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Enacting a New Law on Disability Rights in Sri Lanka

On the 12th of August 2016, International Centre for Ethnic Studies hosted a round table discussion to generate a dialogue on disability rights in Sri Lanka. The primary objective of the dialogue was to acknowledge and celebrate Sri Lanka’s accession to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in February of 2016, and to explore how disability services and laws may be harmonized with the CRPD’s rights based framework.

At the dialogue persons with disabilities, including disabled youth and women, highlighted barriers they face, in a context where sympathy and charity took precedence over rights and entitlements. One of outcomes of the dialogue was to emphasize that accession to the CRPD requires Sri Lanka to ensure that the policy and practice on disability are grounded in a human rights framework and with a special emphasis on economic and social rights. The participants emphasized that future generations of children and persons with disabilities should have the freedom to live with dignity and to hold influence and power over their lives and personal decisions.

One of issues discussed was whether the Ministry of Social Welfare and Empowerment should be the focal point for all disability related work. The majority agreed that while the Ministry of Social Welfare and Empowerment should continue to be the primary focal authority for disability specific services and schemes, the implementation of the proposed disability law should be monitored and promoted by an independent entity.

There was some discussion of the proposed ‘disability rights commission’ in the draft disability law. The third chapter in the draft law outlines the structure and composition of the ‘commission’ in detail. Article 41 and the subsequent articles outline the roles and responsibilities of the commission which are mainly that of coordination, communication, and playing an intermediary, and advisory role between persons with disabilities, their representative organizations and government and non-governmental institutions. There is no reference to legal powers to address violations of disability rights and to ensure justice. The majority were of the view that the role, responsibility and the legal authority of the commission needs to be improved and clearly stated if the draft disability law is to present persons with disabilities the assurance of justice and human rights.

The non-availability of the draft law in Tamil was flagged as a concern. It was decided to develop an advocacy note to be shared amongst those who attended the discussion and to use this as a basis to advocate for an independent authority to enforce the new disability law. It was also tentatively decided to hold similar round table discussions at the provincial level to take forward the dialogue and raise awareness on the issues.

There was wide participation at the dialogue, of persons with disabilities representing diverse socio-economic contexts in the country. The dialogue benefitted from the views of a broad spectrum of disability advocates, including women and youth with disabilities, and the views of government agencies, including the National Secretariat for Persons with Disabilities, the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Disability Studies at the University of Kelaniya, the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo, and the Elections Commission.

The Northern province was represented by the President and members of NPCODA (Northern Province Consortium of Differently Abled) and the Southern, Uva, Central provinces were represented by several Disabled Peoples Organizations (DPOs) such as the Ruhunu Sumaga Sansadaya, the Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf, the Disability Organizations Joint Front (DOJF), Navajeevana Rehabilitation Tangalle, the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy, and the Sri Lanka Paralympics Committee.

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