SESSION COMMEMORATING TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY HIGHLIGHTS ACHIEVEMENTS OF WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE
SESSION COMMEMORATING TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY HIGHLIGHTS ACHIEVEMENTS OF WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE
|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
session commemorating twenty-fifth anniversary highlights achievements
of women’s anti-discrimination committee
Participants Outline Vision for Way Forward, Assess Future Challenges
As the Committee monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women observed its twenty-fifth anniversary today, participants in its commemorative session highlighted its achievements over the past quarter century and outlined their vision for the future, assessing the Committee’s role in implementing the “women’s bill of rights”, the impact of that instrument and the main challenges lying ahead.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a 23-person expert body, was established in 1982, following the Convention’s entry into force in September 1981. As confirmed by speakers today, the instrument treaty 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 ( Bahrain), President of the General Assembly, described the Convention as a landmark tool for setting out global normative standards of gender equality, noting that the Committee ensured the implementation of those standards nationally by its 185 States parties. Its monitoring and guidance had significantly enhanced States’ accountability for women’s enjoyment of their human rights and shaped women’s progress worldwide. The Committee had constantly 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, including globalization, human trafficking and HIV/AIDS. It had also played a fundamental role in making the United Nations more gender-sensitive and promoting women’s universal human rights.
Louise Arbour, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that 25 years ago, the Committee’s first 23 experts, elected by the then 38 States parties and drawn from all the world’s regions, had begun the work of translating the Convention’s groundbreaking approach from aspiration to reality. Thediversity of the Committee members’ experience and commitment, and their links to the non-governmental sector, had ensured the relevance of the Committee’s work for all women and girls around the world.
Among the Committee’s main achievements, she highlighted its general recommendations, which provided its members’ collective view of appropriate measures to fulfil States’ obligations under the Convention. Its general recommendation on female circumcision had been the first by a United Nations treaty body on that practice, and the Committee had also been the first to adopt a general recommendation on HIV/AIDS. Its general recommendation on violence against women had provided the impetus for the 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. Its general recommendations on equality in marriage and family relations, women in political and public life, and health, had also been widely influential.
Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, emphasized the Convention’s profound impact on the legal and socio-political development of States parties. That 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, and the Committee’s general recommendations, by domestic courts. The South African and Ugandan constitutions, for instance, contained significant provisions guaranteeing women’s equality, based on the Convention’s principles; Nepal’s Supreme Court had relied on the Convention in directing the Government to address discriminatory laws; and Canada’s Supreme Court had drawn on the Convention and the Committee’s general recommendation on violence against women in considering a case of alleged sexual assault.
Moderating the commemorative session, Committee Chairperson Dubravka Simonovic outlined not only the Committee’s achievements, but also its main challenges. Since its inception, the Committee had reviewed nearly 400 reports and some States parties were now moving into their seventh reporting cycle. The Committee could trace some highly visible changes over time while others were only incremental. However, discrimination against women persisted and in too few countries was the Convention directly applicable in the courts. Too few judges knew about the treaty and de facto discrimination against women remained universal.
Some States were still submitting their initial reports, and too many of those were overdue, some by as many as 25 years, she noted. The Convention was a dynamic human rights instrument and it was the Committee, as its monitoring body, that significantly shaped its dynamism and growth. Societal attitudes could not be changed with a new law alone –- a concerted and committed effort was required of all stakeholders. The Committee would continue to contribute to that process and work harder to ensure the Convention’s universal ratification.
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, read out a statement on behalf of one long-time Committee member, Hanna Beate Schopp-Schilling.
During the organizational part of today’s meeting, the Committee adopted the agenda and organization of work for its three-week thirty-ninth session, during which it will examine the initial report of the Cook Islands and the periodic reports of 14 other States parties -- Belize, Brazil, Estonia, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of Korea and Singapore –- over the next two weeks. In most of the third week, the Committee will meet in closed session to formulate its concluding comments following its “constructive dialogue” with States parties.
Today’s organizational segment also addressed agenda items relating to the report of the Committee’s pre-session working group; implementation of article 21 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; and ways to expedite the Committee’s work, as well as the report of the Chairperson on activities undertaken between the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth sessions.
