflict zones or developing countries of the world. Also at the OSCE area, including here in Finland, we still face challenges regarding accessibility and inclusiveness of persons with disabilities in many spheres of life.

Persons with disabilities in all countries should have the right to education, health services or decent standard of living. They should be able to vote and be elected to political functions. Sometimes reasonable accommodations may be needed to make this happen - this is also stipulated in the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD).

Finland ratified the CRPD last summer but has been very committed to promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities already for years. Governments may have changed but the goal to improve the lives of persons with disabilities, living too often in poverty or under harsh discrimination, has remained the same.

Finland gives both political and financial support to many projects that aim to improve the protection of all human rights of persons with disabilities. We are, for example, one of the biggest donor countries of the UN disability work.  For Finland it has always been particularly important to ensure that special needs of women and girls with disabilities are being focused in an adequate manner.

In our work we have been especially happy and privileged to have enjoyed the wisdom and practical knowledge of the skilled and internationally honored representatives of the Finnish disability and other civil society organisations. Without your help, we could not have been able to achieve sustainable results in our disability policy. So thank you again for the dialogue and close cooperation.

For us it has been a clear priority - also as the current Chair of the OSCE Human Dimension Committee - to enhance the implementation of the rights of persons with disabilities at the OSCE framework. We have organized a number of side events in Vienna and Warsaw to discuss the participation of persons with disabilities in political life. Also in these events cooperation with the Finnish civil society has been crucial.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is indeed the key organization to advance this topic in the OSCE region given its extensive experience in supporting democratic institutions and political participation of under-represented groups. This seminar itself is a recognition, that more attention should be put in how our democratic institutions work. On stake is not only participation of one important segment of the society, but the whole functioning of our democratic institutions; elections, parliaments and political parties in particular.

Let’s create political institutions where the necessary support to persons with disabilities is provided and disability is no longer an issue, where everyone has an equal voice and equal possibilities to participate.

While we have been happy about the steps that already have been taken at the OSCE on the rights of persons with disabilities, we would like to do more. One concrete way would be to adopt in December, at the next OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg, a decision on the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. We thank Germany, the OSCE Chairperson in Office, for presenting a draft decision on this subject and we encourage all Participating States to support its adoption.

There are many excuses for not having a fully accessible and inclusive society. None of them are really acceptable. Sometimes it is more a question of legal or structural discrimination. Sometimes it is only about ignorance.

We must do better.

All of us present here have a possibility to try and make a change. Let’s not miss that opportunity.