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By MARISSA GOLDFADEN

On January 25, 2013, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in conjunction with the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project, hosted a symposium, “Global Sexualized Violence: From Epidemiology to Action.” The focus of this post is on a panel discussing law, policy, and action on global sexualized violence.

Cristina Finch, policy and advocacy director for women’s human rights for Amnesty International USA, opened the panel, citing a UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will suffer some form of violence in their lifetime. Finch believes this to be a conservative estimate. She discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how it can be used to protect women against rape as a weapon of war, honor killings, and domestic abuse. She also pointed to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as further providing a road map for eradicating such abuses, though the United States is one of seven countries that has yet to ratify it. Finch also highlighted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which ultimately established the Interagency Taskforce on Women, Peace and Security. She closed her allotted time by talking about the need to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which the U.S. Senate will vote on next week.

The next speaker was epidemiologist Les Roberts, who spoke about how public health feeds into the intersection of law and policy when it comes to sexual violence. Aside from the fact that there is often a lack of information sharing, public health also approaches the subject differently. One way it does so is to provide confidentiality to victims and, in a related manner, handles these matters with sensitivity, whereas a legal approach is necessarily concerned with specificity. Further, in regards to GBV, public health programming is at odds with rights-based frameworking, as Finch spoke about.

Next on the agenda was the Global Justice Center‘s Akila Radhakrishnan, an attorney working on the Geneva Initiative, “which aims to ensure justice, accountability and equal rights to people in conflict and in post-conflict situations, and establish global legal precedents protecting human rights and ensuring gender equality.” A gender lens is not typically applied to international law or the laws of war, but progress was made with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in that rape and gender-based violence were officially recognized as being a systematic part of conflict–rape can be considered torture, a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a way to perpetrate genocide. This is codified in the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court.

The last person to speak before the Q&A session was Meghan Donahue, gender and education coordinator of the Peace Corps. Her professional goal is to “help people develop the capacity to use their own resources and skills to resolve their needs and improve their own lives.” When her volunteers are dispatched, they teach local children about the social constructs of gender. They believe in a people-centered approach, focusing on sustainable development, community mapping, and student-friendly schools. The Peace Corps volunteers also seek to facilitate enabling environments, and help break down gender attitudes and cycles of poverty.

Lastly, moderator Lauren Wolfe asked the panelists a handful of questions before opening up the floor to the audience. When asked about how to put an end to global sexualized violence, the participants stated that we must get rid of misogyny, be honest about risk factors and data, and enforce existing laws. There also needs to be a combination of top-down laws and bottom-up community action/advocacy. Donahue pointed out that this recipe is what led to the disavowal of female genital mutilation in Senegal. Finally, when it comes to sexual violence, focus needs to shift from the victim to the perpetrator.

Part 3 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.

By MARISSA GOLDFADEN

Topic 3: UN legal instruments protecting minorities

Section 1: Introduction to treaties

A treaty is a legal agreement between states, drafted by them. Within the UN, when the draft is completed, the General Assembly approves or adopts the text. The latter happens through a vote or by consensus. Each state must then decide whether to become a party to the treaty. If a state decides to become a party to the treaty, it must sign the treaty, showing its intention to become legally bound in the future. The state then ratifies the treaty, confirming it will be legally bound by it. This can also be achieved through accession (ratification without a prior signature) or succession, meaning a state expresses its willingness to be bound by international agreements that were entered into by a predecessor state or states. After a certain number of states have ratified, acceded or succeeded to a treaty, the treaty ‘enters into force,’ whereby it becomes legally effective for those states.

When a state ratifies, accedes to, or succeeds to a treaty, it can modify some of the provisions by making a reservation–a statement that changes, or even negates, the provision in an article or part of an article of a treaty. MRG defines an article as “an item in a treaty that lays out an obligation of the states that are bound by the treaty.” Reservations are allowed, except if the treaty expressly forbids it, or if the reservation is ‘incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.’ States parties to a treaty can enter a declaration, often a definition or a clarification of what the state believes the treaty provision to mean. MRG points out here that there are two uses of the term ‘Declaration’ in the context of international law:

  • The main use of the term is as an international agreement between states that is not legally binding. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Minorities (UNDM).
  • As seen here, a declaration can also be a statement of clarification about a provision of a treaty.

Treaties have both strengths and weaknesses. Their strength lies in the fact that unlike declarations, treaties are legally binding. Moreover, when a state ratifies an international human rights treaty, it is compelled to adjust domestic legislation in order to comply with treaty legislation. On the flip side, a treaty is only legally binding on the states which have ratified it. Reservations and declarations to human rights treaties can also constitute a major problem.

Section 2: UN treaties and minorities

There are eight main UN treaties protecting a range of human rights:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
    • Article 27 of the ICCPR specifically refers to minorities. It is the main legally binding provision on minorities in human rights law. It provides that persons belonging to minorities ‘shall not be denied’ the right ‘to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.’
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention Against Torture (CAT)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW)
  • International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

Another important treaty relating to minority rights is the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article I states, “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” Article II defines genocide.

In order to address the issue of governments complying with treaty provisions, the UN has put in place human rights monitoring committees, so-called treaty monitoring bodies made up of human rights experts from different states. These experts are nominated by their governments, elected by states party to the treaties for fixed, renewable four-year terms, and independent, i.e., not representative of their state’s interests.

A treaty monitoring body has been created for each human rights treaty:

Human Rights Treaty Treaty Monitoring Body
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Human Rights Committee (CCPR)
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) Committee Against Torture (CAT)
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (CMW)
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Committee on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

Treaty-monitoring bodies perform four main functions: reviewing state reports, interpreting the treaty, considering individual complaints, and thematic/general discussions.

Image: gistprobono.org

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