The UN General Assembly Wednesday adopted the first UN convention to protect the rights of the disabled.

The convention, which will protect the rights of more than 600 million disabled persons, requires countries to adopt laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of any form of disability, from blindness to mental illness.

Its purpose is 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."

It also protects the rights that have already been granted, such as ensuring wheelchair-accessible buildings.

Upon ratification participating nations must eliminate any existing laws that discriminate against the disabled.

Nations will be largely responsible for enforcing the rights, though an optional protocol to the treaty binds states accused of violating the terms to respond to a complaint through a proceeding before a special committee.

First human rights treaty of 21st century

It was also the first human rights treaty of the 21st century and will affect about 10 per cent of the world's population, according to UN estimates.

Theoretically, there should be no need for such a convention, because people with disabilities are included in existing human rights conventions, said New Zealand Ambassador Don MacKay, who chaired the committee.

"The reality, unfortunately, has not followed the theory. The existing human rights instruments have fallen far short in their protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed to persons with disabilities."

The committee has been working on the new convention since 2001 with the help of disabled persons.

The UN has been actively involved in disabled rights since it declared 1981 the International Year of the Disabled under the slogan "Full Participation and Equality."

In 1993, the UN's Vienna Declaration for Human Rights reaffirmed that all human rights and fundamental freedoms included persons with disabilities.

Previous efforts were 'limited'

Up until now, the UN's actions have been limited, said Jim Derksen, a member of the human rights committee with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. Derksen was involved in parts of the planning process for the new convention.

He told that this new convention is a "reason to celebrate" because only in about 40 countries are the rights of disabled persons articulated in law. In some countries, a disabled person's right to marry, vote and even travel are restricted.

The convention "interprets what the Universal Convention on Human Rights means for people with disabilities," he said.

Derkson says the effect of this convention willreach much farther than the 10 per cent estimated by the UN.

"In the developed world, where the life expectancy is 70 years or older, the average person lives eight years of their life with a disability," he says.

'Tremendously exciting'

Laurie Beachell, the national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, calls the convention "tremendously exciting."

His organization was involved in the planning of the convention, with one member attending all of the meetings in New York.

"I think this convention goes a long way towards recognizing the equality of all citizens and the need to address the needs of people with disabilities worldwide," he said.

The next step, Beachell told, is to call on the government of Canada to ratify the convention.

He hopes ratification will happen in Canada within the next nine months, the same period of time it took the government to ratify the conventions on women and children.

"We would hope that the government would ratify this with the same speed."

Ratification by 2008

The convention will come into force 30 days after its ratification by 20 nations, which is expected to happen within the next two years. It will be formally opened to signing on March 30, 2007, after which governments can start their ratification procedures.

By ratifying, nations "reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others," the treaty says.