Right to vote as a major step forward in achieving equality for persons with disabilities

http://europeandcis.undp.org/blog/2013/04/15/the-right-to-vote-a-step-forward-in-achieving-equality-for-people-with-disabilities/

Right to vote as a major step forward in achieving equality for persons with disabilities

In most countries, constitutions grant the universal right to vote to its citizens of legal age. This is the case with Croatia but, as in many countries, and contrary to their constitutions, some of the electorate are denied the right to vote. This is primarily true for persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities who are automatically divested of the right to vote when deprived of legal capacity. By depriving these persons with disabilities of their legal capacity and placing them under guardianship states want to ‘protect their interests’. However, instead of providing them with support, guardianships results in serious violations of their human rights, the right to take part in public and political life being just one of the rights such practice denies them. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) challenges such discriminatory practices and asks for the recognition of rights of persons with disabilities and provision of support in cases when it is needed rather than denying rights.

In what Croatian ombudswoman for persons with disabilities Anka Slonjsak called a historic step, on 14 December 2012 the Croatian Parliament adopted the Act on Register of Voters, which gave people deprived of legal capacity the right to vote as stipulated in the Constitution and the UN CRPD.                                                                                                

Damjan Janjusevic, executive director of Association of self-advocates and keen advocate of the rights of persons with intellectual disabilities moderates the press conference on the occasion of passing the act giving persons under guardianship the right to vote held in Zagreb on 22 December 2012

Despite the fact that the Constitution recognises the universal right to vote for all Croatian citizens of legal age, in the previous electorate act more than 16, 000 persons with disabilities who were placed under guardianship as a measure of protecting their interests were struck from the register of voters. Adopting the act which gives them the right to vote was the result of a campaign led by the Disability Ombudsman’s Office in cooperation with associations of persons with psychosocial disabilities, self-advocates and association for the promotion of a more active participation of citizens in elections.

Fadil Spuren, a self-advocate from Zagreb at the press conference. Speaking at the conference with him was Kristijan Grđan, a representative of The Shine, the association for social affirmation of persons with psycho-social disabilities and Natalia Mirkovic from GONG (Citizens Organized to Monitor Elections).

Fadil Špuren, a member of association of self-advocates in Zagreb who was so far denied the right to vote in the elections describes his experiences: “While I was at home living with my parents I had legal capacity. I was always interested in who runs our country and what is happening in it. That is why I went to vote in special school and community center Ciglenica. When I came to the voting place during one elections, I found out that I no longer had the right to vote. I asked why but nobody wanted to explain me. I still wanted to vote.

Only a few years later I found out that I do not have legal capacity and that that was why I could not vote. In the time of elections I watched how others decide about our country and I could not take part in it. I had my favourite but I could not influence the results. I felt like a second rate citizen.

I was sad and angry because of that so I decided to tell my story and start changes so that we, persons with intellectual difficulties, could vote. After a few years of struggle now I can again take part in elections and choose people whose decisions influence my life. I am not just an onlooker, now I can actively participate in public and political life.

My voice also became worthy, and maybe even decisive. With pride I am awaiting the election day, that Sunday when I will equally like other citizens of this country give my vote to my favourite candidate. I hope this act will not be a dead letter and that I will be able to exercise my right to vote in local elections in spring 2013.“

Both civil society and the Disability Ombudsman worked for a few years to make this happen. Not all persons with disabilities, nor indeed eligible voters without disability, are interested in politics like Fadil. When arguing for our case we came across attitudes such as: persons with disabilities have more pressing needs than voting in elections. And this is indeed the case. Their very basic needs for medical attention, rehabilitation and support for everyday living are often denied. However, we are hoping that right to vote will give these so far invisible and forgotten citizens a much needed visibility that will put their other needs on the agenda. We were also fighting for their right not to exercise their right if that is their choice or if they indeed due to severity of their condition focus their energy on some other matters rather than voting. We just could not allow the lack of support or fear of manipulation to be an excuse for denying them rights. We also believe that enabling these two groups of persons with disabilities to be a part of the electorate will be a strong message to politicians: you are competing for our votes us well, we also have rights and you should address our issues when devising your programmes to include measures you plan to undertake to make those rights a reality for us if we give you our voice.

Disability Ombudsman of Croatia, Ms Anka Slonjsak is herself a person with disability and a wheel-chair user

Back in December 2010 Disability Ombudsman as an independent state institution with a mandate to protect, promote and monitor the rights of persons with disabilities in Croatia warned the authors of a brochure on the voting of persons with disabilities in Croatia that they failed to address challenges encountered by persons with mental and intellectual disabilities. At that time, the authorities just shrugged off the warning by saying that they do not have legal capacity. Croatia ratified the UN CRPD in 2007 but to make its provisions a reality for persons with disabilities, a lot of awareness raising has to be conducted. To make the right to participate in public and political life a reality for persons with disabilities, Disability Ombudsman had a series of meetings with relevant ministries and state election committee in the wake of the parliamentary elections in December 2011.

Government officials were surprised to find that the electoral act failed to regulate the voting of these persons with disabilities while at the same time stipulating how persons in prisons could exercise their right to vote.

In the draft proposal on the amendments of the Act on Register of Voters the government did acknowledge the fact that the CRPD is a legally binding document above national laws. So they proposed what they saw a major step forward: the removal of blanket divestment of the right to vote and introduction of a court proceeding during which a person’s voting capacity was to be assessed.

Drawing on the Concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on Spain and Hungary, the Disability Ombudsman emphasised that such solutions would be discriminatory and demanded the full right to vote as stipulated by Article 29 of the CRPD. We argued that if there was indeed such test, then all potential votes should take it and not just persons with disabilities. The support of the Ministry of youth and social policy was crucial to change the initial proposal to the one that orders that all previously struck persons be re-entered into the registry.

However, the battle is not over yet. To ensure that this act is not just a dead letter as Fadil said, adequate supports before and during elections will have to be provided for them. The new act will be put to the test in the forthcoming local elections and elections for Croatian members of the European Parliament which are to take place this spring. The associations of persons with disabilities and the disability ombudsman are again meeting to discuss strategies of how to bring this Act to life. Hopefully more good news is to follow from Croatia together with an invitation to other countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities to follow suit.

Written by Branka Meic, advisor to disability ombudsman