Welcome to the Center for Women's Global Leadership

Women's Human Rights: Advocacy at the United Nations

by Susana T. Fried

Women's organizations throughout the world are continuing to monitor their governments' and the United Nations' commitments to advance the human rights of women. In this 50th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, advocates are highlighting the continued violations of the human rights of women, and the urgent need for the international community to step up their efforts to ensure respect for the human rights of all. As part of this global endeavor, a wide range of women's human rights advocates attended two recent UN sessions - the Commission on the Status of Women in March 1998 and the Commission on Human Rights in March and April, 1998.

Commission on the Status of Women

The UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) met in New York from March 2-13. The CSW makes recommendations on urgent problems requiring attention in the area of women's rights, and works increasingly in collaboration with other UN bodies, especially given the call for coordinated follow-up to all UN World Conferences. The secretariat for the CSW is the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW). All CSW and DAW documents are available through the WomenWatch website at http://www.un.org/womenwatch. Following the 4th World Conference on Women, the CSW prepared a work plan to review several of the critical areas of concern each year. In 1998, the four areas under review were: violence against women, women and armed conflict, human rights and the girl-child. In addition, each year, the CSW addresses some emerging issues. This year, they looked at aging women. Finally, the CSW also adopts resolutions on pressing issues of concern to women.

The CSW develops agreed conclusions on the areas under review. The process of developing the agreed conclusions involves holding expert group meetings prior to the CSW session, panel presentations (with representatives from governments, the UN and civil society) followed by a dialogue with governments at the CSW, with the goal of defining the scope of the problem and recommendations to governments and the UN for action. While the intention of this process is to be interactive and to lead to innovative ideas and strategies, the reality is that the agreed conclusions appear to be weakened restatements of major points of the Platform for Action. While some new issues are raised in this year's agreed conclusions, other important concerns were considered too contentious to be included, even some that were already included in the Platform. Finally, the agreed conclusions contain primarily general principles, but no operative language linked to concrete or specific actions with targets, timetables or the commitment of resources.

In spite of some frustrations, it is also clear that the continuing presence and monitoring by women's organizations does make a difference. First, the CSW is an important place to extend communication and networking among women's human rights advocates. The first week of the CSW was filled with many and varied NGO panels and workshops. The NGO Committee on the Status of Women held NGO briefing sessions each morning, and caucuses on the topics under review also met regularly to develop common positions and advocacy strategies.

Second, governments do appear to consider themselves accountable to their own citizens, or are cognizant of the fact that the positions they take during the CSW may have an impact at the national level when national NGOs are watching the process. It is, therefore, critical for governments to know that women care about what governments say about women's issues, that we are watching and will hold them accountable for what they do, or do not, say.

This becomes even more urgent as the CSW begins preparations for the year 2000 review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The review will be held as a special session of the General Assembly on June 5-9, 2000, with a primary focus on obstacles encountered in the implementation of the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and to develop strategies to overcome these obstacles. To prepare for the review, the CSW will add a week to its sessions in 1999 and 2000. The CSW also called upon member states to submit their national plan of action by September 1998 if they have not done so yet; to encourage a regional perspective in the review of implementation; to actively involve all entities of the UN system in the review; and, to emphasize the important role of NGOs in the preparatory process and the review itself.

While many NGOs felt the agreed conclusions should have been stronger and more action-oriented, each one contained some advances. For instance, the agreed conclusions on the human rights of women called for continued cooperation between the CSW and other UN human rights mechanisms and bodies, in particular the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). In particular, they recommended that more attention be given to the economic and social rights of women, particularly with regard to the proposed appointment of a CHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The women's human rights caucus, and the task force on violence against women lobbied together on a range of issues. For example, language supporting the integration of a gender perspective into the statute and functioning of the International Criminal Court was taken up in several of the agreed conclusions. The caucuses called for greater attention to the impact of economic and social policies on women's human rights, along with the need for more sex and age disaggregated data. Some of this language was included in the agreed conclusions, although in a weaker form than the caucuses had proposed. The Women's Human Rights caucus, the Girl-Child caucus and the Task Force on Violence Against Women all urged governments to frame the issues of traditional and customary practices harmful to women and girls as a human rights violation, not only as a health concern. This position was strongly reflected in the agreed conclusions as "customary and traditional practices that are harmful to, or discriminatory against, women and girls, including female genital mutilation, as human rights violations."

However, there were also some disappointments. For instance, a wide coalition of NGOs representing a number of different perspectives around prostitution and sex work had agreed upon the following phrase to refer to the issue: "trafficking in women for purposes of economic and sexual exploitation." However a variety of phrases were used throughout the agreed conclusions to refer to this issue, often using "prostitution," thus reintroducing the controversial issues around the legal status of prostitution, and bypassing the link between economic and sexual exploitation. Second, the task force on violence against women sought language calling for the elimination of violence and discrimination due to sexual orientation. While some delegations supported the inclusion of this issue, no references were included in the final text, nor was the language from paragraph 96 of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action reiterated ("the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality").

