US Women Also Face Human Rights Struggles

On October 10, 2003, after years of abuse at the hands of her former
partner, a 35-year-old woman in Hungary decided to seek intervention in
a way American women can currently only wish for. The woman, identified
as A.T., filed a petition with a United Nations body on women’s rights.
The body promptly asked her government to prevent further harm while
they considered her case. Subsequently, it directed Hungary both to
take measures to guarantee her physical and mental health and to ensure
protection and justice for all the nation’s victims of domestic

The petition, filed with the UN Committee on the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women, was known as CEDAW. It diligently analyzed
Hungarian law and court proceedings and concluded that available
remedies both in A.T.’s case and in general were too weak, too slow,
and too begrudgingly implemented.

Women living in the United States cannot appeal to CEDAW, though,
when their rights are inadequately protected by US law. Why? Because
the United States still, almost 30 years after it came into force, has
not agreed to be bound by the provisions of the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which created
the committee.

The Convention is a global treatise on women’s equality. It reflects
the consensus of the international community on what specific
protections and actions states must take to ensure equality between men
and women. The treaty has been ratified by 185 UN Member States,
placing the United States in the dubious company of Iran, Nauru, Palau,
Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga as the last states that have not
ratified it. The convention was signed by President Carter in July
1980, but was not considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
till 1990. It was favorably voted out of the Foreign Relations
Committee twice: once in 1994 and once in 2002. The convention has been
awaiting comments from the Justice Department ever since. Senate rules
require the treaty to be taken up in Committee again before it goes to
full Senate vote.

Opponents of ratification cite a general opposition to international
treaties as infringing upon national sovereignty. But they also contend
that the convention includes provisions that are offensive to
"American" culture. They contend that ratification would force the
United States government to provide abortion on demand, to intrude in
family situations and to legalize sex work.

The first argument is sometimes used to oppose the very concept of
international human rights. Such arguments maintain that every nation
is free to pursue whatever policies it wants, even slavery and
apartheid. Such arguments are hard to defend in the context of modern
international relations. Perhaps more to the point, the very act of
ratifying a treaty, and thereby agreeing to uphold universally
recognized standards, is a classic exercise of national sovereignty – a
declaration that a nation believes in and will uphold these standards.
With regard to the clash between US culture and the specific provisions of the Convention, the opposition is also wrong:

Abortion. The CEDAW Convention protects a woman’s equal right to
life and health, and to decide on the number and spacing of her
children. The full protection of these rights will in some cases
require access to abortion services, and will also require the state to
provide such services to some. The United States is already bound by
international human rights commitments in this regard through its
ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, and through its membership of the Organization of American
States. The ratification of the CEDAW Convention would not
substantively alter existing obligations.
Intrusion of privacy. The CEDAW Convention requires the nations to end
practices based on the idea of the inferiority of either of the sexes.
This provision is key, and indeed Human Rights Watch research shows
that even the best policies are not effective if they are undermined by
existing prejudices. Moreover, US federal law on violence against
women, education, and other issues, already includes the need for
government oversight of what at some point was seen as private matters.

Sex work. The CEDAW Convention contains a provision requiring states
to take all measures "to suppress exploitation of prostitution of
women." Human Rights Watch’s research on this issue indicates that the
criminalization of women involved in sex work tends to expose them to
specific types of exploitation–including extortion by police. Various
countries have fulfilled this particular CEDAW obligation in many ways,
including decriminalizing sex work while clamping down on trafficking,
providing health care options for sex workers and investigating police

Back in Hungary, since A.T.’s case was filed in 2003, the government
has both held awareness-raising sessions for police officers about
domestic violence and developed a more stringent mandate for police to
deal with domestic violence. Moreover, the CEDAW Committee’s analysis
and recommendations have provided much needed fuel to domestic groups
seeking to reform the law. Women in the United States should be able to
benefit from this kind of support too. The Obama administration and the
US Senate should make ratification of the Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination against Women a priority.

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  • invalid-0

    The United States and its citizens are generally unsupportive of treaties, resolutions etc. whose provisions might impinge on US sovereignty. So if there are provisions that are not worded in this or that way, US legal experts generally go against them to maintain our sovereignty. The US resists inviting outside interference and in some cases must defer to the constitution’s provisions for sovereignty. We reject any external authority.

  • invalid-0

    So too bad for women that can’t reject the U.S.’s “external” authority? What about bodily sovereignty?

    If you don’t want to let CEDAW protect our women, how about writing up our own comprehensive equality laws?? We’re long overdue!

