Instruments and Activities of the CoE - Thorsten Afflerbach

Towards full citizenship of people with disabilities – Instruments and Activities of the Council of Europe

Thorsten Afflerbach

Administrative Officer
Responsible for co-ordinating the activities in the field of rehabilitation and integration of people with disabilities
Partial Agreement in the Social and Public Health Field
Directorate of Social Affairs and Health
Directorate General III – Social Cohesion
Council of Europe

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning to you all!

Thank you very much for your invitation to speak at your Conference. It is a great honour to be here in Italy with you today.

Italy has been a driving force behind European integration even since the late 1940s when, at the instigation of Alcide de Gasperi and Carlo Sforza, it was a founder member of all the organisations which, to this day, are the key components of the European architecture, including the Council of Europe, created in 1949. ItalyÂ’s commitment to the European construction in general, and the Council of Europe in particular, has been unfailing: it hosted the historic session at which the Committee of Ministers adopted the European Convention on Human Rights (Rome, 4 November 1950), it has signed or ratified almost 140 of the 170 conventions drawn up by the Council of Europe.

It is also a great pleasure for me to celebrate with you the 50th anniversary of FIMITIC. Your anniversary takes place at a historically very important moment. It coincides, for example, with the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Standard Rules on the equalization of opportunities for people with disabilities  , or with the 50th anniversary of the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT)  , - transport policies for a greater Europe being a specific area of great importance to all of us - and with the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the Council of EuropeÂ’s European Convention on Human Rights   – human rights being the fundamental values of todayÂ’s European society.  

And, not to forget, your anniversary takes place in the year of the Italian EU Presidency, in the European Year of People with Disabilities  , and in the year of the Council of EuropeÂ’s Second Conference of Ministers responsible for disability policies.

Anniversaries are certainly a good reason to celebrate, but also to take stock of achievements and to identify shortcomings and future challenges. This presentation aims at contributing to that process.


Ladies and Gentlemen, let me first of all briefly introduce to you the organisation that I represent. The Council of Europe   is an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1949. At present, it has 45 member States   with a total population of 800 million, which makes it a truly pan-European organisation. Geographically, these states stretch from Iberia to Siberia. The seat of the Council of Europe is Strasbourg, France. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg should not be confused with the Council of the European Union in Brussels or the European Council. They are quite distinct. However, all 15 member States of the European Union are also members of the 45-strong Council of Europe.

The aims of the Council of Europe are to protect and promote Human Rights, Pluralist Democracy and the Rule of Law, to help consolidate democratic stability and to strengthen social cohesion in Europe. Disability policies have been formulated at the Council of Europe since 1959, when the Partial Agreement in the Social and Public Health Field  , was set up. Again, Italy was one of its founder fathers. Following a human rights-based approach to disability policies, the Council of Europe works towards full citizenship, equal opportunities, independent living and active participation of people with disabilities in the life of the community. The main body is the Committee on the Rehabilitation and Integration of People with disabilities, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the long-standing, former representative of the Italian government, the distinguished Dr. Carnevale.


Let’s come back to the question: How does the Council of Europe try to achieve those goals? We have at our disposal a set of international legal instruments – both binding and non-binding, as well as other tools.

Conventions, for example, are such legal instruments. They are legally binding on national governments of those States that sign and ratify them, and they may lead to subsequent harmonisation and amendment of national legislation in order to comply with them. The CouncilÂ’s work has led, to date, to the adoption of some 170 conventions, including the most important examples in our context here today, the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the European Social Charter (1961), and the Revised European Social Charter (1996).

Recommendations and Resolutions addressed to national governments are non-binding legal instruments. They contain policy statements proposing a common course of action to be followed by member States. Although not legally binding, they carry political commitment by virtue of their adoption by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Important examples are the Recommendation No. R (92) 6 on a coherent policy for people with disabilities, the Resolution AP (95) 3 on a charter on the vocational assessment of persons with disabilities, the Resolution ResAP(2001) 1 on Universal Design, and the Resolution ResAP (2001) 3 on new technologies.

Other tools include comparative studies and reports on current European disability legislation, policy and practice, in order to provide information and inspiration to national governments. I would call this activity the transfer of know-how. One example of such a report is our comparative analysis of disability assessment systems in 22 European countries. The study called Assessing disability in Europe – similarities and differences, and was drawn up in collaboration with Dr. Fratello, Professor Scorretti and Dr. Dal Pozzo from Italy.

Let us now look at some of these instruments in closer detail.


The European Convention on Human Rights (1950)   requires States to secure for everyone within their jurisdiction a number of civil and political rights and fundamental freedoms, including, amongst others, the right to life (Art. 2), to liberty and security of the person (Art. 5), to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence (Art. 8), to marry and found a family (Art. 12), to education (Art. 2, First Protocol), to free movement and freedom to choose oneÂ’s residence (Art. 2; Fourth Protocol) as well as the freedom of expression and information (Art. 10).

