Atmosphere of Impunity Surrounds Disabled People, Says Commissioner of Human Rights

By Alexandra Halsey-Storch
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

STRASBOURG, France – Earlier this week, Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for the Council of Europe for Human Rights submitted a statement to the European Court of Human Rights, in which he urged the Court to hear a case concerning the maltreatment of a disabled person in Romania. “There is an atmosphere of impunity,” Hammarberg said, “surrounding abuses committed against people with disabilities.”

Malnourished child tied to his crib in a Serbian Institution (Photo Curtesy of Disability Rights International)

This case has been filed by the Center for Legal Resources on behalf of Valentin Campeanu, a young man who suffered from a severe learning disability and was infected with the HIV Virus, which in Romania is considered a handicap.  He died at the age of eighteen at the Poiana Mare Psychiatric Hospital, just one of the institutions where he spent his entire life.

Under Article 34 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a petitioner “should claim to be a victim of a violation of one of the rights set forth in the Convention.” As such, the person who was “directly affected by the violation” is the ideal petitioner to bring the lawsuit; however, the Court has not strictly enforced this provision and has, in some circumstances, allowed a close relative or legal representative of a deceased victim to commence an action for violating ones “right to life.” The case at issue differs from typical cases that the Court has heard in the past in that the named-plaintiff is deceased, and he is not survived by an heir or close relative, nor did he have a legal representative prior to death. Should this case be heard, it will be the first of its kind to be brought by a third party. Thus arises the question of whether or not the Center for Legal Resources, as a third, unrelated party may sue on behalf of Campeanu.

There are at least two bodies of international law that are intended to protect the lives and rights of persons like Campeanu but have been, in many instances, ineffectual in deterring human rights abuses. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights–adopted by the United Nations in 1948—speaks generally on the issue, stating that, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.” More specifically, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was designed “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

As a policy measure, the Council of Europe 2006-2015 Action Plan to Promote the Rights and Full Participation of People with Disabilities in Society is a plan aimed at bettering the welfare of disabled people.

Despite the laws that are in place and the policy initiatives at work, the abuse of disabled people remains prevalent around the world. The abuse can be visible, while in other instances it is more subtle and clandestine. The spectrum of types of abuses runs the gamut from being denied employment opportunities, to being the subject of hate crimes; from receiving substandard education in segregated classrooms to physical and psychological abuse in the home.

Throughout Europe, “thousands of people with disabilities are still kept in large, segregated and often remote institutions” often living in “substandard conditions, suffering neglect and human rights abuses.” Adults and children alike that have been institutionalized are often denied basic mental health and medical services and are physically and sexually abused by health care professionals. Children are chained to cribs, while adults are chained to their beds; children and adults alike can be severely underfed and malnourished. In some instances, there are “premature deaths” that go uninvestigated or even unreported.

While all of these violations of basic human rights occur, disabled people are often unable to reach the very place that could give them relief from their misery: the court system. A study by Inclusion Europe, a non-governmental organization, found that “access to justice for people with intellectual disabilities is by no means guaranteed in many European countries.” The problem is widespread and deeply embedded in society. As such, Commissioner Hammarberg argues that the Center for Legal Resources—even though a third, unrelated party– should in-fact be permitted to bring a lawsuit on behalf of Campeanu. He states: “in exceptional circumstances [non-governmental organizations] should be allowed to lodge applications with the Court on behalf of victims, even in the absence of specific authorization.” Such organizations are necessary in order to expose “human rights violations experienced by vulnerable persons and in facilitating their access to justice…”

For more information please visit:

Council of Europe – Access to Justice for Persons with Disabilities – 18 Oct. 2011

Council of Europe – Third Party Intervention – 14 Oct. 2011

Cornell University ILR School – Justice, Rights and Inclusion for People with Intellectual Disability – 1 Jan. 2007

Council of Europe – Improving the Quality of Life for People with Disabilities – 5 April 2006

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights – Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – 13 Dec. 2006

Author: Impunity Watch Archive