The Committee will meet in two chambers tomorrow morning to begin its consideration of the reports of Belize and Estonia.
Committee Chairperson and Moderator DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, opening the commemorative session, said the contributions of today’s high-level guests would be instrumental in assessing the Committee’s present and future role in implementing the Convention, most importantly the practical realization of the principle of equality of men and women. The guests would also illustrate the Committee’s achievements over the past 25 years, the impact of the Convention and the Committee’s work at the national level, and the relationship between the Committee as a body of experts and Member States.
Noting that many other important stakeholders contributed to the Committee’s work, she went on to say that participants in today’s meeting would hear about the role of the United Nations system and that of non-governmental organizations. The panel of speakers would also help to chart a vision for the future of the Committee and for women’s rights in a time of reform in the fields of human rights and gender equality. Participants would also hear about some of the challenges the Committee faced in enhancing the accountability of States for the full and effective implementation of all provisions of the Convention and Optional Protocol procedures.
SHEIKHA HAYA RASHED AL KHALIFA ( Bahrain), President of the General Assembly, said the Committee had played a vital role in the quest to eliminate discrimination against women and achieve gender equality. The Convention, a landmark tool for setting out global normative standards of gender equality, now had 185 States parties, and the Committee ensured that those standards were implemented nationally. Indeed, the Committee’s effective monitoring and guidance had significantly enhanced States’ accountability for women’s enjoyment of their human rights and shaped women’s progress worldwide.
She said the Committee had contributed to the understanding of the content and scope of human rights, including the duties of States parties to take action against private and public acts of discrimination. It had made everyone aware of the need to examine laws that appeared to be gender-neutral, but which in fact had adverse effects on women. It had constantly 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, including globalization, human trafficking and HIV/AIDS. It had also played a fundamental role in making the United Nations more gender-sensitive and promoting women’s universal human rights.
The Committee had also been an early advocate for creating an opportunity for individual women to submit complaints regarding violations of the Convention, she said. It had contributed significantly to the drafting of the Convention’s Optional Protocol, which had entered into force in 2000 and now had 88 States parties. The Committee had adopted seven decisions concerning complaints submitted to it and it conducted one inquiry under the Optional Protocol’s article 8. Its work in that regard was shaping a body of jurisprudence and further contributing to States’ accountability regarding compliance with their obligation to protect and promote women’s human rights.
The Assembly continued to support and encourage the Committee’s efforts, having recognized its enormous workload and the importance of adequate meeting time to strengthen the impact of its mandate, she said. Thus, the Assembly had authorized an extension of the Committee’s meeting time for the current two-year period. Much had been achieved under the Committee’s supervision, but there was still a long way to go towards the achievement of full compliance with all objectives.
She said she remained discouraged by Member States’ reservations, particularly on the basis of religious interpretation, national law, tradition or culture. The most apparent reservations, concerning article 2, undermined the Convention. The anniversary would provide an incentive to ensure that the next 25 years marked greater progress and the achievement of equality for women. With the Convention’s near universal ratification, the emphasis was, now more than ever, on implementation.
LOUISE ARBOUR, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Convention, now ratified by almost the entire international community, marked the first step in a comprehensive human rights framework for women and girls. It provided a broad definition of discrimination against women -- direct and indirect, including intentional or unintentional forms, under the law or in practice, in all aspects of public and private life, whether perpetrated by the State, its agents, private actors or individuals. The Convention introduced the notion of substantive equality for women, emphasizing that, although there may be no overtly discriminatory laws, women were not considered equal until they enjoyed, in fact, the same opportunities and privileges as men.
In cases where substantive equality had not been achieved, she said, the Convention underlined the need for policies, laws and programmes that helped women attain equality, including carefully-tailored temporary special measures such as affirmative action. By requiring that States take measures to ensure equality between women and men in the civil, cultural, economic and political spheres, as well as in family life, the Convention confirmed the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, and provided the legal basis to expand the traditional focus on violations in the public sphere to those in the private sphere, including the family. The Convention called on States parties to take all appropriate steps to modify the social and cultural patterns of men and women in order to eliminate prejudices, as well as customary and other practices rooted in the idea of the inferiority of either of the sexes, or their stereotyped roles. In doing so, the Convention required no less than the transformation of society and the family in order to achieve full gender equality.
