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CEDAW Ideology Distorts Treaty Obligations
Reforms needed before US signs UN women’s convention and its protocol

by Rita Joseph

Editor’s Note:
CEDAW is the acronym for the Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women, which was devised and promoted by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). It was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979, with the stated objective of promoting women’s rights around the world. The convention was signed by 64 countries in 1980, and came into force September 30, 1981, immediately after the first two countries ratified it.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women is a commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It was first established in 1946. According to the UN’s web site, the CSW is “dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women”, and

it is the principal global policy-making body. Every year, representatives of Member States gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide.

CEDAW, and its various related “protocols” seek to secure “reproductive rights” for women — including abortion. The militancy of its pro-abortion objectives soon became evident. Primarily for this reason the United States has resisted ratifying the highly controversial convention for more than three decades. WFF, along with many other pro-life groups in the US, has consistently opposed ratification. WFF statement and updates: CEDAW.html.

The fifty-fourth session of CSW took place March 1-12, 2010. Militant pro-abortion groups, such as Catholics for Choice and NARAL, have dramatically intensified pressure on the US government to ratify CEDAW.

Feminist activists such as the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights are stridently critical of the failure to date of the United States to sign the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its accompanying protocol. The protocol is an international complaints mechanism for individuals and possibly groups to bring their grievances against their governments (admissible only after domestic remedies have been exhausted) before the CEDAW experts for judgment and resolution.

But the US government’s refusal to sign on so far may be more a matter of self-preservation than of isolationist recalcitrance.

Judging from Australia’s experience with the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Toonen and Edward Young cases, which advanced the cause for homosexual “marriage rights”), there is a real likelihood of finding that some years down the track the CEDAW protocol will be used against the US people to force upon them ideologically driven social change that could not be altered domestically through the ballot box and US constitutional legal processes.

The very real danger in signing on to CEDAW is that it will be reinterpreted by the CEDAW treaty monitoring committee to advance in signatory countries the committee’s own pet radical feminist causes like mandatory decriminalization of abortion, mandatory removal of conscience rights for doctors who refuse to provide abortions and mandatory legalization of same-sex “marriage” for lesbians.

Ideology trumps principles

My personal experience of many UN drafting sessions is that consensus documents are never reached easily. The wording of treaty documents is always painstakingly negotiated, with the aim of arriving at universal agreement about what are understood to be genuinely universal principles.

When committees exceed their mandate and try to invent and enforce additional new obligations they claim to find in the original treaty, serious problems arise. The Center for Reproductive Rights lawyers, among others, favor such “creative” new interpretations. But others, such as the Australian international jurist Heribert Golsong, have cautioned UN committees against too broad an interpretation of treaties. He has criticized expansive readings of treaties as acts “of usurpation of overreaching power” beyond the limits of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which said (Article 31): “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty…”

The UN CEDAW committee that monitors the elimination of discrimination against women finds dubious new obligations in the CEDAW documents from those originally recognized. Here are some examples from CEDAW’s early years:

• The committee has interpreted an agreement (Article 12 CEDAW) that provides women with health care and adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation as requiring Croatia and Italy to override the conscientious objections of doctors who do not want to perform abortions.

• The committee reprimanded Belarus for celebrating Mother’s Day, declaring that it was in breach of the convention because it encouraged women’s traditional roles.

• The committee condemned China for “perpetuating the identification of women with children” by naming the central policy-making bureau “The National Working Committee on Women and Children”. China was also chastised for labor laws that “overemphasize the protection of women”.

• China was directed to increase the number of men’s vasectomies to achieve numerical equality with women’s tubal ligations. (I’m not joking!)

Ideological pedantry is a cruel response to the situation of many women in China today. Forced sterilization and abortion, as well as torture and imprisonment for religious and political beliefs, are some of the atrocities routinely perpetrated against Chinese women. The CEDAW committee has done nothing to oppose this.

India’s immense selective abortion programs, which continue to operate with impunity despite changes in the law, have produced what has been called “a systematic gendercide of tragic proportions”. Yet the feminist sisterhood on the CEDAW committee has exhibited great reluctance to censure the sex-selective abortion of millions of girl children. The committee fears that any condemnation of any abortion whatsoever will expose the paucity of logic and morality in their extreme ideological commitment to abortion as a woman’s “choice”, as an absolute right that may not be restricted for any reason or in any way. This extreme ideological position is fundamentally incompatible with the human rights obligations recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights toward children at risk of abortion.

