MAP joins UN Special Rapporteur to highlight challenges for persons with disabilities in conflict

On Monday 25 October, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s Community Programme Officer Haitham Saqqa joined a panel of experts to discuss the challenges facing persons with disabilities in Gaza, at the civil society launch of the latest report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Gerard Quinn.

In June, following Israel’s 11-day offensive on Gaza in May, MAP wrote to the Special Rapporteur to highlight violations against the enjoyment of rights and protections of Palestinian persons with disabilities. The Special Rapporteur’s new report describes the disproportionate impact of conflict on persons with disabilities, and makes important recommendations regarding inclusion, protection, and access to justice for persons with disabilities across the “peace continuum”.

Here are Haitham’s reflections on the event and the issues he raised:

I have worked with MAP since 2009. This has allowed me to engage with my people, especially during times of war and crisis. I am glad to have the opportunity to learn and share my experiences, especially regarding the rights of people with disabilities.

Through my work, it has been clear that the situation for Palestinians with disabilities in Gaza remains dire. Long-standing issues such as restrictions on freedom of movement and access to basic needs, such as electricity, were exacerbated in the aftermath of the May offensive, which killed 261 Palestinians (including six Palestinians with disabilities) and displaced thousands more. More than 2,210 people were injured during the 11-day assault, many of whom may suffer a long-term disability requiring rehabilitation.

As with previous assaults, this latest offensive had a disproportionate impact on persons with disabilities in Gaza. For example, the warning and evacuation procedures used by Israel are inaccessible for people with different disabilities, often meaning they cannot flee to safety. During the last attacks in May on Gaza, Israel used “warning missiles” before bombing some buildings, but people with hearing disabilities were unable to hear these and uncertain of what areas were safe for them to approach. The warnings are also often not advanced enough for people with disabilities to evacuate safely. For people who use technical aids or devices, there is little time to gather those necessary items before fleeing their homes – many of which were destroyed.

In some circumstances this has resulted in people with disabilities being left in their homes, as family members were unable to evacuate them. During the 2014 assault on Gaza, for example, a 17-year-old girl with a physical disability who was involved with MAP’s projects died from smoke inhalation after being unable to be safely evacuated from her family house during an Israeli attack on her neighbourhood.

Around 3,000 people with disabilities were displaced during the offensive earlier this year, however shelters and places of refuge were often inaccessible. In our submission to the Special Rapporteur, we highlighted a story from the father of Ramzi, a Palestinian with a visual disability whose four siblings were killed in an airstrike on their home:

“We settled down in one of the UNRWA schools. Many people moved to live in the UNRWA schools as well. Ramzi and I slept in the schoolyard because rooms were filled with women. During these times, Ramzi was distressed at the new place which was not suitable or adaptable for persons with visual disabilities, and I was not by his side most of the time due to my frequent visits to the hospital to check on other members of our family. After the assault and our stay at the UNRWA school, Ramzi became very reliant and dependent on me and others because of the unfamiliarity and the inaccessibility of the new place.”

This illustrates the consequence of excluding people with disabilities from humanitarian response planning and discussions around accountability. In future, I would like to see the presence and full participation of persons with disabilities who live under military conflict in such forums, and to see our contributions reflected in the recommendations made by experts and UN mechanisms. People with disabilities, and the organisations that represent them, should be consulted and represented at every level, whether that is the Secretary General’s annual reporting, regular debates at the Security Council, or in the development of local and national laws, policies and practices, to ensure that these are sensitive to the needs of those affected. Nothing about us should happen without us. I am glad to see that call reflected in the Special Rapporteur’s report.

The barriers that prevent our participation must therefore be addressed. For Palestinians in Gaza, this means lifting the 14 years of illegal closure and blockade on Gaza and allowing us to move freely.

I have only had the chance to travel outside Gaza once; when I traveled to Geneva to brief states ahead of the Universal Periodic Review of Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in December 2017. There, I presented a report on behalf of MAP detailing violations of the rights of health, freedom of movement, and the rights of persons with disabilities.

The latest assault on Gaza reflected many of the same issues I highlighted four years ago. The chronic failure to protect Palestinians with disabilities in Gaza and ensure accountability for violations, including during the 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 military assaults, and during the “Great March of Return” in 2018-19, means that these have inevitably recurred. I would like to see transparent investigations and accountability for all countries that violate the rights of persons with disabilities, and for persons with disabilities to have access to justice and effective remedy whenever violations occur.

I was glad to see the Special Rapporteur address the issue of impunity for violations against persons with disabilities in his report. Working to break down the barriers to participation for people with disabilities, and towards an end to impunity for violations of their rights, are key components of MAP’s work.

You can watch a recording of the panel discussion here.

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