“Twenty-five years ago, the first 23 experts of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, elected by the then 38 States parties, and drawn from all regions, began the work of translating the groundbreaking approach of the Convention from aspiration to reality,” she said. Its members, who had, with three exceptions, been women, had been drawn from diverse backgrounds, different political and economic systems and from developing and developed countries. Most had had experience of the obstacles faced by women, and all had been strongly committed to equality and non-discrimination. Many had been part of networks and communities outside the structure of Government directed towards the realization of the rights of women and girls. That diversity of experience and commitment, and linkage with the non-governmental sector, had ensured the relevance of the Committee’s work for all women in all parts of the world. It had also ensured that various limitations of the Convention, the interpretation of its provisions and the steps required for full implementation could be addressed creatively, so that its full promise for women and girls could be realized.
The respect and confidence the Committee had gained from States parties, in particular because of the innovative methods it had introduced, had resulted in the provision of more and longer sessions, she said, expressing hope that the upcoming General Assembly session would approve the Committee’s request to meet annually in three sessions. The Committee’s determination to place the Convention on an equal footing with other human rights treaties by expanding its monitoring procedures beyond the consideration of reports had been a major factor leading to the speedy elaboration of the already widely-accepted Optional Protocol, which enabled it to receive petitions and conduct suo moto inquiries.
But it was jurisprudence, developed via article 21 of the Convention, which empowered the Committee to make suggestions and general recommendations to the Assembly, based on the examination of reports and information received from States parties, that perhaps represented its major achievement to date, she said. While narrowly focused and usually procedural at the outset, the Committee’s general recommendations today provided its collective view, grounded in knowledge acquired through its consideration of States parties’ reports, of appropriate measures that States should take to fulfil their obligations under the Convention and how those obligations should be applied.
The Committee’s general recommendation on female circumcision had been the first by a United Nations body on that practice, she continued, noting that it had also been the first treaty body to adopt a general recommendation on HIV/AIDS. Its general recommendation on violence against women had been a crucial building block in the recognition of that gender-based violation of human rights, providing the impetus for the adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the creation of the mechanism of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and various regional human rights instruments. That recommendation, profoundly influential in law reform and in the formulation of policies and programmes to create protection and remedies for women and girls subject to, or at risk of, violence, was relied upon by advocates and courts around the world. Also widely influential were the general recommendations on equality in marriage and family relations, women in political and public life, and health.
The most recent general recommendation on temporary special measures testified to the Committee’s progressive contribution to the clarification of the Convention’s substantive content, the nature of discrimination against women and the means to achieve substantive equality. Although in its early stages, the Committee’s analysis of complaints submitted under the Optional Protocol already indicated that it would deepen its contribution to the jurisprudence on gender equality. Among other aspects of the Committee’s work over the last 25 years were its sustained and principled stance on reservations, which it considered contrary to the object and purpose of the Convention, and the influence that its work had had on the outcomes of international conferences, especially the Fourth World Conference on Women.
“Today, as we celebrate the achievement of the Committee over the past 25 years, we are also on the eve of the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she pointed out. Global interest in human rights was at an all-time high, not least because human rights was a language recognized, however grudgingly, by the powerful, and which allowed individuals to legitimize claims against the backdrop of international law. At the same time, there were profound changes to human rights, prime among which was the resurgence of notions that human rights were not necessarily universal, but should be restricted because of the imperatives of culture, custom, tradition and religion. Since its inception, the Committee had grappled with that challenge, emphasizing the universality of human rights while respecting diversity. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) would have the privilege of supporting the Committee from 2008, when it would take its place as a central part of a comprehensive human rights system. “By promoting the Committee and women’s human rights generally, we push the entire human rights agenda forward,” she said.
JULIO C. PERALTA, Vice-Chairperson, Commission on the Status of Women, said there was certainly ample cause to celebrate the Committee’s contribution to the advancement of women worldwide, and to the recognition of and respect for their rights.
