COMMISSION HOLDS SPECIAL SESSION ON GENDER ISSUES AND HUMAN RIGHTS

HR/CN/848
8 April 1998

COMMISSION HOLDS SPECIAL SESSION ON GENDER ISSUES AND HUMAN RIGHTS

8 April 1998


Press Release
HR/CN/848


COMMISSION HOLDS SPECIAL SESSION ON GENDER ISSUES AND HUMAN RIGHTS

19980408

GENEVA, 6 April (UN Information Service) -- The Commission on Human Rights this afternoon held a special debate on gender issues and human rights. Participants expressed support for the creation of a separate item on the Commission's agenda to discuss women's rights, greater representation of women at the highest levels of the United Nations bureaucracy, and the inclusion of clear language on violence against women in the founding principles of an international criminal court.

The Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Commission's Special Rapporteur on violence against women delivered opening addresses. The Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, Jacob Selebi, then presided over an "interactive dialogue" with which national delegations and non-governmental organizations. The Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, Patricia Flor (Germany), said that reality continued to differ from the promised land of international human rights instruments and United Nations resolutions. An estimated 2 million women and girls were victims of female genital mutilation every year. Women suffered now, at the end of the twentieth century, from violence in all its forms on a daunting scale. They were still considered legal minors in some countries, were not entitled to vote in some elections, and many did not have equal rights and equal access to education, property, land, capital, economic and professional activities, health services or decision-making.

It was necessary to understand how women and men were deprived of their human rights in different ways, she said. And it was necessary to find appropriate strategies for States to promote and protect the human rights of all, regardless of sex.

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that there had not been a substantial focus in the agenda or resolutions of the Commission in the past on women's rights as human rights, or on issues such as gender-based abuse. The links between the activities of the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on the Status of Women should be strengthened, in line with recommendations made by international conferences calling for coordination and cooperation between the United Nations mechanisms.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, said possible joint areas of action between the two Commissions included national plans of action against violence against women and law reforms concerning domestic violence, rape, trafficking in women and sexual harassment.

Contributing to the discussion were representatives of Germany, Canada, Afghanistan, United States, Denmark, Venezuela, Norway, Uganda, India, Tunisia, Republic of Korea, Japan, Libya, Sweden and New Zealand, as well as the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Also participating were the World Federation of Methodist and United Church Women (on behalf of the Women's Caucus); European Union for Public Relations; Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children; Nepal's Women; Centre for Women's Global Leadership; International Human Rights Law Group/Amnesty International; North-South XXI; and International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism.

Following the conclusion of the special meeting, the Commission reconvened for an evening session to continue debate on further promotion and encouragement of human rights, including the programme and methods of work of the Commission, and advisory services in the field of human rights.

Statements

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it was important to recognize the unique and pioneering character of the debate at the present session of the Commission as the international community marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fifth anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The Commission had a key role to play in ensuring the practical implementation of the fact that women's rights were human rights. The appointment of a Special Rapporteur on violence against women by the Commission reflected its concern with the protection of human rights of women. There had not been a substantial focus in the agenda or resolutions of the Commission in the past on women's rights as human rights, or on issues such as gender-based abuse.

She said the present debate was aimed at strengthening the link between the activities of both the Commission and the Commission on the Status of Women, in line with the recommendations made by international conferences calling for coordination and cooperation between the United Nations mechanisms. The Division for the Advancement of Women and her Office would continue to work closely together, and with other institutions, for the cause of women and the protection and promotion of their rights.

PATRICIA FLOR, Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, said it was noteworthy that the first sentence of article 1 of the Universal

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Declaration of Human Rights reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". That in itself showed that women were crucial to the shaping of human rights, as the original draft had begun "All men" before objections were raised by the Commission on the Status of Women. As it stood, the Declaration applied equally to women and men.

Reality, meanwhile, continued to differ from the promised land, she said. An estimated 2 million women and girls were victims of female genital mutilation every year; women suffered now, at the end of the twentieth century, from violence in all its forms on a daunting scale. They were still considered legal minors in some countries, were not entitled to vote in some elections, and many did not have equal rights and equal access to education, property, land, capital, economic and professional activities, health services or decision-making.

She said the issue of systematic discrimination on the basis of sex had not really featured prominently in the overall debates about the violation of human rights and State obligations to protect them. In the United Nations system, it was mostly limited to the Commission on the Status of Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. In the traditional view, a girl victim of genital mutilation did not even fall into the category of a human rights violation, as the evil deed was usually not committed by a State, but by a private actor. Since, as the Beijing Platform for Action said, violence against women impaired or nullified women's enjoyment of human rights, and threatened their right to bodily integrity, did not the State then have an obligation to protect them against it?

It was necessary to understand how women and men were deprived of their human rights in different ways, she said. It was necessary to find appropriate strategies for States to promote and protect the human rights of all, regardless of sex. Every topic had to be approached with this fundamental question in mind: How did it affect women and men differently?