These rights are protected by an international enforcement system unprecedented in history and unparalleled in the world today: the European Court of Human Rights   in Strasbourg. Any individual, group (including non-governmental organisations) or State claiming to be a victim of violation of Human Rights as set out in the Convention may lodge an application directly with the European Court of Human Rights. All judgements of that Court are binding on the States concerned.

Thousands of individual complaints are received by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg every year. Only very few come from or concern disabled people. Why is that?

Admittedly, not all applications are successful, as, for example, in the case of Botta against Italy.  Mr Botta, a physically disabled person, asserted that he was unable to enjoy a normal social life which would enable him to participate in the life of the community due to the difficulties encountered in gaining access to a private bathing establishment and a beach. He saw a violation of Article 8 “The right to respect for private and family life” of the European Convention on Human Rights. Referring to the positive obligations of the State to secure effective respect for private life, as in previous cases, the Court recalled that these may involve the adoption of measures designed to secure this respect even in the sphere of relations of individuals between themselves.  However, in this event, there must be a direct and immediate link between the measures sought and the private life of the applicant. In this particular case, those measures were of such a broad and indeterminate scope that the Court could not find any conceivable direct link between them and Mr Botta's private life. 
Despite this judgement the disability movement should continue applying to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to achieve a more positive judgment one day.


The European Social Charter (1961)   is the counterpart of the Convention in the field of economic and social rights. It protects some 23 fundamental rights in the field of employment and social protection, such as, amongst others, the right to work (Art. 1), to safe and healthy working conditions (Art. 3), to fair remuneration (Art. 4), to organise (Art. 5), to bargain collectively (Art. 6), to vocational guidance and training (Art. 9 and 10), to the protection of health (Art. 11), to social security (Art. 12), to social and medical assistance (Art. 13), to social welfare services (Art. 14), to social, legal and economic protection (Art. 16) as well as The right of physically and mentally disabled persons to vocational training, rehabilitation and social resettlement (Art. 15). To date (31/03/2003), this Charter has been signed by 32 and ratified by 26 member States.

To take account of social changes, the Revised European Social Charter   was adopted in 1996. It came into force on 1 July 1999. It updates and strengthens the rights guaranteed by the Charter and includes new rights and more progressive provisions, such as, amongst others, the right to dignity at work (Art. 26), to protection against poverty and exclusion (Art. 30), and to housing (Art. 31). In addition, the scope of Article 15 has been extended considerably and now goes beyond employment issues. It reads: The right of persons with disabilities to independence, social integration and participation in the life of the community.

To date (31/03/2003), the Revised European Social Charter has been signed by 32 but ratified only by 15 of the 45 member states of the Council of Europe. More member states should sign and ratify it. Non-governmental organisations are encouraged to help their governments in meeting their commitments here.

The Social CharterÂ’s monitoring system used to be exclusively based on reports submitted by governments to the European Committee for Social Rights. Since July 1998, however, a revolutionary new system of collective complaints allows also non-governmental organisations to file complaints against States in case of alleged violations of human rights enshrined in the Charter before that Committee. This is very important for you. And so is your contribution to it. To date, Autism Europe is the only international disability NGO that has made use of the collective complaints procedure.

We are currently conducting a study on the access to social rights for people with disabilities in Europe, based on the belief that improving access to social rights is a key component in promoting social cohesion in Europe. The report seeks to determine how to ensure access to social rights (housing, employment, social protection, health and education) for people with disabilities in a context of rapid social and economic change. It analyses the obstacles impeding access to social rights within and across a range of fields, gives examples of how obstacles are being overcome, examines examples of good practice (integrated measures implemented in member states), identifies key success factors and common principles on which measures should be based, and, finally, develops cross-sectoral policy guidelines aimed at facilitating access to social rights for people with disabilities.


Recommendation No. R (92) 6 on a coherent policy for people with disabilities (1992)   is based on the fundamental principles of Human Dignity, Full Citizenship, Equality of Opportunity, Independent Living and Active Participation in the Life of the Community. It also says that it is societyÂ’s duty to make this possible. It also stipulates: “Failure to protect the rights of citizens with disabilities and improve their opportunities is seen as a violation of Human Dignity”.

The Recommendation contains policy guidelines for the rehabilitation and integration of people with disabilities. This model programme recommends that governments of all member States develop comprehensive and co-ordinated national disability policies taking account of all successive stages in the integration process and all areas of community life. Such as: prevention, diagnosis, treatment and therapy, education, vocational guidance and training, employment, social integration and environment, social, economic and legal protection, training of persons involved in the rehabilitation process, information, statistics and research.


Although the Recommendation includes a chapter on vocational integration, we all know that people with disabilities are still far too often regarded as not fit for work. The key stumbling block is the vocational assessment. As long as it still concentrates on deficiencies and weak points it will lead to exclusion. But since performing a task of a particular job generally requires only a limited number of abilities, there is no justification for putting at a disadvantage persons whose disabilities would have no effect on their performance in that job.

