The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 18 December 1979. This international human rights treaty defines discrimination against women as “encompassing any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” (article 1). States parties are required by the Convention to eliminate such discrimination against women in public life and in private life, including within the family. The sixteen substantive articles of the Convention identify the specific areas of discrimination that are of particular concern to women and establish the means to eliminate discrimination in these areas. As of October 2007, there are 185 States parties to the Convention.
Article 17 of the Convention establishes the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women as an expert body, with a mandate to consider the progress made by States parties in the implementation of the Convention. It has carried out this monitoring function primarily by considering reports submitted by States parties (article 18 of the Convention). In its first 25 years, the Committee examined 401 reports, submitted by 154 States parties.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention – which entered into force on 22 December 2000 – has added a quasi-judicial function for the Committee through the individual complaints procedure. As of October 2007, the Committee has registered 16 communications, of which it has decided five on the merits and declared five inadmissible. The other procedure introduced by the Optional Protocol is the inquiry procedure, which enables the Committee to initiate suo moto inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women’s rights. So far, the Committee has carried out one such inquiry.
The Committee is made up of 23 experts nominated by States parties to the Convention and elected by secret ballot for four-year terms; experts can be re-nominated and re-elected. Committee members serve in their personal capacity as independent experts. Since the first election was held on 16 April 1982, 107 women and 3 men (two from Sweden and one from the Netherlands) have been members of this body. Experts have been nationals of 110 countries: 27 have come from the Asian Group of States; 24 have come from the Western European and Others Group of States; 23 have come from the African Group of States; 23 have come from the Latin American and Caribbean Group of States; and 12 have come from the Eastern European Group of States. During these past 25 years, 11 experts have served as Chairpersons of the Committee.
Under article 18 of the Convention, States parties undertake to submit reports on the legislative, judicial, administrative or other measures they have taken to implement the Convention, as well as any factors or difficulties they may have encountered, within one year after ratification or accession. Subsequent periodic reports are due at least every four years, or whenever the Committee so requests. The Committee examines these reports in a constructive dialogue with representatives of the State party.
Article 21 of the Convention gives the Committee the authority to make suggestions and general recommendations based on the examination of reports and information received from States parties. To date, the Committee has adopted 25 general recommendations to clarify particular articles or issues under the Convention.
Article 20 of the Convention provides that the Committee shall normally meet for two weeks annually. An amendment to the Convention that aims to extend the Committee’s meeting time will enter into force after it has been accepted by a two-thirds majority of States parties. As of October 2007, 49 States parties have accepted the amendment. In the meantime, the General Assembly has repeatedly approved additional meeting time for the Committee. Until 1996 (fourteenth session), the Committee met once a year, usually in January/February. From 1997 until 2005, the Committee held two annual sessions, usually in January/February, and in June/July (sixteenth to thirty-third sessions). In 2002, the Committee held a third – exceptional – annual session, in August. Since 2006, the Committee has held three annual sessions, in January/February, May/June, and July/August (thirty-fourth to thirty-ninth sessions). In 2006, one session took place in parallel chambers and in 2007, two sessions were held in parallel chambers, which allowed the Committee to consider reports of 69 States parties as opposed to 48 – i.e. the number of States parties that the Committee would have had the capacity to examine without parallel chambers in the same timeframe.
Until 1993, the Committee met alternately once a year in Vienna and New York. Since 1994, and following the relocation of its Secretariat – the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women – from Vienna to New York, it has met only at United Nations Headquarters in New York. In October 2006, the Secretary-General decided that common objectives would be best served by the United Nations if responsibility for servicing the Committee were to be transferred from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Division for the Advancement of Women at United Nations Headquarters in New York to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. This transfer will occur as of January 2008.
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