What of people with intellectual disabilities in armed conflict?

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People with intellectual disabilities in armed conflict

Published: 30 October 2012

People with disabilities are, together with women and children, a vulnerable group of civilians in situations of armed conflict international or non-international. The vulnerability of women and children in such situations has already been recognised by international organisations and agencies of the United Nations. Twelve years ago the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1325 which was asking for a greater attention to the impact of armed conflict on women. Though, the vulnerability of persons with disabilities has been only partly the subject of debate and has not yet been the object of a resolution of the United Nations.

In times of war vulnerable civilian groups often bear the limits of war time violence, they are more prone to abuse and maltreatment whether psychological, physical, emotional or sexual. Amongst the vulnerable, people with intellectual disabilities often find themselves at the bottom of the list and therefore suffer the impact of the conflicts disproportionately to others in society.

As societies turn their effort to the war economy, services and consideration for people with intellectual disabilities are invariably reduced or disappear completely, leading to dramatic situations and extreme consequences for the group.

Direct effects

Persons with intellectual disabilities  find themselves at higher risk of injury or death during violent conflicts.

Persons with intellectual disabilities have knowingly been direct targets during violent conflicts. The most notorious example of this being the wild euthanasia campaign of persons with disabilities perpetrated in Nazi Germany. But similar attitudes have been noted in more recent conflicts with attested evidences in Sierra Leone where shootings of people with intellectual disabilities have been organised by the armed forces or the repeated murder of people with intellectual disabilities in conflicts in Nepal and Sudan.

Greatest risks to persons with intellectual disabilities come as a result of them not understanding the occurrences. Brutal regimes and occupying forces employ methods of enforcement designed to impose total obedience. People who are less aware of the rules of governorship, who have more difficulty understanding orders put to them, or who are susceptible to suggestive questioning, are at a particular risk. Thus they may unwittingly put themselves in danger. (Samuel Grove, Nicola Grove, and Ted Myerscough, Intellectual Disability and War: Issues for Consideration, Journal on Developmental Disabilities, Volume 16 Number 1)

When combined with ignorance as to the nature of their impairments from those with the power, this can lead to their deaths, as occurred in Israel where people with intellectual disabilities were shot dead because they did not understand what was occurring and thus did not obey soldiers’ orders (Report from B’Tselem, 2005). Difficulties in understanding the situation can make it even more traumatic.(Brigitte Lea Rohwerder, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities and Conflict –Advocacy of the forgotten, Master of Arts in Post-War Recovery Studies, University of York Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit – Department of Politics,September 2011)

People with intellectual disabilities also find themselves at high risk of being exploited to serve conflict purposes. There are a number of reports of a wide policy of using people with Down’s syndrome in Iraq as suicide bombers (Bombs strapped to Down’s syndrome women kill scores in Baghdad markets. Guardian. Retrieved, November 4, 2008).

Conflicts are also likely to damage the support network of people with intellectual disabilities, leaving them abandoned to themselves. People with intellectual disabilities in the former Yugoslavia living in care homes were abandoned by the staff who were unable to evacuate them quickly as the front approached (Talk by Major General Michael von Bertele, Director General Army Medical Services,The Royal Society of Medicine, UK, June 24th, 2011 as quoted by Brigitte Lea Rohwerder).

Indirect effects

Violent conflict disrupt and destroy services and daily life schemes and cause deterioration in the quality of life of those disabled prior to the conflict. Disruption to health services and access to food can lead to terrible consequences. 

The indirect impacts of violent conflict tend to lead to increased isolation of persons with disabilities, which often results from the decreased level of services and support network during time of conflict.

Displacement and refugees

When violence becomes too great people may be force to flee. For people with intellectual disabilities this often means new difficulties and new challenges as assistive aid will have to be left behind. When relocated into camps, people with intellectual disabilities and their families are at higher risks of discrimination, stigmatisation, harassment, neglect and increased dependency. Reports from Nepal suggest protection issues for women with intellectual disabilities in refugee camps as they are especially affected by trafficking (Brigitte Lea Rohwerder, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities and Conflict –Advocacy of the forgotten, Master of Arts in Post-War Recovery Studies, University of York Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit – Department of Politics,September 2011).

Families of people with intellectual disabilities fleeing sometimes take the decision to leave their relative with intellectual disabilities behind.

Post conflict and reconstruction

The end of a conflict does not mean the end of issues for people with intellectual disabilities as they are mostly ignored in the reconstruction phase. Very little is set up as for provision for people returned from refugee camps, and services in assistance in home rebuilding or re-localisation are too rarely provided. Unless changes are made and barriers eliminated, post conflict societies still remain disabling.

Policies and Human Rights instruments

International humanitarian law provides special protection for persons with disabilities, although it appears to be insufficient. Various provisions of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and their Additional Protocols I and II of 8 June 1977 relate to persons with disabilities and their protection in situations of armed conflict, though they remain vague on both the definitions provided and on their application. This combined with the deficit of data, and the low prioritisation of persons with disabilities, appear to have resulted in the lack of widespread mainstreaming of disability in humanitarian assistance.

However, recent changes in attitude and awareness have led to in increased recognition of the need for humanitarian policies to include consideration of disability, in reference to article 11 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Unfortunately this trend has not yet spread to all. Without a consistent and clear policy framework on disability the results in practice will remain inconsistent.

Hope for change

At time of post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction, new inputs have the potential to lead to positive changes and the removal of the disability barriers. 

New approaches can be taken as far as improving the living situation of persons with disabilities and working for a greater inclusion in the community. The destroyed building environment can also be restored in a more accessible way. This should enable people with disabilities to fully enjoy their rights as stated in the UN CRPD.

Beyond the aspect of protection and respect for the dignity of persons with disabilities, the implementation of these solutions would allow the actual inclusion of these people in their community. A real change regarding representations of disability would be to accept that being a carrier of a disability could be considered a strength. The aspect of this difference should no longer be considered as negative, but seen as a possibility to promote changes and transformations, to make societies more inclusive and just.

The greatest problem faced by people with disabilities at time of conflict is recognition and visibility. Their disproportionate vulnerability is primarily a consequence of social disadvantage, poverty and structural exclusion.

If there has been increasing recognition of persons with disabilities in the law which has led to the formation of humanitarian policy acknowledging the needs of persons with disabilities in armed conflicts, mainstreaming disability in humanitarian assistance still has far to go as many organisations do not have a disability policy, or perceive it as a special issue and not a consideration for all their work.

Though, one should remember that conflicts bring a potential for change. Through a process of advocacy, especially on the part of DPOs, and the adoption of the social model which enables reflection on the barriers in society that disable, society can change and become more inclusive (Brigitte Lea Rohwerder, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities and Conflict –Advocacy of the forgotten, Master of Arts in Post-War Recovery Studies, University of York Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit – Department of Politics,September 2011).

When there is a war in a country,
some groups of people suffer more than others.

This is the case of people with intellectual disabilities.

People with intellectual disabilities have a bigger risk
than other to be killed at war.
This is because of many reasons.
It can be for example because they do not understand the danger.

During a war, the organisation of the society changes
and people with intellectual disabilities
may not be able to access aid and services.

If there is too much violence
people might have to flee their home
and live in camps.
In the camps people with intellectual disabilities are often treated badly.

Organisations which bring help to the people in war
need to understand the needs of people with intellectual disabilities better.

At the end of the war,
people with intellectual disabilities must be able to take part
in the re-building of the country.
This should help make societies more inclusive.

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