A new act was put to the test in elections for Croatian Members of the European Parliament held on 14 April.
In most countries, constitutions grant the universal right to vote to its citizens of legal age.
This is the case with Croatia, but, as in many countries, and contrary to their constitutions, some of the electorate are denied this right. It is primarily true for people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities who are automatically divested of the right to vote when deprived of legal capacity.
By denying people with disabilities their legal capacity and placing them under guardianship, states claim to be protecting their interests. However, instead of providing these citizens with support, guardianship results in serious violations of their human rights, the right to take part in public and political life being just one.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities challenges such discriminatory practices and asks for the recognition of rights of people with disabilities and the provision of support in cases where it is needed.
In what Croatian Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities Anka Slonjsak called a historic step, at the end of last year, the Croatian Parliament adopted the Register of Voters Act, which gave people deprived of legal capacity the right to vote as stipulated in the Constitution and the UN Convention.
Despite the fact that the Constitution recognizes the universal right to vote for all Croatian citizens of legal age, in the previous electorate act, more than 16,000 people with disabilities who were placed under guardianship as a measure of protecting their interests were struck from the register of voters.
The adoption of the Act, which gives persons with disabilities the right to vote, was the result of a campaign by the Disability Ombudsman’s Office and associations of persons with psychosocial disabilities, self-advocates, and an association for the promotion of a more active participation of citizens in elections.
Fadil Špuren, a member of an association of self-advocates in Zagreb, had been denied the right to vote.
“While I was at home living with my parents I had legal capacity. I was always interested in who runs our country and what is happening in it. That is why I went to vote in special school and the community center in Ciglenica. When I came to the voting place during one election, I found out that I no longer had the right to vote. I asked why, but nobody wanted to explain it to me. I still wanted to vote.
Only a few years later I found out that I do not have legal capacity and that that was why I could not vote. In the time of elections I watched how others decide about our country and I could not take part in it. I had my favourite, but I could not influence the results. I felt like a second-rate citizen.
I was sad and angry because of that, so I decided to tell my story and start changes so that we, persons with intellectual difficulties, could vote. After a few years of struggle, now I can again take part in elections and choose people whose decisions influence my life. I am not just an onlooker; now I can actively participate in public and political life.
My voice also became worthy, and maybe even decisive. With pride I am awaiting the election day, that Sunday when I will equally, like other citizens of this country, give my vote to my favourite candidate. I hope this act will not be a dead letter and that I will be able to exercise my right to vote in local elections in spring 2013.”
But not all persons with disabilities, or indeed eligible voters without disabilities, are interested in politics like Fadil.
When arguing our case, we came across attitudes such as the belief that people with disabilities have more pressing needs than voting in elections. And this is indeed the case. Their very basic needs for medical attention, rehabilitation, and support for everyday living are often denied.
However, we are hoping that the right to vote will give these so-far invisible and forgotten citizens much-needed visibility that will put their other needs on the agenda.
We are also fighting for their right not to exercise their voting right if that is their choice or if, due to the severity of their condition, they need to focus their energy on other matters.
We just could not allow the lack of support or fear of manipulation to be an excuse for denying persons with disabilities their fundamental rights.
We also believe that enabling these persons to be a part of the electorate will be a strong message to politicians: You are competing for our votes as well. We also have rights, and you should address our issues when devising programmes in order to make those rights a reality for us – if we give you our vote.
Both civil society and the Disability Ombudsman worked for a few years to make this happen.
Back in December 2010, the Disability Ombudsman, as an independent state institution with a mandate to protect, promote, and monitor the rights of persons with disabilities in Croatia, warned the authors of a brochure on the voting of people with disabilities in Croatia that they failed to address challenges encountered by people with cognitive disabilities.
At the time, authorities shrugged off the warning by saying that people with cognitive disabilities did not have legal capacity. That was the end of the story then.
Croatia ratified the UN Convention in 2007, but a lot of awareness needed to be raised to make its provisions a reality for people with disabilities.
To make the right to participate in public and political life a reality for people with disabilities, the Disability Ombudsman held a series of meetings with relevant ministries and state election committees in the wake of the parliamentary elections of December 2011.
Among other things, Government officials were surprised to find that the Electoral Act failed to regulate the voting of people with disabilities, while at the same time stipulated that people in prison could exercise their right to vote.
In the draft proposal on the amendments to the Register of Voters Act, the Government acknowledged that the UN Convention is a legally binding document above national laws.
So they proposed what they saw as a major step forward: the removal of blanket divestment of the right to vote and introduction of a court proceeding during which a person’s voting capacity was to be assessed.
Drawing on the concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Spain and Hungary, the Disability Ombudsman emphasized that such solutions would be discriminatory and demanded the full right to vote as stipulated by Article 29 of the UN Convention.
We argued that if there were indeed such a test, then all potential voters should be required to take it, not just people with disabilities.
The support of the Ministry of Youth and Social Policy was crucial to change the initial proposal to one that ordered all previously struck persons be re-entered into the registry.
However, the battle is not over yet. Adequate support before and during elections will have to be provided for people with disabilities.
The associations of persons with disabilities and the Disability Ombudsman are again meeting to discuss strategies for how to bring this Act to life for upcoming elections.
We hope that more good news will come from Croatia and that we can invite other countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to follow suit.