By: Samantha Backman

“Why human rights law?” This question was posed to me by one of my supervisors in the early days of my internship at the Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law (BCNL). In the last several weeks, as I have immersed myself in the field of disability rights at BCNL, I have found myself pondering this question time and time again. I believe that it is a critical question for anyone working in the area of human rights law to reflect upon. Pausing to ask ourselves why we are doing something can undoubtedly make us more purposeful and focused in our efforts and help us connect with the broader significance of our work.

I was drawn to the International Human Rights Internship Program because I am a bit of an idealist. I am optimistic about the law’s potential to be harnessed to achieve social justice. Human rights law greatly appealed to me, as it seemed to be rooted in a pursuit for freedom, equality, and human dignity. The notion of striving to uphold such lofty ideals was extremely inspiring to me.

Over the past few weeks, however, I have learned that human rights law is about more than a quest for abstract principles. As I have been discussing with my mentors at BCNL, it is also about people.

At BCNL, I have been tasked with writing a report on recent legislative reforms that countries have undertaken in light of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls upon states to recognize the legal capacity of people with disabilities on an equal basis with others. Article 12 asks states to put into place supported decision-making mechanisms whereby persons with disabilities are authorised to make their own decisions with help from trusted individuals.

As I have been researching worldwide legislative reforms in the area of disability law, I have been struck by the role that civil society organizations have played in the painstaking process to enact change. Around the world, civil society organizations have given talks, organized pilot projects, led marches, lobbied governments, drafted legislation, and initiated strategic litigation to secure the full enjoyment of rights for persons with disabilities. These are fundamentally grassroots, bottom-up efforts. This is the work of parents of persons with disabilities who have been disheartened by their children’s disempowerment at the hands of society and the legal system, and who have come together and formed alliances. This is about lawyers who have advocated in the courts for people who have been stripped of their civil rights through placement under restrictive guardianship regimes. This is about civil society activists who have designed supported decision-making pilot projects so that persons with disabilities can gain control over their own life decisions. At its core, all of these endeavours are galvanized by the experiences of individual people. All of this energy is marshalled so that individual human beings can feel respected and have agency over their own lives.

My work in a civil society environment has shown me that the law has a human face. Human rights law is not simply about singing treaties and enshrining rights on paper. It is about advocacy. It is about ensuring the implementation of these rights on the ground. It is about holding governments to account. In these matters, civil society plays a critical role.

As I conduct my research in the context of my internship, I am amazed by the fact that in many countries, the work of disability rights activists has spanned many years. Civil society actors have persisted tirelessly with their efforts, even in the face of indifference or resistance from their governments. There is an astonishing will to continue to advocate for progress. It could very well be argued that these activists are pushing for freedom, equality, and human dignity. But they are critically focused on advocating for the people, for those individuals whose stories have moved and inspired them. Perhaps it is this personal connection that makes their fight for human rights so enduring. Extrapolating from this, if we aim to see human rights law on a “human scale,” perhaps this can help to remind us why this field is so worthwhile.

Photo credit: BCNL. BCNL helped to organize the Manifestation of Friendship, which took place in Sofia during Ability Day on May 18th, 2018. This was part of a national campaign for collecting signatures in support of a draft law in Bulgaria that would abolish guardianship and introduce supported decision-making (The National Citizen Initiative 7000).

NGO House: The BCNL headquarters is home to NGO House, an innovative co-working space for members of the local NGO community.
The Palace of Justice in Sofia
The bustling Vitosha Boulevard at the heart of the city centre
A tram in Sofia