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MORE FEEDBACK -INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE “I CHOOSE TO CHOOSE – INDEPENDENT, SECRET, DIGNIFIED”

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People with disabilities demand better representation in political life

Following on from last month’s report, a detailed look at the contents of the conference.

The Union of the Blind of Montenegro organized an international conference in Podgorica called “I choose to chose – Independently, secretly, with dignity” in order to draw the attention of the general public to the challenges faced by people with disabilities in the electoral process, and to implement better inclusion of persons with disabilities in public and political life.

It is through project financed by the European Union, and its importance was recognized by the Center for Civic Education – CCE, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Center for the Protection and Study of Birds of Montenegro, the Politikon network, the Ministry of Public Administration of Montenegro, who supported the organization this two-day conference.

The conference program was made up of a significant number of panels that offered constructive answers to important questions that plague people with disabilities when it comes to political life and the possibility of independent decision    -making in electoral processes.

At the beginning of the conference, the Executive Director of the Union of the Blind of Montenegro, Mr Goran Macanovic, addressed the attendees.

“My wish is that this conference contributes at least a little to changing the way of observing the question of participation in political life. I would like the decision-makers and all those institutions involved in guaranteeing the right to participate in public-political life to change their way of thinking and view this topic through the prism of human rights. When we come across an individual who thinks in the spirit of a model based on human rights and who understands that creating conditions for the inclusion of people with disabilities is a matter of improving the social community, and not only a matter of humanity, mercy and empathy, then we always end up with good, sustainable solutions that ensure equality and equity,” said Mr Macanovic in his opening remark.

Mr Macanovic thanked the institutions that helped the realization of this project, including the partners from the Center for Civic Education, who repeatedly pointed out the importance of solving the problems of people with disabilities.

“We supported several projects that dealt with improving the overall position of people with disabilities in society. Organizations of people with disabilities have been dedicated to this topic for decades and their recommendations, which came as the voice of people with disabilities, were very clearly and convincingly formulated, but the decision-makers actually did not have enough understanding for that, which I hope will change in the future,” said the program director of the Center for Civic Education, Mr Petar Djukanovic.

The Executive Director of the European Blind Union, Mr Lars Bosselmann, pointed out that there is no longer any justification for such rights and recommendations of persons with disabilities not being realized.

“In 2023, we have complete technological means and legislation that are at our disposal or that can be made available to ensure the participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral and all other political processes. There is no longer any justification for something like this not to happen,” he said.

The Head of OSCE Mission to Montenegro, Ms Dominique Waag, expressed the hope that positive changes will come.

“We should continue to work together, to promote everyone's equal rights, especially when it comes to making political decisions and participating in political events. I am sure that the political parties will pay more attention to all of you,” said Ms Waag.

After the introductory speeches, recommendations were presented for the improvement of electoral legislation in relation to persons with disabilities, as an important document, the implementation of which would significantly facilitate the participation of PWDs in the electoral process. Recommendations from this document include, among other things, provisions regarding voting with the help of an assistant, accessibility of the polling station, the possibility of using facsimile, guidelines, appearance, color and material of the voting template.

“We hope that these recommendations will be a very important element and tool for further advocacy of public policies and that will enable all people with disabilities to vote independently, secretly and with dignity,” said Ms Nikolina Miljic, a member of the Working Group for Drafting Recommendations.

The conference also discussed challenges in the reform of electoral legislation in Montenegro. On that occasion, ODIHR election process advisor Mr Goran Petrov pointed out that civil society organizations can make a change and contribute to the reform of the electoral system, and that more people with disabilities should be involved in the election process itself.

“Civil society organizations and those dealing with the protection of human rights must push for these things to be adopted, for them to be heard about, before the reform itself comes into force. We need to work more on measures to include people with disabilities on the observers list, that is part of our initiative,” Mr Petrov pointed out.

However, the Executive Director of the Association of Youth with Disability, Ms Marina Vujacic, pointed out that she is not optimistic that change will come, and that the status quo will remain in the parliament.

“I think things will change when people with disabilities are sufficiently visible. They are not visible even during election day precisely because of the inaccessibility of polling station, information, communication and all election material and everything that precedes election day. PWDs who really have the potential, capacity, knowledge, willingness, and who are ready to be exposed to everything and include them in political life, need to be encouraged,” said the Executive Director of the Association of Youth with Disability, Ms Marina Vujacic.

Ms Nikoleta Djukanovic, professor at UDG, sees a way out of such problems in the further activism of the non-governmental sector.

“If it wasn't for him, these topics would not be topical at all, they probably wouldn't even be discussed by political parties, except in the reports of the European Commission and some other international organizations, but it would be completely marginalized by political subjects, if there is no pressure from non-governmental organizations,” said Ms Djukanovic.