He also recalled the many achievements of the Commission on the Status of Women in its 60 years, including its drafting, begun in 1965, of the Convention subsequently adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December 1979. The drafting process had not been easy and there had been diverging views on key issues, including monitoring of compliance with the new instrument. There had also been concern that the establishment of another body would undermine the Commission’s prestige or interfere in its work. The prevailing viewpoint had been to establish a committee of independent experts, which had met for the first time in October 1982.
In March 1994, the Commission on the Status of Women had agreed to examine the feasibility of introducing the right to petition the Committee about violations of Convention rights, he noted. Work on the Optional Protocol -– with its communications and inquiry procedures -– had taken place from 1996 to 1999. That new procedural instrument had entered into force on 22 December 2000, and responsibility for action under both procedures had been entrusted to the Committee. Over the last quarter of a century, the Commission and the Committee had built a strong relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation, with each contributing to the work of the other.
RACHEL MAYANJA, Assistant Secretary-General and Special Adviser, Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said the Convention’s adoption in 1979 had been the culmination of decades of international efforts to protect and promote the rights of women worldwide. It had become part of the international human rights treaty system, aiming to secure equal rights for women in the enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination on the basis of sex. It had established binding legal obligations on States parties to ensure the elimination of discrimination against women in all fields, whether in the private or public spheres.
As the monitoring body of the implementation of the Convention, she noted, the Committee was charged with reviewing the reports of all States parties, assessing their constitutional and legal frameworks and examining the Convention’s status within the domestic legal system, especially with regard to enforceability and conflicts with its statutory provisions. The Committee also reviewed progress in the practical realization of the principle of equality between women and men in relation to all areas covered by the letter and spirit of the Convention. Based on that review, the Committee formulated concluding comments.
The Convention had had a profound and positive impact on the legal and socio-political development in those countries where its provisions had been utilized as a powerful instrument for furthering women’s rights, she continued. That impact was visible in the strengthening of constitutional provisions, particularly by providing a constitutional basis for the protection of women’s human rights. In such countries, existing legislation had been brought into conformity with the principles and obligations set out in the Convention, and in others, laws had been adopted as a result of its ratification. The South African and Ugandan constitutions, for instance, contained significant provisions guaranteeing women’s equality on the basis of the Convention’s principles.
Courts and judicial procedures had similarly become more attuned to the requirements of the Convention and were developing gender-equality jurisprudence informed and guided by it, she said. Courts increasingly referred to international human rights standards, and judges in many countries had invoked the Convention, as well as the Committee’s general recommendations, in their decision-making. One example was Nepal, where the Supreme Court had relied on the Convention in directing the Government to introduce a bill in Parliament to address discriminatory laws. In Canada, the Supreme Court had draw bib the Convention’s general recommendation 19 in considering a case of alleged sexual assault. In the absence of legislative measures, the Supreme Court of India had referred to article 11 of the Convention, and the Committee’s general recommendation 19 in order to prevent sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court had also referred to the Convention in upholding a challenge to penal code provisions, which treated men and women differently, while the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzaniahad referred to the Convention in upholding a challenge to the law on property ownership.
There had also been improvements in the capacity of national institutions to guarantee equality between women and men, she said. There were now national machineries for the advancement of women, gender equality commissions and ombudspersons existed in many countries. The Committee’s constructive dialogue with States parties and its concluding comments calling for the strengthening of institutional frameworks had in many instances provided an important impetus in that regard. Eighty States were currently parties to the Convention’s Optional Protocol and the Committee had already highlighted, through the use of that instrument, the need for more effective national remedies for women and the repeal of discriminatory laws, policies and practices.
The entities of the United Nations system had long played an important role in supporting the Committee’s work at the country level, in conjunction with the Committee’s monitoring function, she said. They also implemented many initiatives to strengthen and accelerate implementation of the Convention and the Committee’s concluding comments, from support for legislative reform and capacity-building to advocacy and awareness-raising efforts. United Nations entities also recognized the value and benefit of the Convention and the Committee’s work by reflecting them in their own programming. United Nations entities advocated for implementation through national development strategies and action plans.
