21 March 1997

Press Briefing



At a Headquarters press conference this morning, Angela King, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, and Sharon Brennen-Haylock (Bahamas), Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, discussed work of the current session of the Commission which ends today. Also speaking at the briefing was Aloisia Woergetter (Austria), Chairperson of the Open-ended Working Group on the Elaboration of a draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The Working Group had reached agreement on some issues during the current session of the Commission, Ms. Woergetter said.

Responding to a question, she said that a major breakthrough during the session had been the agreement to include an enquiry procedure in the draft optional protocol, which would enable the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to request State parties to the protocol to explain and remedy complaints about serious violations of women's rights. She welcomed the decision of the United States to commit itself to the enquiry procedure.

She said that an immense momentum had been created in the working group's work. A large majority of participating governments was in favour of the optional protocol and for the procedures to be followed. She described that as "remarkable", noting that such support had not been thought possible in the past. The optional protocol would greatly strengthen the Convention and allow individual women to actually complain before the United Nations about violations of their rights. "I think, we can easily say that we are, at the moment, the most successful optional protocol drafting group." The group hoped that it could finish its work next year, which was a very symbolic year for human rights because it would mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the first five-year review of the outcome of the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993) would take place.

Sharon Brennen-Haylock (Bahamas), Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, said that innovations introduced last year to improve the Commission's work had again been applied. Four critical areas of concern to women had been discussed in panels followed by dialogue among the Member States. The issues were: women and education; women in power and decision- making; women and the environment; and women and the economy. That format had

lent itself to the session arriving at a variety of concrete suggestions to move the Platform forward in each one of those areas. Each of the Vice- Chairpersons of the Commission had moderated the discussions, she said, adding that she had moderated the panel on women and the environment. The moderators felt that the panel format was much more concrete than the usual practice of general debate on those issues. They also felt that suggestions which came out of the discussions were very useful and practical and would certainly be helpful to delegations.

Another innovation emerging from those dialogues, was the adoption of agreed conclusions instead of resolutions, she said. She described it as a "very big victory" for the Commission because of an earlier concern as to whether the new format would be a stronger way of reflecting the outcome of their work. Member States had also been very happy about the collaboration with non-governmental organizations which previously had been restricted to plenary and the general debate. Non-governmental organizations had been allowed to participate in informal consultations, interacting with Member States.

Angela King, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women, said that the forty-first session of the Commission was an historic one. The Commission had marked its fiftieth anniversary, during which it had honoured many of the assistant secretaries- general who had run the previous sessions, some non-governmental organizations that had been present from the very beginning of the Commission's founding in 1947, some staff of the Division for the Advancement of Women and the former chairpersons of the Commission. It was a time of looking back on the work of the Commission and its achievements over the past 50 years, as well as for looking forward. The topics discussed had gone beyond the achievements of Beijing. Not only did it perhaps give a chance to all the Member States, the observers and the non-governmental community to revisit the Beijing Platform but also to look at it from a different perspective and have a deeper understanding of what Beijing Conference really meant in today's constantly changing world.

Ms. King said the session had also heard what Member States were actually doing to deal with such issues as violence against women, women and decision-making, and how to empower women in practical ways. She made special mention of women and the environment, stating that the agreed conclusion on the issue would push the way forward towards the Commission on Sustainable Development and finally the special session of the General Assembly which would review Agenda 21, which was adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. "This definitely shows that the international community has come a far way in five years when women were considered as victims or a special group by the Rio conference." The emphasis now was on gender perspective -- women and men working together as principal actors in preserving the environment and using it for the benefit of the whole society.

Women's Commission Briefing - 3 - 21 March 1997

On the issue of the Commission's working methods, Ms. King said there would be an evaluation to determine whether perhaps there were too many panels and on the type of panels needed. She said the format had been much livelier and it had enabled member countries, non-governmental organizations and civil society to participate at the top level, leading to thinking on those issues. The Commission secretariat would examine the panels to try to measure how their outcome fed into the agreed conclusions and what the results could be. It would not really be possible to assess the results until some of the issues had been taken up in the General Assembly and the outcome seen, she added.

Ms. King also dealt with the issue of mainstreaming of gender perspectives. She noted that the session had shown that the energy of Beijing and its main theme of mainstreaming gender perspectives into all policies and programmes in the United Nations system had indeed continued. People were very energized and were working, particularly in the United Nations system and in Member States. Others who did not quite understand, were "beginning to see what it meant; see the benefits and the cost of leaving women out of decision- making and participation in all aspects of society". She paid tribute to the work of the chairpersons of the Commission and the working group. She said that without them what had been achieved could not have been possible. The interaction between the bureau of the Commission and the Division for the Advancement of Women was of inestimable value.

Asked what was the problem with regard to the issue of inheritance by women, and how it could be resolved, Ms. Brennen-Haylock, Chairperson of the Commission, said she understood that it was a legal question. It dealt with equal access to inheritance as opposed to equal right to inheritance, and they meant different things depending on legislations in certain countries. References had been made in the Beijing Platform for Action to equal access to inheritance, she said. She also said that many delegations found "right to inheritance" unacceptable at present. The issue now was to find a reasonable compromise that could take care of both concerns. Consultations were continuing towards that end.

Responding to a question about the need for the optional protocol as many human rights instruments dealt with issues of concern to women, Ms. Woergetter said that out of "hundreds of complaints", the first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had so far dealt with only 10 complaints concerning equality between men and women. All other human rights instruments that foresaw complaint procedures had not dealt with violation of women's rights. That showed clearly, she said, that women did not seem to have access to other human rights instruments. At the time of the drafting of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in the 1970s, it had been found that there was a need for a separate Convention that dealt specifically with women's rights which, she said, were quite different. The optional protocol was aimed at showing women that they had access to the United Nations. They could have their rights protected and a real remedy to violations of their rights.

Women's Commission Briefing - 4 - 21 March 1997

What had been agreed to so far and what were the obstacles to completing work on the protocol? a correspondent asked. Replying, Ms. Woergetter said that there was agreement on the need for the protocol; and that there would definitely be a complaints procedure for individuals. The Working Group had not yet agreed on whether there would be a complaints procedure for groups, for organizations like non-governmental organizations or whether there would be an option that was very similar to a class-action suit as a substitute for the optional protocol's complaints procedure.

Asked why the situation of women in the occupied Arab territories were annually included in the Commission's resolutions and whether that was of special concern to it, Ms. King noted that there had been a resolution last year on women in Nigeria. There had also been a resolution -- which did not single out a particular country -- on women and children taken hostage and imprisoned in armed conflict. That resolution had been intended to cover a variety of countries. The resolutions reflected the particular state of negotiations in a particular area. It had been expected last year that somehow peace would have broken out vibrantly in the Middle East. The Secretary-General's report to last year's session did reflect the stalemate that had taken place there at the time. Nevertheless, she said the new element in that report was the very remarkable way that the United Nations agencies working in the area had been using mainstreaming of gender perspectives in their work. That would continue, she added.

Ms. Brennen-Haylock also responding to the question, said those resolutions were an indication of what delegations were prepared to present. There was a draft on mainstreaming gender perspectives in the United Nations system and it would include a language regarding humanitarian assistance to Afghan women, for example.

The Commission on the Status of Women is the only intergovernmental body devoted to women's advancement. Its 45 members have been monitoring implementation of the Platform for Action, which was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995.

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