Highlights from an interview with Dr. Scheinin

Last summer I worked as a legal assistant and project manager at the only law office specializing in disability rights in Finland, Lakitoimisto Kumpuvuori, an experience I’ll be sure to write more about at some point. There is one very memorable trip I made, though, that I was recently reminiscing about and from which I want to share one unforgettable memory.

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In early June, 2016, I woke up in Florence, Italy. It was through many unexpected turns of events that I found myself there, one of the reasons being an interview my boss and I had been able to secure for me with Dr. Scheinin, professor of international law and human rights. My mission was mainly to research the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and beyond the interview, I had temporary access to the European University Institute’s library. Italy, Fiesole, the EUI – definitely not where I’d ever expected to end up as a 20-year-old, Finnish, second year law student from Tallinn.

On the morning of the interview I walked up the hill from Florence to Fiesole on a quest to find Villa Schifanoia, where the Professor’s office was located.

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Over lunch, we discussed. Scheinin has, over the years, written extensively about human rights. Concerning disability rights, his publications include the book United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Beyond the book, I had gotten my hands on an early draft of the CRPD by him, in which Scheinin proposed that the Convention be written in the form of references to earlier human rights conventions. In light of this I was eager to hear his perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the final version. Years after his initial draft, he considered the greatest weakness of the CRPD to be that it was written in the form of State obligations rather than as rights of individuals. This, he reasoned, makes it much more difficult for persons with disabilities to use the CRPD in courts. Furthermore, the idea behind his draft, and behind linking the rights in the CRPD to rights States had committed to in previous conventions, was to counteract the contemporary trend of States aiming to dilute the obligations they already have during the drafting of new human rights conventions.

Another point Scheinin made on the weaknesses of the CRPD is the concept of reasonable accommodation, which in his mind gives States way too large of a margin of discretion – he fears States will tend to use this leeway to their own benefit in a way that disadvantages persons with disabilities. I will come back to this in a later post, as another Professor in the field argued the exact opposite, and I have an interest in discussing the topic in more detail.

To compensate for the weaknesses of the CRPD, and to ensure the realization of the strengths of the Convention, namely the many obligations States do now have in relation to disability rights, Scheinin emphasized the importance of creating a constructive and collaborative relationship with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Though the Committee doesn’t have the authority of an international court, it can still provide States that have ratified the Convention with interpretations which will show them how to put into effect the full potential of the CRPD. This, along with awareness-raising will play a crucial role in fulfilling the promise that the Convention has. Because so many judges are passive receivers, raising awareness about both disability rights and the reality of living with different disabilities will determine their understanding of the cases brought before them.

The importance given to awareness-raising leads to what was my biggest takeaway from our discussion. Surprisingly, it was unrelated to the CRPD and disability rights, though it applies also in that area.

“What advice would you give to someone, who would like to have a meaningful career?”, I asked.

I was taken aback, when the answer I got was to practice activism. Scheinin went on to further explain how little one could actually change within the structure and bureaucracy of large, international organizations. He would know, as he has closely worked with the UN as the Special Rappourteur on human rights and anti-terrorism. Instead, the Professor recommended taking action as a civilian in pursuance of the causes you believe in. This, he conceded, is key to making an impact. A quick Google search will show you that he has done just that. To hear such a statement from him, and to look back on his career and understand that despite and in light of all he has done, this is still his recommendation for where to get started, has made a difference in my way of thinking. I have cultivated a belief in and sense of awe toward grassroots movements. Though taking action is always scary and puts one in a vulnerable position, this little piece of advice is often on my mind and has encouraged me more than I can say. I hope it does you, too.

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I am grateful for the opportunity I had to engage in this conversation, and for Scheinin’s patience and generosity toward me and those his work impacts. I wholeheartedly recommend his numerous publications and blog posts to any and all! They are intelligent, very relevant and a good source for ideas to think about and discuss.

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