The existence of two Commissions dedicated to the issue should not suggest a dichotomy between women's rights on one had and human rights on the other, she said. The two Commissions shared a common quest, that some day everybody, woman or man, boy or girl, would enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, said there had been two phases to the struggle for women's rights. The first was related to the right of women in the fields of education, health and development, and had culminated with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The second related to women's human rights and violence against women. The distinction was that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women did not have a provision on violence against them. The Commission on the Status of Women had excelled in work on the first phase, while the Commission on Human Rights had

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dealt with the human rights of women and issues of violence and trafficking. It was time to integrate the two phases, and one way to do that and bridge the gap would be to have a new optional protocol which dealt with violence against women.

She said the mechanism of special rapporteurs was aimed at fact-finding and monitoring. It was important that the Commission on Human Rights have a special rapporteur on violence against women. At the same time, an international legal framework which set standards for human rights of women could be established in the Commission on the Status of Women. There were several possible joint areas of action between the two Commissions, including in the field of national plans of action against violence against women and law reforms concerning domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and sexual harassment. There was also a large amount of statistics on violence against women; the two Commissions should collaborate in that area so that there was gender sensitivity in both bodies. The area of women's social and economic rights was important and a special rapporteur on that issue in either Commission was also needed.

Summary of Discussion

Among the questions raised were what methods would promote gender mainstreaming in the United Nations system; what could be done to enhance the effectiveness of field missions by focusing on gender issues; whether the Commission might in future have an agenda item on gender issues; and if language relating to gender issues and crimes against women should be included in the founding principles of the international criminal court. Questions were also raised on whether there was a mechanism that could stop the practice of female genital mutilation, and if small non-governmental organizations battling that abuse in the countries where it occurred could be linked to relevant international agencies and could receive greater support from them.

Speakers also asked what was being done to prevent religious considerations that impinged on women's rights in terms of sexuality; what more could be done to battle forms of patriarchy that were influenced by religion; if the Commission could consider appointing a sub-rapporteur on violence against women to investigate the use of rape as a weapon of war against Tamil women in Sri Lanka; and if the Commission would consider receiving country-specific complaints of violations of women's rights.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. ROBINSON, responding to questions, said she felt a particular responsibility to make gender mainstreaming a part of human rights activities throughout her work, and to stress a gender perspective in human rights training programmes. In a country such as Afghanistan, it was crucial that women should be involved in national reconstruction, and the United Nations was making it clear in its work there that women had to play a fundamental role in such work.

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It was extremely important to have a gender perspective included in the language establishing an international criminal court, she said. Similarly, there was a need to have "visibility" for women's human rights in the Commission's work, but not to "ghetto-ize" them by only discussing them under one agenda item. In her own work, she intended to pay particular attention to trafficking in women and girls, focusing on countries in Asia and also in central and eastern Europe, along with countries where such women -- often subject to unspeakable human rights abuses -- were transported.

The Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, Ms. FLOR, said that among the first steps to be taken was for secretariats in various United Nations agencies to include in their reports chapters concerning women's human rights, what violations might be involved, and what might be done about them. When she arrived at the Commission she had looked, quite innocently, for the women's rights item on the Commission's agenda, and had been somewhat surprised not to find one. She considered it necessary for the Commission to have an agenda item to cluster women's issues, although such an approach should not be a way of avoiding gender mainstreaming of all items on the agenda.

She said the Commission on the Status of Women had passed a resolution on Afghanistan stressing that women and men should benefit equally in all aid and in all United Nations programmes, and that women should participate equally in reconstructive work. Sex-disaggregated data was needed from a number of agencies and national associations, and women candidates for high United Nations positions should be proposed by national delegations as a way of providing a pool of suitable candidates for rectifying the gender imbalance at the highest levels of the Organization. Economic and social change always appeared to carry with it dangers for women, as women were vulnerable in many societies and so were likely to be "losers" when rapid change shifted traditional means of support away from them.

In battling female genital mutilation, she said, it was necessary first to have a national legal basis prohibiting it, and then to attempt to change attitudes at the community level.

Ms. COOMARASWAMY, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, said that it was important for the United Nations to appoint more women at the highest levels of the Organization, with a concomitant commitment to women's rights. One reason the discussion was taking place today was that the High Commissioner for Human Rights was a woman. Concerning the situation in the field, she had noticed during a visit to Rwanda that there was no disaggregated data for women in the human rights field operations and that there was no separate women's rights component in training programmes there, despite the major abuses of women carried out during the genocide. Nevertheless, United Nations mechanisms applied to post-conflict Afghanistan were especially concerned with women's involvement and women's rights, and special guidelines to that effect had been developed for use by different

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agencies. None the less, more resources were needed for United Nations agencies if they were to carry out gender-perspective tasks assigned to them.

Rape should be recognized specifically as a war crime, so that the contortions and complex legal manoeuvres now necessary for the war crimes tribunals to consider it were no longer necessary and the matter could be approached directly, she said.

Turning to the work of the Commission, she said it had to be noted that not one woman had been elected in today's balloting for the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities; and that it would be a good idea for the Commission to appoint a special rapporteur on economic, social, and cultural rights of women. Ideologies that contravened women's rights were a difficult challenge, and merely attacking such ideologies would not work. It was necessary to educate and try to change attitudes to make lasting progress.

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For information media. Not an official record.