In addition to the agreed conclusions, the CSW also passed several resolutions. Some of the key new issues addressed included land rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Afghanistan. For more information on the agreed conclusions and the resolutions, please see IWTC Globalnet #107 (available through the International Women's Tribune Centre, tel: +1-212-687-8633, fax: +1-212-661-2704, e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Commission on Human Rights

South African Ambassador Jacob Selebi assumed the chair of the Commission on Human Rights with a clear and affirmative commitment to two issues of great concerns to women's human rights advocates - increased visibility of women's human rights and gender issues at the CHR and a greater role for NGOs. As one example of this, the Chair broke from the regular agenda of the CHR to convene a special session on gender issues and human rights on 6 April 1998, the same day that the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women gave her report to the CHR. Patricia Flor (Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women), Mary Robinson (High Commissioner for Human Rights), and Radhika Coomaraswamy (Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women) delivered opening comments, followed by an "interactive dialogue" presided over by Ambassador Selebi. NGOs, along with governmental delegations and UN agencies, were invited to ask questions and provide comments on gender issues and human rights. (A press release about this special session, HR/CN/98/35, it available on the UN Information Service website at http://www.unog.ch). The broad-ranging discussion which followed the initial presentations highlighted a variety of issues including the need for greater clarity about methods for integrating a gender analysis throughout the UN system, including field missions and in the proposed statute and functioning of the International Criminal Court; the importance of integrating a gender perspective into treaty monitoring; the need for more sex-disaggregated data and resources for ensuring that integration can effectively take place; and, the importance of increasing women's participation at the highest levels of all human rights processes.

One idea that continued to receive a great deal of attention was the suggestion that the CHR, in the process of reforming its agenda, should have an agenda item on women and gender. After initial discussions in which concerns about whether an agenda item on women would marginalize rather than highlight issues of gender and the human rights of women, the Women's Caucus (which met regularly throughout the CHR session) proposed that the agenda item be called "Integration of the Human Rights of Women and of a Gender Perspective." Ultimately, no consensus was reached on agenda reform, and the question has been referred to a working group, to report at the next CHR session.

As in the past few years, two resolutions on gender issues were adopted by the CHR by consensus: one on violence against women and another on gender integration. The resolution on gender integration emphasizes the need for continued and systematic cooperation and coordination among all human rights bodies and mechanisms, and the clear need for all human rights bodies and mechanisms to integrate a gender perspective into their work, including information and qualitative analysis of violations of the human rights of women; the importance of practical strategies for implementing a gender perspective and the need to further develop these; the reaffirmation that monitoring the human rights of women is the responsibility of all treaty bodies, which can be facilitated by further exchange of information, and the preparation of general comments which reflect a gender perspective.

The resolution on the elimination of violence against women, as in past years, condemns all acts of gender-based violence against women. In particular, it condemns all violations of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict, recognizing these to be violations of international human rights and humanitarian law; supports the call for an international criminal court that integrates a gender perspective in its statute and functioning; extends training to judicial, legal, medical, social, education, police, military, peacekeeping and immigration personnel; mainstreams a gender perspective into national immigration and asylum policies, regulations and practices; and ensures that legal definitions and standards reaffirm that rape, including systematic rape, and sexual slavery in armed conflict constitute war crimes, and under certain circumstances constitute crimes against humanity and an act of genocide.

Still, in many resolutions and reports, gender remains invisible. Others address gender simply with the inclusion of the phrase "especially women and children." However, some other resolutions and reports have taken significant steps toward gender integration. For example, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the Special Representative on Internally Displaced Persons and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, among others, regularly report on gender specific aspects of violations in their mandates. Several of the country Rapporteurs have also extensively addressed gender-specific human rights violations, such as the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan and the Special Rapporteur on Sudan.

Women's Human Rights Advocacy Training

For the second year, the Center for Women's Global Leadership conducted a Women's Human Rights Advocacy Training at the CHR, supported this year by UNIFEM and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. Nine women's human rights advocates participated in this training, which seeks to expand the network of advocates who engage in international fora, and provide follow up training to alumnae of the Women's Global Leadership Institute. The training, which was coordinated by Susana Fried and Donna Sullivan, is intended to provide hands-on experience in international human rights advocacy, and links the training participants with key women's human rights advocates in Geneva. This year's participants included: Widney Brown (US), Lesley Ann Foster (South Africa), Wenny Kusuma (US), Barbara Limonowska (Poland), Maria José Lubertino (Argentina), Mary Maboreke (Zimbabwe), Jessica Nkuuhe (Uganda), Cynthia Mellon (Colombia), and Lucia Rayas (Mexico). The participants were engaged in advocacy around a number of issues including the resolution on the commemorative activities for the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agenda reform of the CHR, as well as gender integration into various other resolutions.

The Center for Women's Global Leadership and participants in the training participated in several panels during the CHR, and made three interventions. The group also met with other organizations and staff of UN agencies, including the new Gender Team at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, met with the group in a meeting organized by UNIFEM, for an exchange of ideas and information.

The experience of the participants in the Women's Human Rights Advocacy Training at the Commission on Human Rights reaffirmed the importance of capacity-building and training for women's human rights, especially with the high level support of this year's Chair of the CHR and the new High Commissioner for Human Rights. Over the past 50 years women's movements from all nations have significantly enriched and extended the vision of human rights by calling for the comprehensive inclusion of women and gender in all human rights norms, standards and mechanisms. As we move toward the next 50 years of human rights advocacy, women must continue to ensure that the United Nations human rights system, along with all governments, acknowledge that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all requires that the human rights of women be recognized and protected.

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