She said the Division for the Advancement of Women, which had served as the Committee’s secretariat since its inception, had taken active measures to facilitate States parties’ implementation of the Convention and enhance the impact of the Committee’s work at the national level. One recent area of particular emphasis was its support for countries emerging from conflict, including through training workshops. By supporting such countries in the preparation of their initial reports -– some of which were long overdue -– the Division helped create the basis for the Committee’s constructive dialogue with them and the establishment of a baseline for future monitoring of progress in implementation.
In conclusion, she said 186 States were now party to the Convention, seven short of the total required for the goal of universal ratification. The Committee remained concerned about many other challenges, including the significant number of reservations to the Convention, the lack of adherence to the reporting obligation by a number of States parties and significant delays in submitting those reports. The constraints imposed by the Committee’s limited meeting time were also of continuing concern and would remain on the Committee’s agenda in the years to come.
JACKIE SHAPIRO, NGO Committee on the Status of Women, said that body’s work sought to unravel the multiple legal, economic, social, religious and cultural factors that prevented women from attaining equal rights and opportunity in each reporting country and to suggest critical interventions to advance the Convention’s implementation. The Committee had provided non-governmental organizations with occasions to follow its work and offered many partnership opportunities to strengthen the mutual goal of advancing women’s status, empowering women and promoting their rights. The Committee had taken discriminatory laws and customs and practices “right down to the ground level where women live”. It had long enlisted the participation of women and civil society organizations to document weaknesses and violations in country reports. The institutionalization of reporting by non-governmental organizations attested to the value that the Committee’s experts assigned to materials presented by the national representatives of those bodies.
Beyond the reporting itself, she said, the Committee’s embrace of participation by non-governmental organizations was empowering women to continue advocacy in their respective countries, bringing them into the international dialogue for the advancement of women, introducing them to national and international partners, and confirming that the United Nations was one of their staunchest allies in working to advance women’s rights. Non-governmental organizations might also submit so-called “shadow reports” on issues relating to their respective countries’ compliance with the Convention, which was an advocacy tool. It was imperative that women’s rights advocates widely disseminate the Committee’s concluding comments, which were a blueprint for needed changes to advance gender equality on the national level. Moreover, the concluding remarks could also help non-governmental organizations in establishing their own organizational priorities.
SAPANA PRADHAN MALLA, International Women’s Rights Watch (IWRAW) Asia-Pacific, said the Committee’s contribution to the furthering of women’s human rights lay not only in the substantive part of its work, but also in the processes it had adopted. Its expanding commitment to dialogue with civil society allowed the latter to examine issues from a rights perspective. Its concluding comments provided a framework for monitoring States’ action and showed the Committee’s rigorous engagement with States parties, as well as its commitment to supporting protection in the context of national realities. The Committee’s 25 general recommendations bore testimony to its ongoing commitment, increasingly being used around the world as sources of evolving standards of human rights, reflective of emerging issues, and offering possibilities for overcoming obstacles to the realization of human rights.
She said International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific had been engaged in the reporting process since 1997, facilitating the participation of women from the national level in the review process, building capacities, providing technical assistance in the preparation of shadow reports and dispatching those reports to Committee members. That was the core of its “From Global to Local” programme, implemented in collaboration with United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) since 1997 and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since 2005. The programme had also contributed to the creation of a global movement demanding accountability from States in fulfilling their obligations towards women.
To date, the Committee had reviewed 154 countries and issued, at the very least, 218 sets of concluding comments, she said. It had a backlog of merely 41 countries, 15 of which would be cleared in the current session. Committee’s work had brought about changes in law and policy, and led to improvements in the status of women. In that connection, Viet Nam’s Gender Equality Act and Nepal’s recognition of reproductive health rights and the right to protection against exploitation based on culture and tradition, were to be commended. “Decisions you have made holding States accountable for not having domestic violence law in Hungary or not providing access to abortion in Mexico, has built up confidence among women that communication is an effective mechanism for the fulfilment of their rights,” she added.