Mr Damir Suljevic, the representative of the State Election Commission and collaborator on CGO programs, therefore encourages PWDs not to give up their fight, and emphasizes that the electoral reform will be open to constructive, well-argued, objectively high-quality and expert recommendations.

“I expect people with disabilities to be even more active than they have been so far, I expect them to be present in the public as much as possible and to be reminded as much as possible of the need for their rights to be respected by institutions, the moment when PWDs are sufficiently present in public, we can tell that there is a platform for improving their position,” said Mr Suljevic.

The programme director of the Center for Democratic Transition, Ms Milica Kovacevic, pointed out that the situation is still better than a decade ago and praised the recommendations drawn up by organizations of people with disabilities.

“Through the exchange of opinions with the experts, we came up with a set of proposals that I think are good, that they are well founded, that everyone can support them, and that articulated proposal will come to the committee when it is formed. It is unfortunate that there are no more representatives of political parties here today to hear it, but we are used to it. They won't even listen if we don't organize ourselves better,” said Ms Kovacevic.

However, it is significant that representatives of a large number of political parties participated in the panel entitled “Where is the policy of disability in the work of political parties?”.

“Demokratska Crna Gora will fully dedicate itself to this electoral legislation, because we have always been a constructive and corrective political factor since our inception and onward. What we consider necessary is the amendment of the Law on the Election of Councilors and Members of Parliament. We will advocate for a review of all procedures for revocation of business capacity, because the right to vote and other basic human rights have been lost. There is a whole range of things that we have to do in the future if we want this society to really become a society of social justice and universal participation, because if you do not use 10% of human capacities, then it is a big problem at the state level,” said the representative of Demokratska, Ms Valentina Minic.

The representative of Demokratska partija socijalista- DPS, Ms Kristina Scepanovic, agrees that such issues are of essential importance for the quality of life of citizens in Montenegro.

“I think that these issues should be a point that unites us, and not some daily political topics that contribute to some further divisions. I can concretely announce that at the next DPS congress, we will intensively deal with policies concerning people with disabilities,” said Ms Scepanovic.

The representative of the Bošnjačka Partija, Mr Amar Music, and the representative of the Demokratske narodne partije- DNP, Mr Nemanja Baosic, who supported this initiative on the second day of the conference, presented their support for better inclusion of PWDs in political life.

At this productive conference, the results of the Monitoring of the representation of PWD issues during the election process of the extraordinary parliamentary elections were presented.

“Given that people with disabilities, as citizens of Montenegro, participate in the financing of political parties, our conclusion is that it is necessary for people with disabilities to be involved in politics, to participate equally in the functioning of political parties, and for parties to provide accessible information about their work. In order for people with disabilities to be more politically active, it is necessary for them to become familiar with the work and programs of political parties, for the approach to them to change, and this is the only way to make them equal and thus be able to run for candidate positions on electoral lists.” said moderator Ms Andjela Dragovic.

All important conclusions that were presented during the first day of the conference were underlined by the Executive Director of the Union of the Blind of Montenegro, Goran Macanovic.

“All the rights we advocate are from the corpus of basic human rights. When you realize the opportunity to exercise rights in the field of employment, education or participation in public and political life for people with disabilities, you have actually improved society. This is also confirmed by the sentence “From someone else's good, it can only be good for me”, underlined Mr Macanovic.

The second day of the international conference “I choose to chose – Independently, secretly, with dignity” began with the presentation of the results of the research “Experience of voters with disabilities during local, presidential and parliamentary elections” presented by the National adviser in the OSCE democratization program, Mr Darko Brajovic.

He explained that in the course of this project, researchers spoke with 94 voters from 20 municipalities who have physical, sensory, psycho-social, intellectual or multiple disabilities.

“The main conclusions refer to the impossibility of secret voting, they refer to the need for better training of electoral committees, other electoral bodies and political parties. Voting should be a simple and positive experience. In Montenegro, this is not the case, especially when it comes to people with disabilities. People with disabilities should know that it is their right to vote independently at the polling station, they have the right to an assistant, and they also have the right to vote by letter,” Mr Brajovic announced.

However, there are many obstacles that make polling stations fundamentally inaccessible for people with disabilities.

“Despite the recommendations of the State election commission regarding the templates, the height of the ballot box, and the height of the voting booth, these elements of accessibility were absent in this year's elections. Our interviewees said that there were no tactile strips, so visually impaired people could not move freely, we were often told that the print font on the ballot paper was small, that the lighting at the polling stations was poor, that the ballot boxes were not at the appropriate height and that electoral committees sometimes cannot find templates without which visually impaired people find it difficult to vote,” added Mr Brajovic.

Because of these shortcomings that were observed in the election process in Montenegro, it is even more significant that the experiences and observations of representatives of the Blind Unions from the region, as well as Europe, were heard at the conference, thus confirming the international status of this project financed by the European Union.