Burma too continues to defy all international censure — the CEDAW committee has failed to deal with the human rights abuse of women and children. In the aftermath of disastrous cyclone damage, the curtain was lifted just slightly, just enough to appall the rest of the world with a glimpse of the totalitarian government’s obsession with control and its total indifference to the well-being of the Burmese people. CEDAW must appear somewhat impotent to people like the pro-democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi who after nearly twenty years of house arrest begins to show exhaustion. Her long courageous defiance of the Burmese military junta, which continues to inflict appalling human rights abuse on her people, is not going to receive at this stage anything more than wordy resolutions from the UN CEDAW committee.

In Sudan and Congo too, the monstrous savagery of the human rights abuse of women and girls are not going to be dealt with in any timely manner by the CEDAW protocol’s “communication process” or inquiry procedure — these countries may well end up eventually before the CEDAW committee or ultimately before the International Criminal Court — but all too late to help these women and girls right now in their desperate need.

The CEDAW protocol project, though not without some merit, seems to me to be a diversion, perhaps a dangerous diversion from the main game. It continues to generate most activity from exactly those countries that have fairly sound and comprehensive judicial systems, countries where the criteria for admissibility for one’s complaint, the exhaustion of domestic remedies, can be quite easily met by just taking one’s case routinely up through the domestic courts. In many countries that are not signatories to the protocol, women whose human rights have been abused cannot even get their cases heard in the very lowest domestic courts.

In contrast, the rights of US women to seek redress against serious discrimination are already reasonably well addressed in a very accessible domestic judicial system that takes human rights abuse very seriously.

There are good reasons for real concern that the CEDAW committee is not operating effectively — a large number of overdue country reports, a huge existing backlog awaiting consideration — country reports are often out of date by the time the committee considers them.

Other problems with the committee’s performance to date include inconsistent rules of procedure and reporting guidelines, duplication of information required by the committee, varying quality of committee members and at times, political bias and inaccuracy in their concluding observations. The Bayefsky Report, a study by Canadian academic Professor Anne Bayefsky of the treaty-monitoring system, noted a differential depth of treatment of some states in the absence of corresponding justification in human rights conditions.

UN reform before US support

The CEDAW committee brings the UN treaty-monitoring system into disrepute both by its actions and inactions. The United States would be wise not to sign on to CEDAW and the protocol until the CEDAW committee is thoroughly reformed. US citizens should demand the following reforms as a pre-condition to signing on:

• We want a more equitable representation of the mix of all the major philosophical and legal approaches among the UN member countries in accordance with Article 17(1) of CEDAW’s founding charter.

• We want the committee to reform the totalitarian Soviet-style interrogation/indoctrination tone and the labored, “ideologically correct” language in which it conducts its sessions.

• We want the committee to stick to the most serious and urgent abuses of those rights that have been universally agreed by member countries to be genuine human rights to be protected by the convention.

• We want the committee to concentrate on the massive abuses of women’s human rights around the world, especially the shocking gendercide in China and other Asian countries where millions of baby girls continue to be aborted with impunity. The committee must quit getting side-tracked into advancing radical feminist social-engineering projects in lieu of tackling the really heinous unchecked abuses.

• We want the committee to recognize and respect the fact that it has no mandate to take on a judicial activist role to define and promote “new” human rights for women, nor to force onto UN members new interpretations of the convention that have never been agreed upon by UN members, who have in good faith signed onto the convention.

It should be remembered that although the US has not signed CEDAW yet, the US was deeply involved in drafting the convention in the 1970s. The drafting record shows that the US did not approve any wording that could be construed as supporting abortion rights or lesbian rights or any of the other pseudo-rights that have since been invented and read into CEDAW by the members of the CEDAW committee.

If the US signs CEDAW, then it should sign it on the understanding that the articles will be understood in accordance with their originally agreed meaning and not according to new ad hoc ideological re-interpretations put forward by the committee.

Unreformed CEDAW — a mockery of human rights

It is regrettable that the membership of the CEDAW committee has for many years been ideologically prejudiced in favor of radical feminist reinterpretation of the articles of the women’s convention. This group simply cannot be trusted to make judgments consistent with the principles originally agreed by the states parties to the convention. It is a mockery of genuine human rights that the CEDAW committee is attempting to impose its ideologically biased policy on people, and that the committee avoids the tedious democratic process.

In short, the CEDAW committee is not to be trusted to administer the powers of the convention and protocol. They have put their own radical feminist stamp on the consideration of abortion “rights”, lesbian “rights” and sexual autonomy “rights” for adolescents.

The United States can learn from the dismal experience that other countries who ratified it have had with CEDAW so far. Ratification of CEDAW should continue to be withheld until there is significant change that will assure genuine human rights for women — and give them real hope.

Rita Joseph has represented family concerns at UN conferences, and writes and lectures on social issues, and has made a special study of the Holy Father’s writings on family and on women. She has lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. In July 2009, her book Human Rights and the Unborn Child was published. Rita and her husband Gerard live in Canberra, Australia.

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