3 March, 2022
I am writing this letter several days after the first missiles hit Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022 with Russia launching its lethal and coordinated attacks on the civilian and military infrastructure of Ukraine from land, air, and sea.
As a severe humanitarian crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have crossed into neighbouring countries whilst millions of Ukrainians are being displaced internally. In addition, multiple and increasing civilian casualties are being reported and critical civilian infrastructure, including healthcare facilities, has been put under immense strain or is, increasingly, destroyed. Supply chains have been disrupted across Ukraine limiting access to food, medication, and other basic items. Numerous reports and eyewitness accounts of residential areas and critical infrastructure being deliberately targeted by Russian troops has prompted the International Criminal Court to commence an investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity that are being committed in Ukraine.
Within the context of this unfolding catastrophe, it is crucial to remember that 15% of the civilian population caught up in the conflict will have a disability. Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UN General Assembly 2007) requires State Parties to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict. This and all other provisions of UN CRPD apply at all times and cannot be suspended during national emergencies, foreign occupation, natural disaster, or armed conflict. As set out in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the Context of Armed Conflict (UN General Assembly 2021), international criminal and humanitarian law fully incorporates disability considerations. In addition, UN Security Council Resolution 2475 (UN Security Council 2019) calls upon Member States and parties to armed conflicts to protect persons with disabilities in conflict situations and to ensure they have access to justice, basic services, and unimpeded humanitarian assistance. However, as the Report notes, ‘Persons with disabilities tend to be disproportionately affected by armed conflicts. This seems not to register as an important reality to the extent that it should’ (UN General Assembly 2021, para 47).
This war hits Ukraine as the country began to emerge from the consequences of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, as our research suggests, magnified vulnerability of persons with disabilities in Ukraine by limiting their access to healthcare, social services, and transport. It increased their social isolation and undermined their economic security. The pandemic has shattered the resilience and vitality of organisations providing support to persons with disabilities. Special Rapporteur notes that there is ‘no such thing as an inherently vulnerable person, but only persons with disabilities placed in vulnerable situations’ (UN General Assembly 2021, para 16). Our research suggests that a wide range of ‘vulnerable situations’ shaped lived experiences of persons with disabilities in Ukraine before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons with disabilities and those in need of humanitarian assistance, as a result of the Russian military aggression against Ukraine in 2014, faced an additional layer of socio-economic vulnerability impeding their access to housing, healthcare and social services. COVID-19 and the political and economic responses to the pandemic amplified both the volume and the scale of such vulnerable situations.
The war that has been unleashed upon Ukraine in the last few days has turned these vulnerable situations into a humanitarian catastrophe falling heavily on persons with disabilities across Ukraine. Little verifiable evidence or testimonies can be collected at this stage; however, according to the initial reports by persons with disabilities and their organisations, persons with disabilities are being confronted with a range of issues, including lack of accessible and reliable information; disrupted or fully withdrawn access to medical services, including essential medicines; lack of accessible evacuation procedures, accessible evacuation or safe zones; increased exposure to COVID-19 in crowded shelters.
These life-changing challenges come on the top of the overall deterioration of the situation for all civilians caught up in this war, including degradation and destruction of essential services such as access to food, water and medical care; and, increasingly, indiscriminate targeting of the civilian population and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
In the current context where the course of this war is uncertain and the worst is expected, and as the humanitarian relief efforts are hindered by the escalating hostilities, organisations of persons with disabilities remain one of the last remaining systems of support for people they have been taking care of within the context of the pandemic and now within the context of this catastrophic war. They continue, where and when they can, to provide support to the most vulnerable individuals and their families. Their knowledge and expertise must inform all current and future relief efforts provided by the Government of Ukraine and by the international donors and humanitarian agencies. These efforts must foreground disability, respond to the difference of disability, and facilitate meaningful inclusion and participation.
In this challenging context, the National Assembly of People with Disabilities of Ukraine, the project’s partner organisation in Ukraine, has been mobilising and reorganising its activities to provide support to its member organisations to coordinate and facilitate, where possible, efforts to support persons with disabilities across Ukraine.
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Dr Kiril Sharapov