Statement of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa on Access to Information for persons who are blind or otherwise print disabled

    The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Special Rapporteur) joins the rest of the world to celebrate the Human Rights Day, on 10th December 2018. The Special Rapporteur welcomes the global observance of the 70th anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

    The UDHR proclaims that everyone has inalienable rights to which they are entitled regardless of their status. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur notes that while it does not make specific mention of disability as a protected group from discrimination, the UDHR has over time anchored the development of very concrete instruments to ensure equal rights for persons with disabilities.

    To this end, the Special Rapporteur wishes to use this occasion to welcome the adoption in January 2018, by the African Union Assembly, of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa (the Persons with Disabilities Rights Protocol), in addition to the adoption in 2013 of the Marrakesh Treaty To Facilitate Access To Published Works For Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, Or Otherwise Print Disabled (‘Marrakesh Treaty’ or ‘Treaty’).

    It is estimated that one billion persons with disabilities face various barriers in their day-to-day lives around the globe,[1] and that one such barrier is access to information.

    This is in spite of previous guarantees of the right to information under various regional and international human rights instruments, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UDHR itself. More recently, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has laid further emphasis on, and sought to protect the right of persons with disabilities to access information.

    The right to access information is still to be fully realised for persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities, and particularly those with visual impairments, face distinct barriers due to the unavailability of reading material in accessible formats. According to the World Blind Union, over 90% of all published materials are inaccessible to blind or print-disabled persons,[2] who consequently face a book famine since only approximately 7% of published books are made available in accessible formats such as Braille, audio and large print. Furthermore, less than 1% of published books are accessible in the developing world,[3] despite the fact that the majority of persons with visual impairments, or with other print disabilities, live in developing and least-developed countries.[4]

    The Persons with Disabilities Rights Protocol provides that every person with disability has the right to access information. It requires States to ensure that persons with visual impairments or other print disabilities have effective access to published works, including by using information and communication technologies.[5]

    On a related note, the Marrakesh Treaty was adopted in a bid to establish normative standards for ensuring access to information by persons with print disabilities. The Treaty recognises the continuing shortage of available works in accessible format copies for persons with visual impairments or other print disabilities and sees the need to expand the number of works in accessible formats, and improve their circulation.[6] It acknowledges the importance of the international copyright system and aims to ensure that the limitations and exceptions in national copyright laws grant persons with visual impairments or with other print disabilities access to works.[7]

    The Marrakesh Treaty emphasises the importance of protecting copyright through existing international treaties and the need to balance between the effective protection of authors’ rights and the larger public interest.[8] It however also appreciates the flexibility of the three-step test under the Berne Convention that allows States to legislate for the permission of the reproduction of literary and artistic work in certain special cases without conflicting with normal exploitation of the work or unreasonably prejudicing the legitimate interests of the author.[9] The Treaty strives to ensure that there is effective and timely access to works by persons with visual impairments or with other print disabilities to education, research and other information.[10] It encourages contracting States to foster cross-border exchange of accessible format copies, which will in turn assist their citizens’ access to materials that may not be available within their countries.

    To date, only 46 States and the European Union have either ratified or acceded to the treaty,[11] including the following 11 African States: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Ghana.

    During this Human Rights Day, the Special Rapporteur calls on all African States to eradicate the book famine for visually impaired and other print disabled persons, including by becoming party to the Disabilities Rights Protocol as well as the Marrakesh Treaty, and implementing the letter and spirit of those instruments.

    Let us breakdown information barriers and give everyone the right to equal opportunities. Children with visual impairments or with other print disabilities should not be denied the right to access information. They should be able to compete fairly in school and have access to material they can use for research, despite their disabilities. Knowledge is power and that power should be shared through making works available in accessible formats for persons with disabilities. Everyone has the right to access information.

    Let us leave no one behind!

    Banjul, The Gambia, 10 December 2018


    [1] Awareness Days Limited, ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’

    https://www.awarenessdays.com/awareness-days-calendar/international-day-of-persons-with-disabilities-2018/

    [3] EBLIDA, IFLA, ‘Implementing the Marrakesh Treaty in European Union Member States, A Guide For Libraries,’ 1 October 2017

    [4] Marrakesh Treaty To Facilitate Access To Published Works For Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, Or Otherwise Print Disabled, 2013, Preamble

    [5] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 24

    [6] Supra n4, Marrakesh Treaty

    [7] Ibid, Article 4

    [8] Supra n4, Preamble

    [9] Article 9(2) Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works

    [10] Supra n4, Marrakesh Treaty

    [11] WIPO, ‘WIPO-Administered Treaties, Contracting Parties’ Marrakesh VIP Treaty (Total Contracting Parties: 47),’ www.wipo.int/treaties/en/ShowResults.jsp?treaty_id=843

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      Date: 07 December 2018

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