The Council of Europe Resolution AP (95) 3 on a charter on the vocational assessment of people with disabilities (1995)   calls for a shift in focus: away from disabilities towards abilities. Vocational assessment should concentrate on the capacities of the individual and relate them to the specific job requirements. Comparison and matching of vocational aptitudes and specific job requirements should facilitate employment.


Architectural obstacles and barriers in the built environment still exclude many people with disabilities from participation in the life of the community. The man-made environment is constructed on the assumption of there being an average person. However, there is no standardised person. Since every individual deviates from “the norm” in one way or another, facilities built for “the average person” are not necessarily equally accessible for everybody. In the past, the problem of accessibility was considered a direct result of the individualÂ’s deviation from that “norm”. The person was “the exception”, hence “the problem”. Following an itemised approach, the most common response to accessibility problems has been to add specific facilities to a building, such as ramps or wider doors, often after the completion of the construction. This response, however, reinforces the idea that certain individuals are “exceptions to the rule” and stigmatises them by obliging them to use, for example, separate entrances, in reality often at the rear of the building. The new integrated approach based on Universal Design principles aims to respond equally to the needs of everyone. Everyone should be able to access, use and understand any part of the built environment as independently and naturally as possible. The criteria defining “normality” should be enlarged to ensure that the construction of the built environment is based on Universal Design principles. Since those principles are neither very well followed nor even known by European architects, engineers and designers, the Council of Europe took a pro-active approach in 2001 by adopting Resolution ResAP(2001) 1 on Universal Design  , which recommends the introduction of Universal Design principles into the curricula of all occupations working on the built environment.


New technologies open up endless possibilities potentially leading to a better quality of life for everybody. However, many people with disabilities are at risk of being excluded from those benefits due to newly created obstacles and barriers caused by inappropriate technology design or provision. Council of Europe Resolution ResAP(2001) 3 “Towards full citizenship of persons with disabilities through inclusive new technologies”   recommends drawing up national strategies to ensure that persons with disabilities benefit from the manifold opportunities on new technologies, particularly in the priority policy areas educations, vocational guidance and training, employment, social integration and environment, identification and diagnosis, prevention, medical rehabilitation, and electronic government. All products and services for people with disabilities should comply with the following quality criteria: availability, accessibility, affordability, appropriateness, adaptability, attractiveness, compatibility and usability.


You now know of the Council of EuropeÂ’s legal and political instruments which are most relevant to you, written down on paper. Let us now move from paper to practice. In practice, there are a significant number of constraints on the creation of an enabling environment for social inclusion and cohesion. Many of these constraints arise from insufficient protection of human rights of citizens with disabilities or discrimination against them.

One possible way forward may be the elaborating new legal and political standards and of filling the gaps in the existing instruments.
However, emphasis should also be placed on the implementation of existing instruments, that is to say, to turn words into deeds and to translate policy into action.


Non-governmental organisations play a vital role in monitoring this translation process, making sure that basic commitments are respected, and also in raising awareness in order to promote a human rights culture in society.  You as non-governmental protagonists can act as a powerful force for change.

You know best the barriers you have to confront. You know what is needed to overcome these obstacles. Make your views known to your national governments and to international organisations, such as the Council of Europe.

The Council recognised the importance of civil dialogue as early as 1952 when it gave NGOs the opportunity to acquire consultative status, thus enhancing the participation of all citizens in the pan-European decision-making process. To date, about 400 international NGOs from all walks of life take part in written consultation procedures and/or participate in hearings. For many years now, FIMITIC has taken part in this structured communication and consultation procedure.


And I am happy to note that FIMITIC will also participate in the Second European Conference of Ministers responsible for Integration Policies for People with Disabilities, which will take place in Malaga, Spain, 7-8 May 2003, on invitation of Mr Eduardo ZAPLANA, Spanish Minister for Labour and Social Affairs. The theme of that Conference is: ”Improving the quality of life of people with disabilities: enhancing a coherent policy for and through full participation”, the sub themes are: 1) Promoting citizenship and full participation by developing effective legal and policy provisions to ensure equality of opportunities for people with disabilities, and 2) Developing innovative approaches in services, intended to meet the needs of people with disabilities as consumers.
Measures to enhance the integration of women with disabilities and that of people with disabilities in need of a high level of support will be discussed as cross-cut issues.

The main objective of the Conference is to identify common principles which should permeate future disability policy development and public service delivery in Europe. To that end, Ministers will discuss the achievements and shortcomings of recent and current integration policies for people with disabilities and ways of meeting the new challenges. They will exchange ideas, share experiences, and discuss measures taken, or to be taken, at national, European, and international level to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities.

20 international disability NGOs are invited to be represented at the Ministerial Conference in Malaga. That is more than any other Ministerial Conference at the Council of Europe, and also a considerable increase compared to the first Ministerial Conference on disability policies 1991 in Paris, where 6 NGOs were present, which – by the way - was also already revolutionary at that time.

Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, I see my time is up, I am grateful for your attention and patience. Please let me conclude by recommending to use that opportunity to make FIMITIC’s voice – your voice – heard at the Ministerial Conference in Malaga.