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Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock’s remarks during the global launch of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with disabilities in Humanitarian Action

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As delivered

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, Ana Maria,

I am pleased to see so many participants here today, I’m also pleased to see all of you here and I’m especially pleased to see so many colleagues from organizations of persons with disabilities expressing your voices and being part of the solution to the needs of people who we need to do a better job for.

Without your tenacious determination to fight for people with disabilities to be seen and heard, this day would not have been possible.

According to the World Health Organization, there are a billion people who are living with disabilities around the world. This is about 15 per cent of the world’s population. Nearly 40 per cent of them are older persons and 1 in 10 of them is a child. Recent studies have told us that these numbers are higher in forced displacement or other emergency contexts.

It is time we made people with disabilities know they matter.
That is the spirit of the IASC guidelines. And that is the spirit in which we work as we deal with these challenges across the humanitarian sector.

In every response to a crisis these guidelines will help ensure people with disabilities are not only included in the response but play a role in shaping it.

Our most sincere thanks go to Humanity and Inclusion, also known as Handicap International; to the International Disability Alliance, and especially my good friend Vladimir Cuk, who came himself to the IASC principles meeting earlier in the year and made a powerful impression on all of us. I want to thank UNICEF, and the group that worked on the Task Team mandated by the IASC to draft the guidelines.
More than 600 participants and their organizations took an active part in the regional and online consultations. I want to thank colleagues from other IASC entities who cooperated in these efforts, including the Mental Health and Psycho-social Support Reference Group and the Gender Reference Group. Finally, we are very grateful to Australia, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and the European Union for both their tireless advocacy and also for their essential financial support for this work.

The world needs more activists like many of you here today. Last year, when I visited Haiti, I met Dr. Ivens Louius. He is the only occupational therapist in the country. And he has devoted his entire life to improving the lives of people with disabilities. His organization, the Haitian Rehabilitation Foundation, or FONHARE, is a lifeline for many.

Ivens is one of my humanitarian heroes. I’m going to put his picture in a prominent place in the Global Humanitarian Overview when we publish it on 4 December as an example of one of the heroes who stand up for people with disabilities, with a hope of encouraging others to do the same.

It has been three years since the World Humanitarian Summit called us to move away from a “one-size fits all” approach to humanitarian action, to ensure that we are better at serving everybody’s needs.

The Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action has since then contributed to keep up the momentum. It’s been endorsed by more than 230 entities, including 30 Member States, the European Union and 14 UN agencies. The Charter helped translate good intentions into action by calling for the realisation of the Guidelines that we are launching today. The Principals of the IASC and I are proud to have been able to support this effort.
Why do we need guidelines that we’re launching today?
For two main reasons.

First, of course as we all know crises disproportionately affect people with disabilities, testing their resilience and threatening their safety and well-being.
Second, crises are becoming incredibly complex, prolonged, with access challenges and mounting needs.

To elaborate my first point, many studies have shown that during displacement or evacuations, people with disabilities are more likely to be left behind or abandoned. They suffer disproportionately when the social and economic support systems that they rely on, break down. Too often, they are also invisible in humanitarian data and that means they do not receive the protection and the assistance they need.

Women and girls with disabilities particularly face discrimination. Elderly people with disabilities do too. People with disabilities are at greater risk of gender-based violence during crises as they are more dependent on others for survival and less able to protect themselves from harm.
This year the Security Council recognized these needs with the adoption of its resolution 2475 on the protection of people with disabilities in armed conflict.

In early October this year, I participated in the Conference on Mental Health and Psycho-Social support in emergencies in Amsterdam which also highlighted the risks and challenges that people with these kinds of disabilities face. A traumatic experience such as a conflict or a natural disaster can significantly impact the mental health and psychosocial well-being of a person with immediate as well as long-term consequences for individuals, families, and communities. Greater attention needs to be provided to mental health and psycho-social support in humanitarian action. That’s why the IASC Principals and I have included this topic on the agenda of our next meeting in a few weeks.

To elaborate on my second point about the need to meet different needs and empower everyone caught up in increasingly complex crises - we require more timely, effective, well-coordinated and well-informed responses. Our responses in these contexts can only be well-informed if we count people with disabilities in. We have begun to do that by adapting our needs assessment and response planning tools, to capture people with disabilities in our data in 2020.

Today nearly 150 million people need humanitarian assistance. This has been driven in part by conflicts, which have increased in complexity and intensity over the past decade.

This not only makes assistance for people with disabilities complicated but is a leading cause of disabilities as well. Year after year, natural hazards, conflicts, explosive remnants of war and Improvised Explosive Devices leave thousands of people injured or maimed. And they face heightened risks when seeking humanitarian assistance and protection.

With worsening food insecurity, heightened risk of health crises and the impact of a changing climate, people with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

In 2018, a record 70.8 million people were displaced. Many of them are people with disabilities.
The challenges ahead of us remain huge. People are often caught up in areas with difficult access, or where there are extremist groups, and there is declining compliance with International Humanitarian Law and protection of civilians.

To address these issues, five things need to happen. First, we need to develop a better common understanding of people such as those with disabilities who are left behind. Second, we have to make our actions inclusive. Third, we should join up efforts with development actors to reduce vulnerability. Fourth, we need to provide more space to civil society, and finally we must become more accountable to the affected people.

The Guidelines are a first in that they were developed with and by people with disabilities for persons with disabilities. They will help us deliver better in our planning, delivering, monitoring and evaluation of our actions. I call upon United Nations’ agencies to implement them in accordance with their respective mandates and the decisions of their governing bodies.

The Guidelines represent the contribution of the humanitarian sector to the new United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, which Ana Maria has talked about. We will have to make sure over the next few months that both these initiatives complement each other.

Of course, we can’t do this alone.

The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls upon States to do their part for the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk.

We also rely on governments to address disability rights in their national policies. Persons with disabilities are less likely to be left behind in humanitarian action if they are an integral part of society outside of emergencies.

We must also partner and continue to cooperate with people with disabilities and their representative organizations.

As you will hear today, several organizations are thinking ahead about how the Guidelines could be implemented effectively.

Much progress has been made, and we are here today to make sure that the new Guidelines transform our everyday operations and make humanitarian action truly inclusive even in the most difficult circumstances and situations. This will only be the case if the Guidelines do not remain on the shelves but are used and implemented effectively at the field, national and global levels and by all humanitarian actors.

Last year, when I was in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I visited the Korea Rehabilitation Centre of HI for Children with Disabilities in Pyongyang. I was impressed by the approach of the centre to change society’s attitude to children with disabilities.
The centre focused its attention on the children realising their full potential. People with disabilities are aware of their potential. It is time we also become aware and see them as individuals, who count.

Thank you for your attention.

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