CEDAW’s Contribution to the Development of Rights Norms

In 2014 the European Journal of International Law will publish an article of mine that raise issues I thought might be of particular interest to readers of this blog. The article in question, ‘Women’s Rights and the Periphery’, explores in some detail the case law of the Women’s Committee under CEDAW’s Optional Protocol.  It raises in particular the question of how far, if at all, the Committee has been able to develop ‘women’s rights’ in recent years into a body of law that departs from the normative and structural limitations of international human rights laws.  In large part, the article is an attempt to participate in the project of ensuring that the jurisprudence of the Women’s Committee is given the serious attention that it merits.

It is widely known that, unlike most other UN human rights treaty-monitoring bodies, the Women’s Committee was not initially empowered to receive individual complaints.  Support for an optional protocol to CEDAW was voiced at the 1995 Beijing Conference, with a request that any draft should include a right for individuals to petition the Women’s Committee. The Optional Protocol was finally adopted by the General Assembly on 6 October 1999 and entered into force on 22 December 2000.  This development, I suggest, was not just to be celebrated because it brought CEDAW into line with other treaties, but because it presented a unique opportunity for women’s voices to participate in the development of international human rights norms.

My article, however, is driven by a sense of surprise and frustration that the jurisprudence of the Women’s Committee seems to have received little attention from mainstream international scholars.  This is in spite of the Committee’s unique characteristic as a space within international law that is headed by women decision-makers, whose remit is specifically gendered and whose task is to uphold the rights of women.  Feminist scholars of International Law have long argued that women’s voices are silenced within the mainstream of our discipline, leaving them unable to participate in the development of its normative principles; the resounding silence that has met the case-law of the Women’s Committee so far appears to be another worrying example of this phenomena.

What attention has been paid to the Committee’s work has been rather muted in its assessment.  The Women’s Committee has been criticised by some for being stuck in the mainstream of international law, doomed to merely reaffirm, mantra-like, international law’s dominant ideologies.  Still others argue that CEDAW is so peripheral and isolated from the mainstream that it cannot hope to engage with, let alone challenge, the inequality and discrimination that underpin our discipline.  I take a rather more optimistic view of the Committee’s rather uneven early jurisprudence, arguing that it might suggest that the Committee is uniquely positioned to make a contribution to the transformation of human rights norms precisely because it navigates between positions both at the centre and at the periphery of international law.  The challenge for CEDAW is to consciously embrace the transformative potential inherent in its ambiguous positioning.

The article can currently be downloaded in full here in its pre-proof form.

Criminal complaint filed over German-Swiss corporate human rights abuses in Congo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn 25 April 2013, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), in co-operation with the British human rights organization Global Witness, filed a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor’s office of Tübingen in southern Germany against a senior employee of the German-Swiss timber trading company Danzer Group. The individual in question, a German citizen, is suspected of breaching his duties by failing to prevent crimes committed by Congolese security forces. There is sufficient initial suspicion that through omission the employee was complicit in rape, inflicting bodily harm, false imprisonment and arson. The public prosecutor’s office of Tübingen is now obliged to further investigate the circumstances of the case and establish whether the Danzer employee is criminally liable.

During the early morning hours of 2 May 2011, a task force of local security forces attacked the village of Bongulu (Équateur province) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). The forces submitted inhabitants of the village to abuse, rape and arbitrary arrests. During the attack, the task force used vehicles belonging to the company Siforco, a subsidiary of the Danzer group. In addition to providing vehicles and drivers, the company also paid the members of the task force for their involvement in the operation.

This incident follows a dispute between the village inhabitants and Siforco, which is based in the area, resulting from the failure of the company to abide by its contractual obligations to provide for social projects in the region.

This incident provides a typical example of the risk for companies operating in weak governance zones of becoming involved in or encouraging the violent activity of local security forces. Almost every day reports of sexual violence committed by state and non-state actors are carried by the media. Women and girls are raped or sexually abused during the course of most military and police operations. As such, the commission of sexual crimes cannot be seen simply as excessive acts of individual soldiers or police officers, but must be looked at in the broader context of the situation in the DR Congo. The European parent companies of firms operating in such environments must adapt their risk management strategy accordingly and must ensure that they are neither directly nor indirectly involved in human rights violations. In these cases organizational safeguards must be subjected to higher standards, which can be derived from existing international standards.

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‘Nuff said

Image Opponents have a point when they note that ratifying [CEDAW] has not prevented some countries from being the most egregious violators of women’s rights. When the most powerful country in the world does not support women’s rights, it gives permission for other countries to dismiss their commitment to improving the status of women. With the United States behind it, CEDAW would have even more clout than it does.

– Professor Lisa Baldez, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, and author ofImage the forthcoming book “Defying Convention: The United States, the United Nations, and the Treaty on Women’s Rights” to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. The quotation above is from Baldez’s recent CNN op-ed, in which she argues, contrary to conservative critics, that CEDAW does reflect American values of equality and women’s rights by raising them to the level of global norms.