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UN body takes issue with stance on disabled rights

A blind woman sings for donations on the side of a road in Phnom Penh last year.
A blind woman sings for donations on the side of a road in Phnom Penh last year. Sreng Meng Srun

UN body takes issue with stance on disabled rights

A UN spokesperson has rejected a government reading of a UN convention used to justify banning people with disabilities from performing in the streets.

Phnom Penh authorities banned blind singers performing in the city’s streets last year, and last week confiscated one group’s musical equipment.

On Monday, the secretary-general of Cambodia’s Disability Action Council, Em Chan Makara, justified the crackdown by citing the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, which “does not encourage them to raise funds that way”.

However, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in Cambodia, Wan-Hea Lee, responded saying while the convention did not encourage the practice, it did not prohibit it either.

“I have no doubt that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would consider the prevention of blind persons from earning money from singing on the street and subjecting them to involuntary confinement to be violations of the Convention on multiple grounds,” she said in an email.

“One clear conclusion from UN work on persons in street situations at the global level is that survival behaviour, such as begging or performing on the streets, must not be prohibited – and in fact, cannot be eliminated.”

“This is particularly the case for persons that are heavily discriminated against in mainstream employment, such as the blind, who often have few or no other alternatives for earning their sustenance.”

She said the convention required governments to ensure people with a disability are enabled to fully exercise their rights, with support if needed.

Makara said that he was concerned for the safety of people with disabilities, claiming 40 per cent were hired and exploited to sing on the streets, or that they often falsely claimed to be linked to NGOs.

“We don’t want to see our people with disabilities exploited,” he said. “Some people hire blind people to sing on the street and collect the money . . . This is a small business for them.”

Makara suggested street performers take up the government offer of 5,000 riel per day ($1.25) and get jobs singing in restaurants or at weddings, where he admitted they would face a significant pay cut – from up to $70 per group each day to $10.

Lee said there were many ways “to protect vulnerable persons from exploitation that are non-coercive and respectful of human rights”.

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