UN Human Rights Committee condemns Bulgaria for seriously violating the rights to life, freedom from torture and ill-treatment, and respect for inherent dignity
On 15 March 2023, the Human Rights Committee, the United Nations body that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its States parties, issued a decision, so-called views, in communication No. 3171/2018 and condemned Bulgaria for violating the Covenant. The communication was drafted by lawyers of the Bulgarian Network of Independent Experts and Validity and was sent to the committee for consideration under the Optional Protocol to the Covenant.
The case concerns Ms Lazarova, a woman with psychosocial disabilities, who, at the age of 24, was deprived of her legal capacity, put under guardianship and placed in the Social Care Home in Radovtsi against her will. She was forced to live in this institution for 8 and a half years and was found dead due to inhuman and degrading treatment. There was no adequate care provided for Ms Lazarova, and there was evidence of physical harm resulting from apparent beatings at the institution inflicted by staff or by residents, or from hunger, malnutrition, underclothing, use of strong sedative medication without proper supervision, and understaffing.
Ms Lazarova was regularly locked in an isolation ward until it was closed a few months before her death. Here, persons with disabilities were held even in much worse circumstances, in inhuman and unsanitary conditions, without proper medication and clothing, often hungry and lacking adequate hygiene, which amounted to humiliating treatment. Victims of institutionalisation, including Ms Lazarova, faced neglect and abuse there and their medical and physical needs were unattended.
On a cold winter day, Ms. Lazarova was administered medication with a sedative effect to “moderate states of agitation” and was left alone. She disappeared and was found frozen in the woods 20 kilometres away from the Radovtsi institution.
The UN Human Rights Committee ruled that:
“the State party failed in its obligation to ensure the protection of Ms. Lazarova, who lost her life as a direct consequence of the deplorable conditions in the Radovtsi Home” (Para 9).
The UN Human Rights Committee called on Bulgaria to perform, inter alia, the following obligations:
[T]he State party is under an obligation to provide the authors [the complainants were the father and brother of Ms Lazarova] with an effective remedy. The State party should take effective measures to grant appropriate compensation and full reparation to the authors. The State party should also ensure that similar violations do not recur in the future…” (para 10, emphasis added).
Ivan Yordanov Lazarov, Ms. Lazarova’s brother, highlights:
“I am pleasantly surprised by the View of the Human Rights Committee. I had lost hope and now I cannot find words to express how I feel. I am grateful – this is the best thing that has happened to me and my family in the last twenty years. On the other hand, I am saddened by the fact that there is a lack of proper, dignified type of care for people with disabilities in my country. I would be very happy if the Committee manages to change our State’s attitude towards people who need support.”
The case of Ms. Lazarova is not an isolated one. Human rights violations in institutions for children and adults with disabilities happen on a systemic and structural basis regardless of the size of the institutions. After so many years of litigation and committed advocacy work, institutions, big and small, still exist, and they are characterised by deaths, torture, violence, isolation, neglect, abuse and lack of support.
When it comes to the Radovtsi institution, it is closed now, several small group homes were created, and persons with disabilities were moved from the big to the small settings, which are located on the edge of a town near the village of Radovtsi. The staff has remained the same in the new settings, and the residents have the same regime: small and big institutions continue to characterised by the same or similar institutional culture.
Validity and the Bulgarian Network of Independent Experts call on Bulgarian policy and decision-makers to implement the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee by complying with another legally binding treaty, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by Bulgaria on 22 March 2012, and the authoritative implementation of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with a special focus on the CRPD Committee’s Guidelines on deinstitutionalization, including emergencies. This means that Bulgaria must:
- formally apologise to survivors of institutionalisation,
- provide automatic compensation to survivors of institutionalisation,
- provide survivors of institutionalisation with restitution, habilitation and rehabilitation
- ensure guarantees of non-repetition
We urge Bulgaria to provide effective remedies and reparations by involving civil society – in particular, persons with disabilities and their representative organisations (cf. Article 4(3) of the CRPD) – in the implementation of these processes.
Aneta Genova, representing Ms. Lazarova before the Human Rights Committee said:
“Finally, there is some justice after many years of court battles. But it is still not the end. We still don’t know whether the state will recognise its responsibility to the family and all people who lost their lives in institutions. Many survived there physically, but they lost the possibility of having a real life in the community and having access to their rights. This is an enormous loss… I do believe, one day, the state and society will understand this and finally recognise the right of all these people to have the full range of reparation for the years they spent in isolation and deprivation of rights. But unfortunately, there is still a long journey to reach this point. So, after so many years, this is a kind of bitter victory of justice.”