DESA News Vol. 11, No. 8 August 2007

Trends and analysis

Indigenous peoples at risk from river pollution

Experts search for ways to improve security of indigenous peoples in Eastern Russia

The security of indigenous peoples is being jeopardized by pollution, as inhabitants of the Amur River basin in the Russia Federation can readily attest. Transborder contamination of the river over the last fifteen years has contributed to the spread of cancer and other tumors, claiming the lives of hundreds of indigenous peoples. A group of experts will gather in Khabarovsk, Russia, from 27 to 29 August to address the issue and recommend ways to improve the health of indigenous peoples and their environment. The meeting has been organized by the Division for Social Policy and Development, the Government of Khabarovsk, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East, and the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation.

The average life expectancy of indigenous peoples in the Amur River basin is 40 to 45 years, which is significantly less than the Russian average. At the same time, contamination of the Amur is putting the economy and cultural traditions of the local population at risk. The flesh of the fish is a staple in the region, and the skin is widely used in production of traditional crafts.

Experts will review rights enshrined in international standards and policies – such as the right to life, health, adequate food, information and participation – and suggest ways of translating those rights into protection of the land on which the health of the indigenous population depends. Strategies for evaluating the impact of harmful substances on the traditional lifestyles will be proposed, with an emphasis on regular health checks. They will also consider measures for mitigating the impact of dangerous substances on the environment. A recommendation will likely emerge that UN agencies assist in finding ways to reduce the adverse consequences of contamination of the Amur River. Finally, the group is being asked to develop guidelines for cultural, environmental and social impact assessments involving indigenous peoples.

A full report of the meeting will be submitted to the seventh session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April next year.

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The women’s bill of rights at 25

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has been widely influential, but too few judges know about the treaty

The Committee monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the “women’s bill of rights,” has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. A commemorative session on 23 July was an opportunity to take stock of achievements, and envision challenges for the future.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a 23-person expert body, was set up in 1982, after the Convention entered into force in 1981. The special event last month recalled that the Convention has since become part of the international human rights treaty system, aiming to secure equality for women in the enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, without discrimination on the basis of sex.

Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, President of the General Assembly, described the Convention as a landmark tool for setting out global standards of gender equality. The Committee’s monitoring and guidance have significantly enhanced State accountability for women’s enjoyment of their human rights. “The Committee has made us aware of the need to examine laws that appear to be gender neutral,” she said, “but which, in fact, have adverse effects on women.” Ms. Sheikha Haya added that the Committee has consistently voiced its concern about reservations entered by States in respect of the Convention, while raising awareness of the impact on women of major global trends such as globalization, human trafficking and HIV/AIDS.

Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, hailed the Convention’s impact on the legal and socio-political development of States parties. Ms. Mayanja said such an impact was visible in the strengthening of constitutional provisions for the protection of women’s rights, efforts to bring existing legislation into conformity with Convention principles, improvements in the capacity of national institutions to guarantee equality between women and men, and increasing use of the Convention, coupled with the Committee’s general recommendations, by domestic courts.

Evidence of the Convention’s influence can be found, for example, in the South African and Ugandan constitutions, which contain significant provisions guaranteeing women’s equality based on the Convention’s principles, on Nepal’s Supreme Court which has relied on the Convention in directing the government to address discriminatory laws, and on Canada’s Supreme Court which drew on the Convention and the Committee’s general recommendation on violence against women in considering a case of alleged sexual assault.

Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted the Committee’s general recommendations which provided its members’ collective view of measures States should take to fulfil obligations under the terms of the treaty. The Committee’s general recommendation on female circumcision was the first by a UN treaty body on that practice. The Committee was also the first to adopt a general recommendation on HIV/AIDS.  Its general recommendation on violence against women, she pointed out, was “a crucial building block in the recognition of gender-based violence as a violation of human rights,” which provided the impetus for adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and various regional human rights instruments. Likewise, the Committee’s general recommendations on equality in marriage and family relations, women in political and public life, and health, were, in her view, widely influential.

Looking at the Committee’s main challenges, the Committee Chairperson Dubravka Simonovic, recalled that in too many countries discrimination against women persists both in fact and in law. Furthermore, the Convention is applied by the courts in too few countries, and too few judges know about the treaty. Sadly, “de facto discrimination against women remains universal.”

Also speaking in honour of the Committee’s anniversary were Julio Peralta, Vice-Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, Jackie Shapiro, President of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, and Sapana Pradhan Malla of the International Women’s Rights Watch Asia Pacific.  Carolyn Hannan, Director of the Division for the Advancement of Women in DESA, read out a statement on behalf of one long-time Committee member, Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling.

The 39th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women runs from 23 July through 10 August in New York. Under article 18 of the Convention, States parties are requested to report periodically on the legislative, judicial, administrative, and programmatic measures they have taken to put the Convention into practice, and on tangible progress achieved in the elimination of discrimination. At this session, the Committee is examining reports of 15 States parties: Belize, Brazil, Cook Islands, Estonia, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of Korea and Singapore. The Committee welcomes country-specific information from NGOs in the form of alternative or shadow reports which can be submitted prior to or during this session.

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Emerging trends in data dissemination

Recent trends and issues in data dissemination will be explored in a three-day seminar to be held in Kuala Lumpur from 1 to 3 August. The DESA Statistics Division has invited participants to gather for a discussion of audience requirements including those related to micro data access. The objectives of the seminar are to share country practices on emerging trends on data dissemination, inform on ongoing regional and international activities, identify possible areas where convergence and harmonization would be useful, and collect feedback on the UN’s new data access system, known as “UNdata.” Data dissemination at the international level will be on the agenda, as will best practices in the dissemination of official statistics.

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