    We WILL go to the international community for help if our own government refuses to protect us. If you think that negates the point of having a government, well, be a proper government!

  • invalid-0

    I don’t think it is the law so much as the remedy process. While a government may in principle agree with the provisions, it will not allow an international body to seek a remedy on behalf of its citizens. This isn’t so much about fairness as it is about authority. Kind of a turf war. There was a similar issue about regulation of international waters that the US would not sign on to because it gave too much authority to external governance.

  • colleen

    "While a government may in principle agree with the provisions, it will
    not allow an international body to seek a remedy on behalf of its


    First the argument that the Congress is opposed to signing agreements that infringe on US sovereignty was, at least to my mind,  pretty well destroyed by the ratification of NAFTA and various other ‘free’ trade agreements which were eagerly sought after and advanced by republicans and ‘centrist’ Democrats alike.There’s no doubt that such agreements  abdicate national sovereignty and the common good much more completely than the anything that could happen if we signed onto CEDAW. I would also argue that these agreements have contributed to the present day economic crisis.


    There was a time (say, after WW2 when we helped author the Geneva Conventions and signed on to them) when the US government had both the respect of much of a the world and a basic sense of decency and common sense all of which today  seems totally absent.This reluctance to spin UN human rights treaties as a threat to national sovereignty is straight out the conservative closet as is the argument that the Constitution is a comprehensive equality document. 


    This is to say that I’m not buying the notion that this refusal to sign onto CEDAW is caused by an impulse to defend ‘turf’. I believe it’s motivated by the same, deeply flawed  impulses which ended the ratification of the ERA. 


    If the Bush years taught us anything it is that the majority of elected representatives do not agree in principle with CEDAW. I do agree that they do not wish to allow an international body to seek remedy on behalf of US citizens.What you fail  to address is that when the Federalist Society, the religious right and John Bolton are allowed to define what is and is not offensive to ‘American’ culture and to interpret the constitution the issue of equal rights for women is ridiculed and dismissed.


  • invalid-0

    I think a lot of Americans think of the U.N. as either a joke at the worst or a generally corrupt organization at the best. Consider some of the countries who have headed up their human rights chapter recently (Nigeria – hello?). The U.S. doesn’t care about their human rights treaties because we know they are not worth the paper their printed on.

  • colleen

    "I think a lot of Americans think of the U.N. as either a joke at the worst or a generally corrupt organization at the best."


    Yes, well ironically most of them listen to Rush Limbaugh, respect Antonin Scalia and voted twice for George Bush because the murdering son of a bitch was so godly and ‘prolife’ and all.I don’t think that such people define what it means to be an American anymore than the religious right defines all religion. 

    I’m sure that y’all appreciated the way the Bush administration shamed the entire country and our way of life, suspended Habeus Corpus and violated the Geneva Conventions by making torture and preemptive wars  centerpieces of our foreign policy but the rest of the world and many millions of your fellow Americans did not.  


  • invalid-0

    I’m sure plenty of people on the right are suspicious of the U.N. just as they are on the left and center. You don’t need to focus on Rush’s audience to find people who think its a bad idea to let Pakistan, Egypt and Nigeria (All current members of the human rights council) advise us on the rights of women or anyone else.

  • invalid-0

    The Geneva Convention prohibited abortion.

  • invalid-0

    Post chapter and verse with a link, or you’re full of horse hockey.

  • invalid-0

    RE: All the talk about the US Constitution – WHICH DOES NOT YET INCLUDE WOMEN-
    Isn’t it sad that the original message in this blog about how to support women’s human rights in the US got subverted into a talk about how right wing men (Rush Limbaugh and GW Bush) fight against equality?
    The latest statements above are a sad commentary about how Many American Men (not all) prefer to PROTECT the ABUSIVE MEN among them rather than vote to protect Women from the abuse. This could have all been settled in 1972 with the support of healthy men- Unfortunately the elite on the Conservative Right chose to divert the media from the truth- JUST LIKE NOW! I guess these men still think Women are Chattel to be be purchased like property??? Isn’t that why there are laws that don’t include women to begin with???

    Young women today need to raise their voices and the power of their wallets to put a stop to accepting the pretense that women are treated equally in the USA – THEY ARE NOT YET EQUAL. The original ERA can pass with three more states voting to ratify. There is precedence so the people who say it has expired are wrong – RAISE YOUR VOICES AND VOTES WOMEN! We are 52% of the population (last time I counted). The HEALTHY men out there will support you- they know how much it will benefit all of society to have equality.