updated 3/31/2007 12:37:23 AM ET 2007-03-31T04:37:23

Eighty countries signed the United Nations convention enshrining the rights of the world’s 650 million disabled on Friday in what the U.N. human rights chief called an unprecedented show of support to empower the physically and mentally impaired.

The United Nations held a ceremony on the first day the convention opened for signatures and not only did 80 countries and a representative of the European Union sign it but Jamaica announced that it had also ratified the convention. That means only 19 more ratifications are needed before the convention comes into force, and speaker after speaker urged speedy approval.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour announced the huge level of support at a news conference afterward.

“It’s certainly unprecedented in terms of support for a human rights instrument, but it’s apparently setting records for the signature of any convention in the United Nations,” she said.

Would mandate accommodations
The convention is a blueprint to end discrimination and exclusion of the physically and mentally disabled in education, jobs, and everyday life. It requires countries to guarantee freedom from exploitation and abuse for the disabled, while protecting rights they already have — such as voting rights for the blind and wheelchair-accessible buildings.

The convention guarantees that the disabled have the inherent right to life on an equal basis with the able-bodied and requires countries to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee equal legal protection. Countries must also ensure the equal right of the disabled to own and inherit property, to control their financial affairs, and to privacy over their personal lives.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted the 32-page convention by consensus in December, culminating a campaign spearheaded by disability rights activists and the governments of New Zealand, Ecuador and Mexico.

“We would not be here today without the sustained efforts of the disability community,” Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said at Friday’s ceremony.

‘From dream to reality’
“In three short years, the convention went from dream to reality,” she said. “On its adoption by the General Assembly late last year, it became the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, and the fastest negotiated international human rights instrument in history.”

Arbour said “it’s very appropriate” that the first treaty of the new century “targets a community that has been so marginalized for so long” and that it focuses on rights — not just social welfare and programs to meet the needs of the disabled.

She called the convention “a first step” in empowering the disabled, stressing that once it comes into force governments will have to enact legislation and change practices to ensure the rights of the disabled.

Yannis Vardakastanis, representing the International Disability Caucus which was in the forefront of the campaign for the convention, congratulated the 80 countries that signed “this unprecedented convention.”

He said it represents “a very drastic” shift in the way the international community looks at disabilities.

“The 650 million persons with disabilities around the world expect and anticipate that this convention will change the real living conditions, that this convention will take away the discrimination, the exclusion, and all the obstacles that people with disabilities are faced with in their daily lives,” Vardakastanis said.

According to the latest U.N. figures, about 10 percent of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with a disability and the number is increasing with population growth. The disabled constitute the world’s largest minority, and 80 percent live in developing countries, many in poverty.

The convention advocates keeping the disabled in their communities rather than removing them and educating them separately as many countries do.

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