What did five Jackson School undergraduates along with 15 other University of Washington students do in Geneva, Switzerland, for three weeks in September 2022? They used their research skills and disability studies backgrounds to assist the Secretariat for the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and support Committee members as they developed “Lists of Issues” (LOIs) for upcoming state reports.
Students conducted research on the implementation of disability rights in Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Tuvalu, Maldives, and Palau, and proposed questions based on that research for the Committee to include in the LOIs and direct to each State on their progress.
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a body of independent experts which monitors implementation of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the States parties. States parties submit reports on their progress putting the Convention into practice and the Committee then holds hearings with State party representatives to discuss where more progress can—and should—be made. The Committee uses LOIs to ask States parties for more information to address gaps in their initial reports or provide more specificity on particular issues to make the hearings as useful as possible.
A country-by-country analysis for impact
In groups, the students conducted extensive research into disability rights in their assigned country and then analyzed their country’s initial report to the Committee for gaps in the information provided. Based on that research, each student group then proposed additions or amendments to the draft LOIs Committee members had prepared to go out to each country.
“During our time in Geneva, I was most surprised by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ appreciation for our work. Despite being undergraduate students, the members of the committee valued our research and took great interest in the new perspectives we put forward,” said Juliette Lanser, a senior majoring in international studies at the Jackson School whose research focused on the United Arab Emirates’ compliance. “Our experience meeting with various UN agencies, and working closely with the committee, demonstrated how vital it is to include everyone in conversations not only about disability rights but also issues concerning human rights.”
The students’ proposals were incorporated into final versions of the LOIs, which the Committee debated and adopted in a private session with students in attendance. In several cases, student groups had the opportunity to speak with the Committee members during the debate or while Committee members were revising the LOIs. Students had the chance to explain their findings as well as the thinking behind particular proposals. Every student group saw many if not most of their proposals adopted into the final LOIs, directly influencing how and on what these States will be reporting to the Committee going forward.
Gaining work-ready skills while doing good in the world
“The purpose of this UW study abroad program was to allow students to see how human rights law is negotiated in practice and become familiar with the global institutions working to advance human rights, including United Nations entities, the human rights treaty bodies, and others,” said Megan McCloskey, UW Jackson School Disability Inclusive Development Initiative Senior Fellow, Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Law and Graduate Student Lecturer in the Law, Societies and Justice Department, and the Disability Studies Program, who travelled with the students along with Stephen Meyers, faculty at the Jackson School and Law, Societies & Justice, as co-leaders of the program.
“The opportunity to work directly with the Committee gave students a chance not merely to observe the work of the treaty bodies but be part of it,” McCloskey added. It came about while students were in Geneva on a Jackson School/Law, Societies & Justice/Disabilities Study early fall start study abroad program called “Geneva: Gender, Disability, and Age Inclusion in Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law,” co-taught by McCloskey and Meyers.
McCloskey, who herself interned with the UN’s International Law Commission in Geneva when she first graduated from law school and has worked under the UN Secretary General’s Office on research regarding disability inclusion within the UN, created the opportunity. Both Meyers and McCloskey have lived and worked in Geneva, with Meyers having worked for the International Labour Organization’s disability unit in 2011.
The UW program represented the first time the Committee had worked with undergraduate students.
“My time in Geneva working with the UN Committee of Rights for Persons with Disabilities was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will forever be grateful for,” said Alyssa Antipa, an undergrad in international studies with minors in law, societies & justice and business administration. “In Geneva, we were able to speak with many different UN entities that gave us a glimpse into what working for an international organization is like and how that could potentially be a part of my future. It gave me a much deeper appreciation into what the UN does and the extensive experience that the members of the committee bring.”