Rosemary Kayess, Australia’s first female representative to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Photo by: Jacquie Manning / UNSW

CANBERRA — In January, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will welcome Australia’s first female representative to the committee — Rosemary Kayess.

A human rights lawyer, Kayess brings impressive expertise to the committee. She was disability rights unite senior policy officer at the Australian Human Rights Commission, a member of the disability reference group for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a member of the World Bank’s expert focus group on nondiscrimination and disability, and a chairperson of the Australian Centre for Disability Law.

As an academic, Kayess is a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre. Kayess was also part of the Australian government delegation responsible for drafting the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“What I do is try to create a framework by which people work,” Kayess explained to Devex. “My contribution through the convention negotiation, especially around article 24 on education, has contributed to disabled person organizations and people with disability having a framework through which they can advocate for their rights.”

Kayess also has first-hand experience of living with a disability, after a car accident at age 20 caused a spinal injury. The nomination of Kayess to the U.N. position by Australia was an important part of part of DFAT’s disability focus within aid programming, which aims to improve the participation of people living with disability in the Pacific.

Among the nine new members are six women, including representatives from Indonesia and South Korea. The new members of the 18 member committee will help bring strong representation from the Asia Pacific, as well as better gender parity.

Kayess explained to Devex that she hopes her work with the U.N. on the committee can bring greater clarity to state parties implementing CRPD, helping to ensure the convention is met across the board for people with disability — including in education, justice, health, and political participation as well as across countries and cultures.

Facilitating a Pacific voice

While Australia’s representation on the committee provides an opportunity to facilitate engagement of Pacific Island nations, the country needs to ensure Pacific Island nations are able to have their own voice, and not speak for them.

“We have a good working relationship with the Pacific,” Kayess said. “I have worked very closely with the Pacific Disability Forum and the work that they do — our disabled persons organization here in Australia work closely with their organizations.

 “I think it’s also important to realize that you’re not just an Australian. We have neighbors that may not have a voice in that process and we need to be able to listen to them and reflect their concerns as well,” she said.

Kayess expects Indonesia’s representative to be an important source to reflect on people with disability that live in the archipelago, as well as the limitations and barriers they may face.

Australia aims to engage with other Pacific countries to gain feedback from disability organizations and disability forums on a range of topics that could influence the decisions of the committee. And it is important, Kayess said, that the challenges of small island nations — who have a double disadvantage — are effectively addressed.

“For me, this role and committee is about the CRPD in its whole. It’s about ensuring that areas such as education and social inclusion include the rights articulated in the convention. There is no need to focus on individual areas of development but rather the human rights framework and how that relates to those areas.”

— Rosemary Kayess, member of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Focusing on the law

The committee meets twice a year in Geneva with representatives conducting legal research and comment on reviews, reports, and other issues that are presented. The convention is important in providing an overarching framework to support people living with disability globally that can be interpreted and implemented across all signatory countries.

“I come to this as a human rights lawyer,” Kayess explained to Devex. “Bringing the human rights framework to the development space. For me, this role and committee is about the CRPD in its whole. It’s about ensuring that areas such as education and social inclusion include the rights articulated in the convention. There is no need to focus on individual areas of development but rather the human rights framework and how that relates to those areas.”

The committee has a very specific role, to provide a mechanism by which behavior is measured against the body of international law — law framed by CRPD.

“It’s about providing consistent and coherent legal analysis,” Kayess explained. “It’s about communicating effectively with state parties in a way that can support and promote states to be able to meet their obligations.”

“There has been lots of research about people meeting their obligations under international law and treaties in particular, but if people are not meeting their obligations it is not about wilful disobedience — it’s generally around things like clarity of the obligations and capacity for them to understand what is expected of them, and how they can fulfill their obligations.”

The importance of the UN committee

According to Kayess, the U.N. committee plays an important role in fostering transparent and open dialogue on CRPD, including how states can interpret their obligations under this international law.

“The nature of treaties and the fact that they are negotiated and have to apply across different legal jurisdictions, across different culture, across different timescales creates challenges,” she said. “The document is not highly prescriptive because of its very nature — you don’t want to time locked into things that are understood in one jurisdiction but are not clear in others.”

This “fluidity” of international law means that it constantly needs to be supported through interpretation to meet changing needs and circumstances — making the committee an important source in both interpretation and implementation.

“We need to clearly demonstrate to states what the obligations are,” Kayess explained. “It’s a continual process of constructive processes with states, to look at what is required and reflect upon their own situations. You’ve got to understand the challenges of each state to address them.”

This dialogue can also support the U.N. in understanding what help they need to provide states on an individual basis — including through human rights councils and the work of special rapporteurs. At the end of the day, each country is responsible for their citizens living with disability have equal rights and access to services.

Support from Australia’s disability sector

The election of Kayess, and Australia’s role on the committee, has been strongly endorsed by Australia’s disability sector. Her work is highly regarded as strengthening legal frameworks and arguments that help others in their advocacy.

“Rosemary brings a wealth of expertise to this role, and Australian Disability and Development Consortium are excited to continue working with her in this new capacity to promote the rights of people with disabilities in developing countries,” Lucy Hodson, executive officer at the Australian Disability and Development Consortium, told Devex.

With Kayess one of six female representatives on the committee, Hodson said it was an important moment for the U.N. to reflect not only on the challenges in the Pacific, but the growing recognition that the barriers faced by women with disabilities are unique and compounded.

The challenge for Kayess and fellow members of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is to help interpret international law to facilitate this new understanding of disability in development.

“Part of ensuring leadership by people with disabilities includes ensuring representation of the diversity of lived experience of disability,” she said.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.