Ghada Waly

Director-General/Executive Director


Opening of the Zero Project Conference 2021

  10 February 2021

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning from Vienna. It is an honour to join you for ZeroCon21.

The UN in Vienna has long served as the proud host of the Zero Project Conference, and I am delighted that we could be together virtually this year.

I am grateful to Martin Essl and the Zero Project team for inviting me to open this conference. The commitment of the Essl Foundation to a world with zero barriers is impressive and very much needed.

By bringing together partners from 184 countries, and serving as a global forum for cooperation and a platform for positive change, the Zero Project shares a higher purpose with the UN.

In fact, the Zero Project was, by coincidence, one of the first initiatives I heard about when I arrived in Austria to take up my post as Director-General of the UN Office at Vienna one year ago. I was pleased to learn that this ground-breaking project is based in Austria, and I look forward to strengthening our cooperation.

It is also an honour to have Caroline Casey with us this morning. Ms. Casey’s efforts have done so much to place disability inclusion on the global business agenda, and to help the private sector understand that inclusion is not only good, but also good for business.

I very much believe that social entrepreneurs will lead the way to a more equitable, more inclusive and more prosperous world. Governments, the UN, the private sector and civil society need to work together to support the innovators and leaders of today and tomorrow.

It is in this spirit that I welcome you, the distinguished participants and global changemakers of the Zero Project Conference, and I salute you for your work, your determination and your dedication.

By sharing innovative policies and practices for improving the daily lives of 15 percent of the world’s population, and enabling them to enjoy their rights and opportunities, you are taking the concrete steps needed for all our countries to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This Convention, which entered into force in May 2008, represents the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century. 182 parties have ratified the convention, which addresses challenges of accessibility; employment; education; independent living; and political participation.

Over the years, the UN has made efforts to mainstream disability inclusion across the pillars of its work, namely international peace and security, human rights and development.

The obligations set forth in the Convention are reflected in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and seven targets of the Sustainable Development Goals explicitly refer to persons with disabilities.

Greater social inclusion has thus been recognized as a key priority for the international community. It is also an issue very close to my own heart.

Before I joined the UN in Vienna in February 2020 I served as Minister of Social Solidarity in my home country of Egypt.

One of my proudest achievements as a minister was passing the first comprehensive disabilities law, which expanded the disabilities officially recognized in Egypt from four to 13, and helped many millions of children and adults access the services and support they needed and deserved.

In order to achieve this, I collaborated very closely with people with disabilities, with their families and communities. Together, we developed greater understanding, and we agreed on workable solutions.

I brought this valuable experience to my new role at the UN Secretariat, which as an organization with more than 36,500 employees in 193 countries, is taking determined action to lead by example in the area of disability inclusion.

In June 2019, our Secretary-General launched the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy and last year, the General Assembly invited him to present the first comprehensive report on steps taken by the UN system to implement the Strategy.

This report showed that our organizations, both in headquarters and the field, are just starting to adopt a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to addressing disability inclusion, and that we still have work to do to realize a more inclusive UN for all.

Here in Vienna, I launched the Action Plan on Disability Inclusion for the UN Office at Vienna and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in December 2020, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The action plan will guide our implementation of the UN Strategy. It addresses 15 indicators in four core areas, namely: leadership, strategic planning and management;inclusiveness; programming; and organizational culture. It will help to ensure that our Office can effectively mainstream disability inclusion in our work, and in how we work.

These efforts include new initiatives to encourage and support persons with disabilities to undertake internships with us; sharing job openings through the International Disability Alliance Mailing list and other channels; and communicating our commitment to accommodating candidates and colleagues with disabilities.

Within the organization, we are strengthening knowledge and awareness through learning activities, which we have conducted in collaboration with NGOs. We are also looking at improving accessibility for users of our website and for our visitors.

The Zero Project team has already provided us with very useful support by sharing insights and experiences.

Thanks to you, our own conference management took steps to make our events more accessible, including by stocking up on assistive devices such as hearing loops, footstools and lectern risers.

The UNODC Secretariat to the Governing Bodies, which supports key Member State commissions, was so inspired by the access guide used for the Zero Project Conference that the team developed an accessibility guide of its own.

Going forward, I hope we can continue relying on your support. The new strategy for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which I will launching in the next week, highlights the importance of disability inclusion. These priorities are also reflected in our new Strategic Vision for Africa, and the vision we are developing for Latin America and the Caribbean.  

This is also very important in view of the fact that some 80 per cent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries. We need to do more to raise awareness of their needs as well as generate resources and support to address them, and I want the UN Office at Vienna and UNODC to serve as models for disability inclusion for our field offices.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our efforts, and the work of this conference, are now more important than ever. The COVID-19 crisis has driven up to 124 million people into extreme poverty last year. For the marginalized and vulnerable, the situation has heightened dangers of abuse and neglect, and intensified gender-based violence and other threats. Pandemic-related restrictions have compounded accessibility challenges and limited essential services.

As you know very well, even before the crisis, people living with disabilities worldwide were less likely to enjoy access to education, healthcare and livelihoods, or to participate and be included in their communities.

The pandemic threatens to further deepen and entrench inequalities and risks, and we need to take determined steps to stop this from happening.

Most of all, we need to ensure that as our societies emerge from the crisis, the aspirations and rights of all persons with disabilities are respected and taken into account.

Governments, international organizations, the private sector and all stakeholders need to work with and for persons with disabilities, consulting and including them in decision-making in the COVID-19 response and beyond.

It is a challenging moment for all our societies, but it is also an opportunity to reimagine the world we live in, to reinvent practices and ways of work, and fast-track global progress on disability inclusion.

By connecting innovators and sharing ideas, the Zero Project Conference can play a key role in helping to achieve these objectives, and to promote a fair, just and inclusive recovery.

Dear participants,

We need your contributions, and I count on you as our close partners as we strive for greater social inclusion. Together, we can achieve a world without barriers, where truly no one is left behind.

Thank you, and I very much look forward to being able to welcome you in person at the Vienna International Centre for the next Zero Project Conference in 2022!