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United Nations
Division for the Advancement of Women

Joint statement by the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, Ms. Angela E.V. King,
and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson,
on the occasion of the opening for signature of the

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

10 December 1999

The principle of the equal rights of women and men is one of the pillars of the United Nations. This principle is reflected in the Charter of the United Nations, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all subsequent major international human rights instruments. It is elaborated in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women - the Women’s Convention - which codifies women’s right to non-discrimination and equality with men. The Convention establishes that women and men are equally entitled to the full enjoyment and exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil and any other field.

Several international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture and other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, have procedures allowing individuals or groups of individuals to submit claims of alleged violations of rights protected under these instruments to independent expert bodies, once domestic remedies have been exhausted. Procedures for expert bodies to undertake inquiries into situations of alleged grave or serious violations of rights also exist. While these mechanisms are available to women and men alike, women have rarely used them to seek redress for violations of their rights.

Governments committed themselves at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1993) and at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) to work for the establishment of a mechanism on a right to petition under the Women’s Convention. The Optional Protocol that is being opened for signature today, Human Rights Day 1999, is the concrete realization of this promise of Governments to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights of the women of the world.

The significance of this new instrument for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women cannot be overstated. The Convention has now joined the ranks of those instruments that offer individuals and groups of individuals who are victims of human rights violations, an international forum to seek redress for their grievances. But in addition to providing an international remedy for violations of women’s rights, the Optional Protocol will act as an incentive for Governments to take a fresh look at the means of redress that are currently available to women at the domestic level. This is perhaps the most important contribution of the Optional Protocol. It is action at the national level which will create the environment in which women and girls are able to enjoy all their human rights fully, and where their grievances will be addressed with the efficiency and speed they deserve.

We are deeply encouraged by the fact that Governments, after only four negotiation sessions, adopted the Optional Protocol by consensus. This signals their acceptance of the vision of universal human rights for women as well as men. The support and encouragement, but also the firm insistence of non-governmental organizations and women’s groups from around the world that the Vienna and Beijing commitments be honoured, have been invaluable in nurturing the process along to its successful conclusion.

We urge governments to ratify the Optional Protocol without delay so that the required ten ratifications can be obtained to enable it to enter into force. Having been part of the process that led to this celebratory moment, we pledge to support this new procedure so that it may become a useful and effective addition to our inventory of tools for the protection, promotion, and defence of the human rights of women.