United Nations

UN Commission advances new machineries to protect women

UNITED NATIONS - As UN bodies go, the Commission on the Status of Women was for many years relegated to back-bench status. In its early years, male diplomats headed most of the Commission's government delegations. Established in 1946 to promote women's rights, it drew little attention - nor was its agenda viewed with much importance internationally.

Not any longer. This year's three-week session drew more than 1,000 participants, from government ministers and other high-level officials to UN agency heads, including hundreds of representatives from prominent international non-governmental organizations.

The Commission's work clearly stands at the forefront of international concerns and arrangements, involving as it did this year the negotiation and refinement of agreements that substantially change the way governments are likely to treat reports of injustices against women.

Specifically, the Commission passed by consensus an "Optional Protocol" to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The protocol, which must still be ratified by states individually before it goes into effect, provides a way for women, as individuals or in groups, to issue complaints about violations of their rights. Significantly, it also provides the CEDAW Committee, an international body of 23 experts established by the Convention, with a way to "inquire" into situations of grave or systematic violations of women's rights.

These mechanisms for communication and inquiry, which allow individual women to go around national boundaries, follow the ground-breaking path of other such instruments, such as the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

The CEDAW Optional Protocol, however, "is the first woman-specific mechanism allowing an individual to contact the UN directly," said Jane Connors, chief of the Women's Rights Unit at the UN Division for the Advancement of Women. "In cases of human rights violations, that can lead to international embarrassment, the effects of which can't be underrated."

As such, passage of the Optional Protocol was widely hailed as a major step forward for women's rights. "There is still a fiction that persists that threats to human rights are gender neutral and we know that's not so," said Patricia Flor, who chaired the Commission on the Status of Women. "One effect of that failure is that sustained and systematic discrimination is not addressed in many countries... The Optional Protocol opens a channel of complaints for human rights violations against women. It creates a mechanism to make women's voices heard."

Strengthening national mechanisms

The 43rd Commission also explored ways of developing "national mechanisms" to protect women's rights and promote their advancement. The Commission, composed of delegations from 45 governments, agreed that "national machineries are necessary for the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action; and that for national machineries to be effective, clear mandates, location at the highest possible level, accountability mechanisms, partnership with civil society, a transparent political process, adequate financial and human resources and continued strong political commitment are crucial."

More specifically, the Commission urged the strengthening of two key factors related to national mechanisms: data analysis and adequate funding.

"The national machineries area is really the backbone of the other 11 critical areas of concern determined by the Beijing Platform of Action, because without that one element, there is no way to monitor the progress of the other areas," said Bani Dugal Gujral, convenor of the Task Force on Institutional Machineries for the NGO Committee on the Status of Women and director of the Office for the Advancement of Women at the Bahá'í International Community's United Nations Office.

In both the approval of an Optional Protocol and the discussions on improving national machineries, NGOs played a major role.

"Creating better implementation mechanisms has been something NGOs and women's groups have put on the agenda, in Vienna in '93 and again in Beijing in '95," said Donna Sullivan, professor of international human rights law at New York University, referring to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

"It's had very broad, cross-regional support," added Prof. Sullivan, who is a member of the Open-ended Working Group on the Elaboration of a Draft Optional Protocol to CEDAW. "The breadth of support helped to move some governments that would not otherwise have been willing to participate constructively. And it will be women's groups and other human rights groups that make sure it gets ratified."

Ratification remains a key question with regard to the Optional Protocol. Adoption by the CSW as it stands now indicates only general approval and the willingness of state parties to consider accepting the binding provisions of the protocol. The protocol is ratified by a member country only when its head of state notifies the UN Secretary General that his or her country agrees to be bound by and apply its provisions. It must be ratified by 10 state parties to the Convention before it enters into force.

Many here believe ratification will proceed in a timely way. "There was a consensus agreement; all the governments agreed to the terms," said Ms. Connors of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women. "That suggests that it will be widely acceptable."

CEDAW itself was quickly entered into force in 1981 after its adoption in 1979. "The Women's Convention," as it is sometimes called, guarantees women equality with men before the law and specifies measures to eliminate discrimination.

Other work of the Commission this year focused on preparing for the so-called "Beijing Plus Five" conference, a UN General Assembly Special Session scheduled for 5-9 June 2000, which will review progress on the implementation of the Platform for Action since its passage at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

The Commission extended its usual two-week session by a week to discuss the Special Session, which is formally being called "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century." Some of the items on the provisional agenda for the Special Session include: review of gender mainstreaming in organizations of the UN system; emerging issues, trends and new approaches to issues affecting the situation of women; implementation of strategic objectives and action in the critical areas of concern; and comprehensive review and appraisal of the implementation of the Platform for Action.

- Reported by Veronica Shoffstall