December in midtown Manhattan brings tourists, holiday lights, and time with friends and family. The year’s final month also celebrates two important global human rights events: The International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, and Human Rights Day on December 10.

Recent events make us realize how important it is to include planning to meet the needs of people with disabilities in emergency and conflict situations. And human rights as a concept has taken on particular meaning and urgency in the last few weeks.

In recognition of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Human Rights Watch issued a news release on people with disabilities in conflict situations. Governments, donors, and aid agencies are overwhelmed with many competing priorities during emergencies. Yet it is essential to make sure that the needs and concerns of people with disabilities are not lost in the shuffle.

Between January and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people with disabilities, along with their families, and assessed their needs during the current conflicts in Yemen and the Central African Republic, as well as the European refugee crisis.

More than one billion people worldwide, or about 15 percent of the global population, have disabilities. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, 6.7 million people with disabilities have been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution and other human rights violations, conflict, and generalized violence. Children with disabilities in particular are at risk of abandonment and violence during emergency situations, and their unique needs are often not taken into account in aid efforts.

The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 will be a prime opportunity to ensure that the voices of people with disabilities are heard in this debate. Governments and United Nations agencies should develop and endorse global standards and guidelines on disability inclusion in humanitarian action, Human Rights Watch said, together with CBM,Handicap International, International Disability Alliance, Women’s Refugee Commission, and other partners. The standards and guidelines should address coordination, implementation, monitoring and financing, and further support of inclusive practices in all aid programs and efforts.

In the aftermath of deadly attacks in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere, a knee-jerk and increasingly troubling reaction to bar resettlement of refugees by 30 state governors in the United States received enough momentum for a Resolution to pass the House of Representatives calling for cumbersome background checks on refugees.

Just a few days later, in the wake of a mass shooting in California, bombastic rhetoric to ban all Muslims from entering the Untied States was touted as a serious policy proposal. Despite the obvious discriminatory message, the simple fact this type of language was uttered in the race for national office should give us all pause. Bowing to our fears and giving in to our worst impulses does not honor the America I know, the land in which millions of people aspire to live. It harkens back to the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act. To Japanese internment. To the use of torture in a “War on Terror.”

We do have every right to be angry, and frustrated, and gut-wrenchingly heartbroken over the recent violence around the world. We do not have the right to discriminate, to incite violence, to shatter fundamental human rights in a vague assertion of national security prerogatives. Understanding and embracing the core idea behind human rights—that each of us retains inalienable rights and deserves to live on equal footing because of our common humanity—is a goal we can all work toward together this holiday season.

—Paras Shah, Gardner 2015


Paras Shah is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. While at Cal he studied History and Political Science. He is currently a John Gardner Fellow, working at Human Rights Watch in New York City.

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