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The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights promotes in Europe a better understanding of psychosocial disabilities

On 16 and 17 October 2014, the Regional Office for Europe (ROE) of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights organized in Brussels its fifth annual event dedicated to ‘Forgotten Europeans". The main objective of the seminar was to raise awareness and increase understanding of the rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities, with particular focus on the issue of coercion in mental health care, as well as the implementation of Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This entitles people with disabilities to live an independent lifestyle, as well as enjoy full inclusion within the community.


The OHCHR’s ‘Forgotten Europeans’ series focuses on the rights of several often-overlooked categories of rights holders – persons with disabilities, vulnerable children, and older persons either in, or at risk of being placed in care institutions. These groups of rights holders share a common trait – the understanding of their individual rights has witnessed a progression. The top down approach, frequently dominated by either a medical paradigm or one that treats the persons as passive recipients of care, has finally been replaced by a rights-based approach. This deals with the individuals as rights-holders and active subjects, living on equal footing with other members of society.


October’s event focused on persons with psychological disabilities, who, despite this progression in Human Rights law, commonly continue to be overlooked. Their concerns tend to be addressed by mental health policy, which in practice, is mostly seen as a ‘niche’ of its own, with a human rights perspective remaining largely absent.


The event provided an opportunity for open discussion between rights holders, service providers, experts, representatives of EU Member States, three DGs of the European Commission, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the World Health Organization, OHCHR, and the European Psychiatric Association.


Several speakers drew on their personal experience when illustrating the challenges faced by persons with psychosocial disabilities. Gábor Gombos, a user and survivor of psychiatry, and former member of the UN Committee for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities highlighted some of the obstacles faced by this segment of society. “Due to discrimination and stigma, they often face serious obstacles in the enjoyment of rights that are guaranteed to everyone. For instance, when a person has ‘a mental health diagnosis’, he or she is often denied treatment for a life-threatening physical illness due to the prejudiced view that his or her symptoms don’t have to be taken seriously.”


Models of good practice, such as the Swedish system of personal ombudsmen – introduced by Maths Jesperson from PO Skåne – were presented and gave rise to inspiring discussions. The PO system is a concrete example of ‘supported decision-making,’ and involves the full-time support of persons of psychosocial disabilities by an individual of no alliance with psychiatry, the social services, or any other authority, and not with the client’s relatives or any other person in his surroundings. As Jesperson explained, “In other projects it is usually the clients who have to adjust themselves to a bureaucratic system, but we work in the opposite way. The PO’s have to be very flexible, creative and unconventional in finding ways to work with this group.”


More information

  • Read the Symposium Report
  • For a full summary of the event’s proceedings, as well as links to presentations made during the event, please consult the the OHCHR website.