Written for Inclusion Europe 13 September 2021.
When the news is filled with clawing away of people’s rights, and chipping away on the rule of law, what does a democratic-minded person do to keep hopeful and level-headed? We look up to the institutions charged with protecting them, of course. But what does one do when even a top human rights court says it’s completely fine for governments to deny people their right to vote?
Because that’s exactly what the European Court of Human Rights did when its Grand Chamber rejected an appeal against the judgement in the case of Strøbye and Rosenlind v. Denmark. “The result is that it’s lawful for countries to exclude from voting people who they consider do not have “the required level of mental skills”,” said Oliver Lewis, who brought the appeal.
It is the year 2021 and we are forced to contemplate the question why would anyone want to waste time and resources denying people their right to vote? Why would anyone, let alone a respected international human rights institution, want to justify it?
This is not an isolated case either. The ECHR does like governments discriminating on people with disabilities. And they use truly bizarre arguments to justify it too: According to their rulings, it is ok for governments to deny people’s basic rights when a) they don’t have the required cognitive skills; b) it affects limited number of people only; c) other countries do it too.
I don’t know about you, but I am genuinely scared thinking about the consequences of such reasoning. Where does it leave us when a top European human rights court says things like this? Where does it go from there? Where does it stop?!
And since we are at the questions: Where’s the outrage? Imagine for a moment similar ruling against any other people. The headlines would never stop. All Twitter would break loose.
But when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities – radio silence. Somehow, we are supposed to accept that they do not merit the same rights as others. That they are less of a voter. Less of a human being probably, that’s what this is all about?
Voter suppression in EU
Voter suppression performed on people with disabilities has been going on for decades. 15 EU member states restrict people’s right to vote based on their legal capacity status. 19 countries restrict their right to stand for elections. Both are a clear violation of basic human rights.
“800,000 EU citizens are being deprived of the right to participate in European elections because of their disabilities or mental health problems.” On top of that, “millions of EU citizens have no possibility to vote because of organisational arrangements (technical barriers) which do not take into account the needs resulting from their disability.”
An organisation as preoccupied with its democratic legitimacy as the EU is should probably pay more attention to this. After all, people with disabilities represent some 80 million EU citizens. That’s more than even the largest of member states.
But somehow, it doesn’t merit a mention in a rule of law report. If preventing people from voting isn’t a rule of law issue, I don’t know what is.
The European Parliament’s recent proposal to reform European election law does address some of the issues. But it needs improvements, such as direct reference to the CRPD as a key legal element, to ensure progress for voters with disabilities: both in ending their suppression, and in facilitating better participation as soon as next EU elections in 2023. It also needs to properly address barriers to standing for elections, not only to voting.
“For me it is very important to vote at the European elections,” said László Bercse ahead of the last EU elections. “I care about who is going to represent me in the European Parliament.” It’s about time the Parliament listened.
Ending the suppression of voters and candidates with disabilities is first and foremost the responsibility of every state of course.
Somewhere national courts intervene, as in Germany. Or the governments themselves come to their senses like in Spain or France recently. Such developments are very good to see.
But many more must come soon. Because should any further cases reach Strasbourg, who knows what kind of nonsense they’d be willing to come up with next time.