Catalina Devandas: Shedding light on the detention of persons with disabilities

Monday, December 2, 2019

Persons with disabilities are frequently overrepresented in detention settings around the world. When detained, they are extremely vulnerable to abuse, including ill-treatment or even torture. The APT recently spoke to Catalina Devandas, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, about what needs to be done to ensure their right to liberty and to personal integrity are better respected. See below for the full video interview.

Persons with disabilities are frequently overrepresented in places of detention, “no matter the culture, the size of the country, the level of development of the country, the situation is always the same.” Those are the words of Catalina Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities since December 2014, in an interview with the APT about a new report she submitted to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year.

The reasons behind this situation, she continues, are complex. Principle among them are a “combination of stigma, discrimination, and social factors” and “a failure of states to develop adequate responses to the needs of persons with disabilities”.

The Special Rapporteur’s report focuses on the deprivation of liberty of persons with disabilities, the causes behind it, but also proposes recommendations on how to ensure their rights are better respected in practice around the world. To achieve this objective, she stresses the need for legislative and policy change, and of change of mindset to offer human rights-based support to persons with disabilities, within the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Importantly, these approaches must be carried out with the “participation and collaboration of persons with disabilities,” she says.

Additionally, she explains that the role of independent monitoring is crucial as it can shed light on the often grim reality faced by persons with disabilities in many types of places of detention. Amongst these monitoring bodies, she points out that National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs), under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, are key. The mandates of NPMs are broad, encapsulating many places of detention from prisons to psychiatric hospitals, but they also have the scope to include “other kinds of social institutions, home care for children, homes for the elderly.” Visits by NPMs, and others, could have the power not only to shed light on the issues, but to “provoke and promote the establishment of policies of deinstitutionalisation that are needed in the vast majority of countries,” she continues.

Despite the scale of the issue, the prevalence of detention of persons with disabilities, and the challenges faced, the Special Rapporteur remains optimistic that “there is more and more awareness of the situation and that we need to make a change.”