This post is based on a part of my master’s thesis, “Forgotten Victims of Armed Conflict: Challenges Faced By Persons With Disabilities” in International Human Rights Law at the Faculty of Law, Lund University, defended in 2017. The full thesis (including citations) can be found here: https://lup.lub.lu.se/student-papers/search/publication/8926382
Recommendations of International Organizations
International organizations have provided some recommendations for addressing the difficulties encountered by persons with disabilities and how to improve their situations in case of armed conflict, with the four leading recommendations being the participation of persons with disabilities, clearer identification of persons with disabilities, training and education for those who play an active role during armed conflicts, and taking measures to eliminate inaccessibility.
Persons with disabilities should be included in the planning and arranging of humanitarian assistance, evacuation plans, and other any actions taken during armed conflict. This is required for full awareness of the risks and needs; as noted by Human Rights Watch, to develop a more effective and inclusive response, persons with disabilities should be consulted and engaged in humanitarian assistance. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon used the words of Firoz Ali Alizada by stating that “Persons with disabilities are the biggest untapped resource for disaster planners around the world.”
Persons with disabilities can play a significant role if they participate in planning and implementing programs, and thereby benefit from mainstream assistance for persons with all different kinds of disability. This is also reinforced by the UN, which has stated that “Humanitarian aid, rescue, relief and rehabilitation should therefore meet the needs of the whole civilian population and also include the participation of persons with disabilities in all stages of emergency response planning and implementation”.
There should also be sufficient data available regarding specific situations and different types of disabilities. This lack of information becomes a barrier for meeting the needs of persons with disabilities and taking effective measures. The Women’s Refugee Commission stressed that in many cases, governments, UNHCR, or other partners do not have an accurate number of displaced persons with disabilities. Even if data is collected, due to the lack of technical expertise, the identification and categorization of different kinds of disabilities is not accurate. The UN stated in its guidance for situations of forced displacement that procedures and systems should be made to identify persons with disabilities as they are often overlooked during the registration process, especially for those who have just been born.
The UN has stressed that “collecting information through comprehensive needs assessments that disaggregate data by age, sex and impairment can facilitate risk management, planning and the implementation of risk reduction strategies.” Additionally, the specific needs of identified persons with disabilities should be added into program assistance plan, including needs for specific shelter, medicine, toilet requirements, medical equipment and clothing.
All actors involved in implementing policies and guidelines to provide protection should be trained and educated in the needs of persons with disabilities. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has urged state parties to take steps to provide disability-awareness training to all potential persons charged with protection, evacuation and security in situations of risk, including armed conflict and emergencies. The World Health Organization has stated that it is important to “create a development plan to increase disability knowledge, expertise and skills among staff, community workers and volunteers” before and after an emergency.
Parties to armed conflicts and any organizations playing a role in protecting civilians should take effective measures to make all responses and actions accessible. The UN has stated that all information on emergency and humanitarian relief should be given in accessible ways and formats accessible to persons with different kinds of disabilities. This is important for the safety of persons with disabilities, and especially for those who have hearing loss or intellectual disability, to enable them to escape, be evacuated and reach humanitarian assistance including food, water, and shelter.
For the last 50 years, persons with disabilities and other legal and academic professionals have promoted a new perspective for societies, one based on human rights thinking and equality under the law, known as the social model of disability. In the social model, the physical, organizational and attitudinal barriers present in society that lead to discrimination are the root causes of disability. The elimination of these types of discrimination requires a restructuring of how society is organized. All barriers that prevent an individual from participating in society are the problem, not the individual, so they must be removed.
The international community must become more aware of the special needs of and risks to civilians with disabilities during armed conflict. All parties, international organizations, and the general public should always remember that adults and children with disabilities are the forgotten victims of war. Civilians with disabilities often have limited or no access to pre-existing evacuation plans, humanitarian assistance activities, or other international or national efforts to provide for the needs of the civilian population during armed conflicts.
International and national humanitarian assistance activities are usually arranged in a manner that require the victims of armed conflicts to reach designated civilian gathering places to receive humanitarian assistance services such as food, water or shelter. However, in many cases, civilians with disabilities cannot safely arrive at designated areas. Even if they can arrive at these camps, adults and children with disabilities encounter inaccessible housing and other inaccessible services. There are many different types and degrees of disabilities, and it may not be possible for the authorities to arrange for the appropriate accessibility of all humanitarian assistance services in all cases. However, the authorities responsible for organizing and implementing humanitarian assistance camps and services would reach a larger number of civilians if their planning also included pro-active outreach activities to identify the hidden adults and children with disabilities who are present in the camps and who are still located in the surrounding cities and rural areas.
International organizations, academics, professionals, lawyers, and nonprofit organizations should educate themselves more thoroughly about the issues encountered by civilians with disabilities during armed conflicts and choose to publicize these issues more often to a global audience. It is generally understood that the public and professional interest regarding understanding, prioritizing and publicizing the intersection of the various issues confronting civilians with disabilities during armed conflict is typically less when compared to other armed conflict issues. This means there are only a limited number of publications that address the various issues encountered by civilians with disabilities.
Governments and non-state actors should continue their efforts to better understand their obligations under international human rights law and should feel more responsibility to improve the implementation of accessible humanitarian assistance services to protect persons with disabilities.
The organizations and leaders of the various international and national disability human rights movements must also become better educated about the various during armed conflicts and pro-actively participate in national and international policy discussions on how to protect civilians with disabilities. The topic of civilians with disabilities during armed conflicts is often ignored or considered low priority. Other important issues such as impacts on women or children are usually highly prioritized and the available humanitarian assistance resources are mostly reserved for addressing them. However, policymakers must recognise the additional difficulties that women and children with disabilities face.
Persons with disabilities face difficulties in all situations of armed conflict. Some of the challenges arise from the fact that the legal framework is not sufficient to provide effective and full protection. States and international organizations should work together to improve the existing regulations and their implementation. Otherwise, persons with disabilities will continue to not enjoy their rights under international law and will remain as the forgotten victims of armed conflict.