I’ve been attending the 41st session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at the UN. During this session Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Nigeria, Slovakia, United Kingdom and Yemen are reporting on their progress toward full implementation of the convention.
Each of these countries has already submitted a nation report. These reports along with shadow reports can be found at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/cedaws41.htm. A day is devoted to each country. It begins with an opening statement by the head of the country’s delegation to CEDAW. This is followed by a dialogue between the CEDAW Committee and the delegation. The Committee compares what is written in the country report with information from the shadow reports and from their own research and closely questions the delegations with the purpose of getting a true picture of what’s happening so that constructive recommendations can be made for further progress.
Attending CEDAW as an American feels odd because the United States along with Iran, Sudan, and Somalia are among only seven member nations of the UN that have not ratified CEDAW. How can we, how can I, be critical of practices that hurt and discriminate against women and girls in other countries when my country has not ratified a treaty that is often called the international bill of rights for women?
Those opposed to ratification have supported their position by saying that it would violate national sovereignty, result in frivolous lawsuits, threaten the family, support abortion, prohibit single sex schools, sanction single-sex marriage, and legalize prostitution.
In fact, international treaties signed by the United States are not self-executing. This means that the only way that treaty provisions can become law is if they come before Congress as bills. As it is, the Constitution and most US law is already in agreement with CEDAW. Where differences do exist the Treaty calls on states to take action to promote the principles of non-discrimination. The Treaty contains no language granting enforcement authority to the UN.
Some might say, “If CEDAW is not enforceable, what good is it?” The answer is that it is the best international instrument we have to protect the human rights of women. It provides both a standard with which to measure and a forum through which to call nations to account concerning rights for women in politics, health care, education, economics, employment, law, property, and marriage and family relations.
By ratifying the treaty the United States would show that it is serious about promoting and protecting women’s rights. It would also be able to nominate experts to the CEDAW Committee. This is important because this group, through its interactions with and recommendations to states, interprets the Treaty and strongly influences the way it is implemented.