Brazil — UN Convention Struggle

Zabel Maior gives President Lula the Convention, for him to pass on to Congress to be ratified. Secretary of Human Rights, Paulo Vannuchi, looks on with caption winning in Brazil
Zabel Maior gives President Lula the Convention for him to pass on to Congress to be ratified.
Secretary of Human Rights, Paulo Vannuchi, looks on with caption Winning in Brazil

In 2007, an election year full of internal political turmoil and very few votes in the Brazilian Congress, the movement of people with disabilities set an example of citizenship, organization, union and strength, by managing to pass—in a record time of nine months— the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Because of its constitutional status, the CRPD required a 3/5 majority approval in two votes from each house—House of Representatives and Senate.

Activists from all areas of disability, government agencies and the social movement, got together and showed Congress that 14.5% of the Brazilian population—the biggest and most excluded minority in Brazil—possessed the determination and political strength to ratify the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century.

I had the joy and honor to actively participate in that process. During that time, I was able to wear my many hats: advisor at the National Disability Agency, National Coordination Office for the Integration of People with Disabilities, CORDE, headed by Izabel Maior; citizen and activist for the rights of persons with disabilities; journalist; and coordinator of Inclusive—Agency to Promote Inclusion, a news and content agency that covered every step of that challenging journey.

My primary motivation for being there was for my daughters, Amanda, my 5-year-old with Down syndrome, and her older sisters, Luiza and Cecilia, who have all brought much delight to my life.

On September 21, 2007, to celebrate the Brazilian National Day of Fight of Persons with Disabilities, CORDE promoted a TV program in partnership with Bank of Brazil, aired by the government TV channel throughout the country. The Minister for Human Rights, Paulo Vannuchi, opened the program, announcing that President Lula sent the Portuguese translation of CRPD to Congress, with the recommendation that it would be treated like an amendment to the Constitution, to guarantee the highest status possible. Specialists in the Convention spoke at the program and answered questions by the viewers.

The President of Congress set the vote as a priority, but the process was stuck at a special commission to analyze the document; unfortunately, the commission did not have enough members to start working.

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In the meantime, many countries were concluding their ratification processes and it looked as if Brazil wouldn’t be among the first 30 countries to approve the document and was at risk of being left out of the first Party States Conference. The delay would mean losing the possibility to include a candidate for the monitoring committee.

At that time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although the diagnosis pulled me away from CORDE, it gave me more time and freedom to act virtually, through the Internet. Using Inclusive, a free blog that I created to post news related to disability issues and to provide content to promote inclusion, I started producing news about the Convention. I posted alerts regarding the Convention and passed it on to the press and discussion groups on disability issues. I suggested that people call or write their representatives, urging them to vote at the Convention. Together with activists from other states—Ana Paula Crosara, Fabio Adiron, Claudia Grabois, Marta Gil, Lais Lopes, Flavia Vital, Barbara Kirchner, among many others—we joined forces with the movement Sign Inclusion, a web manifesto that was already collecting signatures for the Convention ratification. The National Council for Persons with Disabilities Rights joined in, and we had a virtual strategy meeting through Skype to find ways to achieve what, at that time, seemed so far away.

Inclusive became our main tool to promote the Convention. I translated UN documents and resources from their Enable website into Portuguese and posted them on Inclusive. I visited Enable every day to see if any more countries had ratified. I scoured the Internet for any and all news on the subject, and then translated and distributed that to the media. I even uploaded a poster saying, “Ratify Now!” followed by the number of signatures for ratification, and the question, “What about Brazil?”

We produced and distributed a Mourning Letter to all congressmen, expressing our dissatisfaction for the delay. We urged everyone to do their part, calling and writing to their representatives and asking when they would vote on the matter. At the end of April in Sao Paulo, during Reatech, the biggest Rehabilitation Fair in Latin America, many contacts were made and new support signatures for the ratification were collected.

On May 3, many groups went to the streets in Rio, Brasilia, Uberlandia, Salvador and other towns, to collect signatures in favor of the ratification.

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After all those efforts, the need for the special commission was overturned and the first vote was set for May 13. However, the fight was only beginning. An elite squad of persons with disabilities, along with their representatives and activists, gathered in the House of Representatives to convince members that we wanted the CRPD to receive Constitution amendment treatment. That is, the CRPD should not have just a single vote like any other bill. Constitution amendment treatment would be historic. The representatives were resistant, but the presence and determination of each one of us would make it happen—we were the “lobbyists for good.”

As I returned from Congress later that night, in the heat of the excitement, this is what I posted on Inclusive:

“Dear all, I just came back from the historic first vote of the CRPD in the Deputy Chamber with my spirits high from a majority of 418 votes for approval, 11 abstentions and no vote against it. The pressure of the social movement was crucial to what we wanted. We had an expressive participation of persons with disabilities and their representatives in the House today. In the morning, the leaders’ meeting had approved that the Convention would be voted today, but it made no remarks about the 3/5 majority needed for two rounds of voting. We divided ourselves into groups and went to the parties’ leaders to explain that we wanted the Convention to be voted as an amendment to the Constitution or not be voted on today at all. The leader of minority party thought it was difficult to pass it in that way. PSDB [Brazilian Social Democratic Party] also challenged the process. We had to have a long talk with the leaders and also with each representative to ensure our desire for ratification.

