UN Conference of State Parties: Connecting Disability Organizations


Yutta Fricke

The 16th session of the Conference of States Parties to the CRPD (COSP16) will take place at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York, from 13 to 15 June 2023.  As government officials and representatives of disability organizations from around the world pack their bags and check the expiry date of their dormant passports (including CCD’s Carly Fox), I can’t help but be a wee bit envious. What seems like many years ago, in a pre-COVID world back in 2019, Steven Estey, April D’Aubin, and I, as chairperson of CCD’s International Committee, had the good fortune to be among those attending the 12th COSP Session.

What follows is a bit of an orientation on what this year’s delegates can expect at COSP, based on my own experience. But first, a bit of context …


Since 2008,the United Nation’s (UN) organizes COSP annually to fulfill one of the commitments of the 164 signatories and 186 State Parties to The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).  Article 40 of the Convention says:

“The States Parties shall meet regularly in a Conference of States Parties in order to consider any matter with regard to the implementation of the present Convention.”

Canada ratified the CRPD in 2010, and is a regular participant at the COSP. Only accredited non-government organizations (NGOs) or organizations that have consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) can participate in the sessions. The UN selects themes for each COSP to guide presentations and statements by State Parties. This year’s overarching theme is: Harmonizing national policies and strategies with the CRPD: achievements and challenges. There are three sub-themes:

Sub theme 1: Ensuring equal access to and accessibility of sexual and reproductive health services for persons with disabilities
Sub theme 2: Digital accessibility for persons with disabilities
Sub theme 3: Reaching the under-represented groups of persons with disabilities

The official meetings in the General Assembly begin with formal presentations on the themes and are followed by 3 to 5 minute commentaries by State Parties and other registered speakers. The first morning is always the most exciting, with almost every seat in the Assembly and the gallery filled. By afternoon, it is difficult to hear the presentations because of all the side conversations. Already on Day 2, it is not hard to find delegates who are nodding off. Not so in the Civil Society Forum!

COSP Civil Society Forum

A highlight of COSP is the Civil Society Forum, where people with personal and acquired expertise have the opportunity to discuss a range of topics with Member States, UN entities and NGOs. The side events run alongside the three days of official meetings and are open to all COSP participants, as well as invited registered external guests. The 2023 Civil Society Forum Agenda is now online and includes a number of Canadian presentations, such as:

  • Realizing Human Rights & Social Justice in Mental Health: An international collaboration (Canadian Centre on Disability Studies Incorporated operating as Eviance)
  • Stronger Together: Gender and Disability Intersectional Movements at the Forefront of Human Rights Advocacy (UN CRPD Committee, Global Affairs Canada, OHCHR, UN Women and Women Enabled International)
  • Disability-Inclusive Support Systems: Promoting Economic Security and Poverty Reduction (Permanent Mission of Canada)

The broad range of topics offers something for everyone interested in disability accessibility and inclusion. CCD has been among the regular contributors to the Civil Society Forum. In 2019, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment and Disability Inclusion Canada, joined CCD for one presentation and the Disabled Women’s Network Canada for another. In both cases, the room was packed with participants from around the world. In 2023, many sessions will be available to registered attendees via Zoom. 

What to expect at COSP

• Expect to meet new and old friends and colleagues.

The Civil Society Forum Agenda indicates which countries are presenting on a panel, from the different corners of the world. My favorite panels are multinational. But even if the panelists are, for example, from India and talking about Indians with disabilities during climate disasters, the room is filled with many other experts eager to exchange their country’s experiences and strategies. The energy and enthusiasm in those crowded conference rooms is electrifying.

As you can imagine, the conversations carry over to discussions in the hallways, over the lunch table and late into the evening. A number of organizations plan in advance to use the event to discuss intersectoral or shared geopolitical interests. Some even held elections, for instance the Commonwealth Disabled Persons Forum, which included Steven Estey.

For about a decade, from 1988-99, I worked as Development Program Director at Disabled Peoples International (DPI). The 2019 COSP was an unexpected reunion with DPI Council Members with whom I had lost contact. Considering the enormous effort and fundraising our small Winnipeg DPI staff required to host a World Assembly every 4 years, I marvel at how the COSP has the potential to offer representative organizations the logistical support to network annually.

• Gather excellent information during the meeting and afterwards.

At COSP, you have the chance to meet disability experts in any and all areas of interest. Back in 2019, I was curious about the impact of the digitization of work on people with disabilities. The tendency back then was to dream about how digital communication could offer new opportunities for a fulfilling career while working from home. At the time, workers complained that too many employers considered communicating via computer from home an unreasonable accommodation request. Then came COVID… 

I left New York with a stack of calling cards from these experts. I have maintained contact with a few since then, and two participated in online presentations I organized for Manitobans.

• Put your advocacy skills to good use.

Some of the advocacy that happens is literally in the hallways. Where else can you get Minister Qualtrough’s attention without an appointment?  And the best among our ministers, like Minister Qualtrough, are there to network and learn, just like you.

Wherever your advocacy is focused, international, national or local, your efforts will be reinforced at COSP. There, you will find like-minded advocates fighting the same fight in other parts of the world. For example, efforts to protect people with disabilities from Medical Assistance of Dying. At the UN, our advocates have the advantage of the support of other official delegates, who share our concerns about how Canada’s laws fall short in meeting CRDP commitments to people with disabilities.

• Enjoy the hallowed halls and entry to the UN

Apart from what goes on at COSP, being at the UN is an event unto itself. As you approach the United Nations Buildings you pass by a circle of flags representing the 193 Member States who support the United Nations and what it stands for, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The visual effect of the flags inspires hope in the potential of diplomacy, even when the reality is so heart-breaking. 

• Expect a bit of mayhem

Although the halls may be hallowed, the building and the meetings are incredibly inaccessible. While I was looking online for information about the 2019 discussions, I found this warning:

“Due to the latest UN security regulations, please note that access
for wheelchair users to the main conference rooms of the COSP
is limited and will be available on a first come first served basis.”

Imagine 50 or so wheelchair users, some who travelled up to two days, only to be told that the maximum had long been reached and they must therefore watch the proceedings on a “large screen.”  The participants were outraged; security regulations be damned. Eventually, the Security Guards relented.

The Civil Society Forum small conference rooms were even less accessible, with little room to squeeze by a large central table with seating capacity for fewer than half the attendees. Many participants stood or sat against the wall. There was typically no captioning and I don’t recall seeing sign language.

In closing, 2019 was actually the second COSP I attended. The first was not comparable in any way, in terms of numbers of participants, energy or impact on me. Perhaps, some of the logistical problems will be addressed with time, experience and resources. I wish all Canadian disability advocates had the opportunity to meet their peers from around the world. The global frameworks of North and South, developed and developing, industrialized or not, all fall away. There is always much more that unites people with disabilities than sets us apart.

If you have experienced attending COSP or another UN meeting, please let CCD know. CCD’s Disability Digest offers an opportunity to share your story.