The Executive Director of the Union of the Blind in Croatia, Ms Andreja Veljaca, pointed out that Montenegro is a step ahead of Croatia because they expect three types of elections only next year, and that thanks to this conference, they will additionally learn from the example of Montenegro.

“When it comes to the influence of civil society associations and associations of persons with disabilities on the creation of public policies in general, and in this case of electoral policies, it is still too small, compared to what it should be. We very often talk about that part “nothing about us without us” and we always think that we should be part of that area that relates to our lives, but I'm afraid that decisions are very often made by those who have no information, who are not involved, and in fact create us life. It seems to me that you have made a big step forward with this project in the sense that you have monitored, studied and obtained exact results that you will be able to use in the future, and I hope that we will be able to do something about that in Croatia and the region as well,” Ms Veljaca said.

The representative of the Slovenian Union of the Blind, Mr Stefan Kusar, commented on the situation in Slovenia when it comes to the experiences of PWDs with participation in the election process.

“If we look at the laws, we have everything nicely written and arranged. In the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia itself, we have that there should not be discrimination on the basis of different personal characteristics, and in Article 14 of our constitution we have mentioned disability. Everything looks good on paper, but in the end, when you get to the polling station, there is no access to the building, no access to the cabin… In the end, we had to sue the state through individuals who did not have access to choose and vote,” said Mr Kusar.

Because of such examples of inaccessible polling stations, he called for alternatives in the electoral process.

“If they would make it possible to vote with electronic devices and certificates, via phone or computer, then this picture of who would come to Parliament and who wouldn't would change,” Kusar believes.

Good alternatives for PWDs participating in the election process were also proposed by the Executive Director of the European Blind Union, Mr Lars Bosselman.

“In some countries, there are good examples of providing templates in Braille with a list of candidates and political parties that enable people with complete or partial vision impairment to really make a decision and vote independently. However, there are complex election processes where one chooses between a multitude of lists and candidates, and such lists are more difficult to present in the form in Braille, and electronic and online voting options are more accessible in these situations,” said Mr Bosselman.

The goal of this two-day conference was to, in addition to the appeal for creating better conditions for exercising the active voting right of persons with disabilities, invite the general public and political subjects in the country to start appreciating PWDs more in the area of passive voting rights, i.e. that they can be elected for important positions. functions in the state.

“It is very challenging when we say that in political life we want to give our voice and to act in different fields in accordance with our own expertise, not to go too far and not to reject that part of experience in policies concerning disability, so that we somehow reject altogether that type of action, because we really will not experience a moment when someone else, not disabled people, will be able to talk about disability. We are only in the initial phase where we are fighting to enter political life at all,” announced the president of the Union of the Blind of Montenegro, Mr Andrija Samardzic.

The president of the Association of the Deaf and Hearing of Montenegro, Mr Darko Mijuskovic, pointed out that people with hearing impairments would also like to get involved in politics, but that the lack of sign language interpreters is an obstacle.

“Until now, I have never participated in political processes, because our main problem is that we don't have translators, and above all, there are no trainings where hearing impaired people could be educated and learn something more about political processes,” Mr Mijuskovic pointed out.

On the other hand, the Executive Director of the Association for Support of Persons with Disabilities Bijelo Polje, Mr Samir Guberinic, did actively participate in political processes as a member of the Justice and Reconciliation Party, and shared his experiences with those present.

The Executive Director of the NGO Mozaik Niksic, Mr Blagoje Sturanovic, also expressed his desire to participate in the political process, but was prevented by the inaccessibility of important political institutions to persons with disabilities who depend on aids. He added that the parties are only trying to “collect points” at their expense.

“I had invitations to participate in a party's promotional video, I also had offers to participate in their work, the preparation of their documents and social program, as they call it, which is only pro-forma, because as we know, during the last election cycle, we did not have any special programs concerning the problems of people with disabilities, but they were mentioned purely to fulfill that form,” said Mr Sturanovic.

Due to all these problems, challenges and misunderstandings of the general public that PWDs face, it is extremely important that a conference like this was organized in Montenegro, so that the voice of people with disabilities could really be heard, so that they could better exercise their active right to vote, and opportunities began to be built. for greater representation in political life and for people with disabilities to be seen as indispensable members of a democratic society.

“It is necessary that the Committee for Electoral Reform be formed and activated as soon as possible, and that the civil sector, including representatives of organizations of persons with disabilities, must be involved in the work of the Committee. It is necessary that the issue of persons with disabilities be more represented in the programs of political parties in Montenegro, and that the parties devote themselves to creating conditions for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the work of political entities. The challenges and obstacles in exercising the right to vote are quite similar in the region, and we have concluded that there is no one universal model that could be applied to every country. Therefore, I hope that you will all work with us in the coming period to improve participation in public the political life of people with disabilities,” underlined the Executive Director of the Union of the Blind of Montenegro, Mr Goran Macanovic. 

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