After many speeches about how the subject should be tackled, the President of the House, Arlindo Chinaglia, was firm and supported that the treaty would be equivalent to the Constitution, and that the text would be kept intact. That would constitute a new juridical element in Brazilian law.

The vote finally took place. With 418 votes in favor, 11 abstentions and no vote against, the CRPD was approved on the first round of voting in the House of Representatives. We got what we wanted! And on a symbolic date as well: May 13, when we celebrate the Slavery Abolition anniversary in Brazil. It felt like the Convention represented the same freedom to Brazilians who live with disabilities.”

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After that, we raced against the clock to escape the legislative recess and the upcoming elections. We kept up the pressure and got the second round of voting completed in two weeks. We expected a quiet day, but it turned into the most tense vote we had ever had to face. Again I refer to my notes of the day:

“With 353 votes in favor, none against and 4 abstentions, despite all odds, we succeeded in approving the CRPD last night in the second round. The qualified quorum (more than 3/5 of representatives) guarantees the Constitutional status. The document now goes to the Senate, where it also has to be approved twice by a 3/5 majority.

The beginning of the day was filled with tension. The night before, we had heard that opposition would obstruct all votes as a political artifice. We started calling party leaders to accelerate CRPD’s vote to avoid obstruction. But the fight was fierce—the government wanted to approve an addendum for health and the opposition wanted to block it. Passage of the treaty seemed bleak. In a meeting with movement members at lunch time, the President of the House of Representatives made it clear to us that the situation was much more difficult than the previous round, and that he could not guarantee that the CRPD would get to a vote by the Senate.

We were re-energized, however, with the presence of activists from other states at a preparatory meeting for our national conference the day before. Our lobby for the ratification of the CRPD, consisting of united persons with every kind of disability from governmental and non-governmental organizations, felt strong.

The book The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities with Comments, launched by the Ministry of Human Rights early in the afternoon, was a powerful tool in the hands of activists as each one approached and talked to the representatives of their respective constituencies.

Zabel Maior, together with activists, meet with government officials to move the CRPD forward.
Zabel Maior, together with activists, meet with government officials to move the CRPD forward.

Many times there were indications that the vote would not occur and that we should go home. I went to the Press Committee to distribute a press release I had prepared, documenting the Convention, and even the journalists said that there was no chance the CRPD would be voted on that day. But we were a persistent group of people. We didn’t move, and continued putting pressure on congressmen and party leaders. Many of them made speeches at the tribune, arguing that the CRPD should be voted on that night. We started to feel that all of our efforts were finally being effective. Late that night, some congressmen brought us a proposal of a safe vote as the first item the following week, because they feared that, at that point, the quorum would not be high enough. We refused the offer. There was another proposal by the leader of the minority party, Zenaldo Coutinho, that a new session was open, to verify quorum. If there were more than 350 members—a good margin that would guarantee approval, they would vote it. Otherwise, we would leave it for the following week. We agreed to it. The congressman took the proposal to the stand and it was accepted. The President then started to call the House Representatives to achieve quorum at the voting room. Each member who showed up was applauded by a large group of CRPD supporters at the entrance of the voting room.

In an emotional and historical session, with 353 votes in favor, none against and 4 abstentions, the CRPD was approved. Many congressmen came to greet us and said this would never have been possible without our strong and determined presence and pressure. We managed, on a politically tense and complicated day, to gloriously achieve one more step in the CRPD ratification process.

We take this opportunity to thank every representative who helped with the approval. We also thank those activists who could not be in Brasilia, but called and wrote to their representatives. Your help ensured the historic approval of the CRPD.

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In the Senate, the process was calmer. Our only enemy was time. We had to avoid the typical Brazilian festivities in June, when there is a recess at the Senate. A visit by Izabel Maior with the Senate President, Gabibaldi Alves, helped to accelerate the process. But the treaty had to go through two commissions—Human Rights and External Relations—before it was sent for a vote. The session at the Human Rights Commission was a public hearing with the participation of specialists on disabilities, all of them persons with disabilities themselves, who told senators about the Convention. The Senate President was present and on the occasion, guaranteed that the treaty would be voted as quickly as possible. The following week, during the session at the External Relations Commission, Senator Eduardo Azeredo voted in favor of the document. On July 3, 2008, the Senate approved the Convention with two sessions on the same day. My notes published on Inclusive that day:

“Brazilians with disabilities get the first international treaty with Constitutional power in the country’s history. Unanimously, Senators approved the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its protocol, thus guaranteeing for the first time in Brazil’s history, Constitutional strengh to an international treaty.

With 60 votes in favor on the first round and 56 on the second, on a thrilling and uncommon night, the CRPD was approved. This crowned the efforts of the movement of persons with disabilities, who left their differences, political preference and regionalisms aside, to fight for a common cause.

Many steps contributed to the successful vote: There were high level actions such as President Lula’s recommendation to give Constitutional status to the Convention; meetings with House of Representatives President, Arlindo Chinaglia; Senate President, Garibaldi Alves, and leaders from all parties in both houses; emails, letters and phone calls to congressmen; and supportive signatures to the Sign Inclusion petition.

The successful process demonstrated how each action for the ratification was vital. The right to fully exercise each one’s citizenship is so much more powerful when we unite around a common goal.

This victory makes me believe that the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society, in equal conditions, is not only possible, it is attainable when we join forces and fight together.

To all my fight companions: My warm and emotional regards.

by Patricia Almeida

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