Emphasizing the importance of withdrawing reservations to the Convention and expanding the general recommendation on migration and State obligation, she urged all Governments, international organizations, women’s and civil society organizations to work with the normative framework adopted by the Committee in allocating adequate resources and time in that regard. State parties which had not ratified the Optional Protocol, should have more faith in their own “intention, will and capability to fulfil their obligations to their women at home and ratify that instrument.
She said challenges ahead in expanding norms and procedure, as well as recognizing human rights themselves, included the non-recognition of the right to sexual autonomy and decision-making that remained at the core of social and legal systems that oppressed, exploited and targeted women. Others were the lack of adequate conceptual understanding of equality, the lack of mechanisms for holding Governments accountable for timely reporting, and inadequate treaty incorporation at the national level.
HANNA BEATE SCHOPP-SCHILLING, Committee expert from Germany, said in a statement read out by Carolyn Hannan, Director of the Division for the Advancement of Women, that, as a member since 1989, she had seen many positive developments with respect to the recognition, visibility, status and resources it enjoyed, as well as in relation to its working methods, output and impact. When the Committee had first met in October 1982, its success had not been foreseen, as various conceptual, political, organizational and technical obstacles had impeded its work for some time. Today, most of that had been overcome and the Committee was no longer seen as the “poor relative” among human rights treaty bodies.
Reviewing the history of the Convention and the Committee, she recalled that, in 1982, the treaty had been viewed as a development instrument rather than a human rights one. Many States parties had believed that their obligations to eliminate discrimination against women and to achieve equality required only progressive rather than immediate implementation as required by the Convention’s article 2. In reviewing States parties’ reports, the Committee had pointed out repeatedly that lack or resources or other difficult circumstances did not allow a State to discriminate against women. While it might take time to alter attitudes, behaviour, political, economic and social structures and institutions based on, or affected by, discriminatory sex-role stereotypes, efforts to eliminate them must begin without delay, from the moment of the Convention’s entry into force in the territory of the respective State party.
She said the misperception of the Convention and its monitoring Committee as a development instrument had finally been laid to rest through the outcome document of the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993. Since 1982, 110 members had served on the Committee, coming from a variety of countries and all regions of the world had served on the Committee. Its sessions were “experiments in intercultural learning and understanding”, which, in the early years, had not been free from ideological strife. Despite the difficulties, however, consensus was always found since all members were driven by the first and foremost goal: to improve women’s exercise and enjoyment of their human rights worldwide.
Nobody had expected rapid ratification of the Convention, but that had occurred, she said. As a consequence, the Committee had experienced a lack of financial resources, but that had gradually been overcome, thanks to States parties’ support over the years. The quickly increasing number of States parties, however, had led to another problem -- the equally increasing backlog of reports awaiting review. The Committee’s meeting time had been extended over the years, but at the same time, rapid ratification had led to a large number of reservations to many of its articles, including some that were “incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention”.
She said the dilemma of what observers had called the Convention’s “paradox of universality versus integrity” had not been solved, although several reservations had been withdrawn over the years. The Committee addressed the issue of reservations in each constructive dialogue with States parties by inquiring into the reasons for the reservations, States parties’ plans and timeframes for withdrawing them, and the impact of such reservations on the women living in the respective country.
The most important breakthrough in enhancing of the Committee’s mandate and status as a human rights treaty body had come in December 1999 with the General Assembly’s adoption of an Optional Protocol, she said. Formulating concluding comments after review of a States party’s report, and adopting views under the two procedures of the Optional Protocol had enhanced the Committee’s power to interpret the Convention and its obligations. The Committee’s general recommendations, formulated to elucidate the treaty’s articles, had also proven invaluable in enhancing States parties’ understanding of their obligations. But while they could only be considered “soft law”, the general recommendations contributed to a deeper understanding of international law in general and of the Convention in particular.
In closing, she acknowledged the difficulty of measuring the precise impact of the Committee’s work since it was only one player among many. However, it was tremendously satisfying when the Committee’s impact was seen in legislative reform, court verdicts, programmes and other endeavours. Still, there was a worldwide persistence of discrimination against women, and while they were undoubtedly making progress, it was slow and new challenges threatened the gains achieved. It was necessary, therefore, that the Committee, which had proven so successful over the past 25 years, continue with the same or even greater support from the Secretariat, United Nations specialized agencies, programmes and funds, States parties, non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions.
Before adjourning the meeting, Ms. SIMONOVIC said that, apart from applauding the Committee’s achievements, the aim of the commemoration was to highlight the challenges before it and the measures needed to enhance its short- and long-term efforts. She acknowledged the presence of 22 of the Committee’s 23 experts, noting that one, from South Africa, had resigned. A candidate from that country would be nominated and then elected by the Committee.
Noting that the Committee had reviewed nearly 400 reports since its inception, she said some States were now moving into their seventh reporting cycle and the Committee could trace changes, some of which were highly visible, and others very incremental. Constitutions now commonly had equality provisions, but discrimination against women persisted, even in the law. In too few countries, the Convention was directly applicable in courts and too few judges knew about the treaty.
De facto discrimination against women remained universal, she said. States were still submitting their initial reports, too many of which were overdue –- some by as many as 25 years.
The Convention was a dynamic human rights instrument and it was the Committee as its monitoring body that significantly shaped its dynamism and growth, she said. Conventions and rights were interpreted by the Committee through its general recommendations on the content and purpose of the substantive treaty articles. For example, general recommendation 19 concerned violence against women, and, although the Convention did not explicitly refer to that topic, the Committee, through the general recommendation, made it clear that violence against women “falls squarely within the scope of the definition of discrimination, and, thus, is covered by the Convention”.
She said the Committee also interpreted the Convention in its concluding comments, which were the result of constructive dialogue with individual States. The Committee was also very aware of the useful links between States’ obligations under the Convention and the role of global policy instruments and documents that contributed to strengthened implementation of the Convention. The Committee also emphasized that full and effective implementation was indispensable to the achievement of other international goals, especially the Millennium Development Goals. Each and every substantive article of the Convention covered forms of discrimination experienced daily by women around the globe. The Committee’s work, therefore, was not an abstract exercise, but went to the heart of women’s experiences. Thus, the Committee was committed to ensuring States’ accountability and the undertaking of all appropriate measures, and without delay, for the practical realization of equality between women and men.
The Committee, among other things, also encouraged States parties to engage in participatory processes at the national level, not only in the reports’ preparation, but also in following up concluding comments, she said. Changing societal attitudes so that they truly supported of substantive gender equality could not be achieved with a new law alone –- it required a concerted and committed effort of all stakeholders. The Committee would continue to contribute to that process and work harder to ensure the Convention’s universal ratification.
Noting that discussions about treaty body reform continued in the United Nations, she said the Human Rights Council was moving forward with the establishment of its procedures and modalities and Member States were considering proposal for a new gender equality entity. It was important, therefore, to reflect carefully on the manner in which women’s rights would be addressed by the United Nations system in future. The Convention must be the framework for all those discussions. The Committee had made significant contributions to clarifying the meaning of the Convention, and that accomplishment must inspire and guide all reform on gender equality. All such reform must contribute to greater institutional and human capacity to implement the treaty.
The principle of gender equality must be paramount in all areas of work and at all levels of the United Nations, she stressed. Work must also continue to achieve full integration of women’s rights into all human rights considerations. Strong links must also be maintained between the Committee and the intergovernmental machinery responsible for the promotion of gender equality, and between the proposed gender-equality entity. It was also critical was to ensure that the Committee would meet annually both in Geneva and New York to continue play its role with respect to all United Nations principal organs and the future gender-equality entity. The Convention itself must be the “organizing principle” of the new arrangement, or the promotion of gender equality and women’s of human rights would not progress as needed.
She suggested the following improvements: further refinement of the Committee’s concluding comments; an increased role for non-governmental organization s, national human rights institutions, and United Nations entities and agencies; more interaction among treaty bodies to harmonize working methods; a permanent extension of the Committee’s meeting time; and the nomination and election of more men to serve on the Committee.
* *** *