Sunday, September 11, 2016


After the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the Commission on Human Rights began drafting two human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together with the Universal Declaration, these make up the International Bill of Human Rights. The provisions of the two Covenants, as well as other human rights treaties, are legally binding on the States that ratify or accede to them. States that ratify these treaties periodically report to bodies of experts, which issue recommendations on the steps required to meet the obligations laid out in the treaties. These treaty-monitoring bodies also provide authoritative interpretations of the treaties and, if States have agreed, they also consider individual complaints of alleged violations.

Both Covenants use the same wording to prohibit discrimination based on, inter alia, sex (art. 2), as well as to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all rights contained in them (art. 3). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees, among other rights, the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, the right to liberty and security of the person, rights relating to due process in criminal and legal proceedings, equality before the law, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of association, rights relating to family life and children, rights relating to citizenship and political participation, and minority groups’ rights to their culture, religion and language. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees, for instance, the right to work, the right to form trade unions, rights relating to marriage, maternity and child protection, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health, the right to education, and rights relating to culture and science. 

In 1967, United Nations Member States adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which states that discrimination against women is an offence against human dignity and calls on States to “abolish existing laws, customs, regulations and practices which are discriminatory against women, and to establish adequate legal protection for equal rights of men and women”. Less than a year later a proposal for a legally binding treaty on women’s rights was made. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979. Its preamble explains that, despite the existence of other instruments, women still do not enjoy equal rights with men.

The Convention articulates the nature and meaning of sex-based discrimination, and lays out State obligations to eliminate discrimination and achieve substantive equality. As with all human rights treaties, only States incur obligations through ratification. However, the Convention articulates State obligations to address not only discriminatory laws, but also practices and customs, and discrimination against women by private actors. With these general principles as an overarching framework, the specific obligations of States to eliminate discrimination against women in political, social, economic and cultural fields are laid out in 16 substantive articles. 

The Convention covers both civil and political rights (rights to vote, to participate in public life, to acquire, change or retain one’s nationality, equality before the law and freedom of movement) and economic, social and cultural rights (rights to education, work, health and financial credit). The Convention also pays specific attention to particular phenomena such as trafficking, to certain groups of women, for instance rural women, and to specific matters where there are special risks to women’s full enjoyment of their human rights, for example marriage and the family. 

The Convention defines discrimination in its article 1 as “… any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” 

Such discrimination encompasses any difference in treatment on the grounds of sex which: 
• Intentionally or unintentionally disadvantages women;
• Prevents society as a whole from recognizing women’s rights in both the private and the public spheres; 
• Prevents women from exercising the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled. The Convention also specifies the different ways in which State parties are to eliminate discrimination, such as through appropriate legislation prohibiting discrimination, ensuring the legal protection of women’s rights, refraining from discriminatory actions, protecting women against discrimination by any person, organization or enterprise, and modifying or abolishing discriminatory legislation, regulations and penal provisions. The Convention foresees that achieving equality may require positive action on the part of the State to improve the status of women. To accelerate women’s actual equality in all spheres of life, States are permitted to use temporary special measures for as long as inequalities continue to exist. 

The Convention thus reaches beyond the narrow concept of formal equality and aims for equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Temporary special measures are both lawful and necessary to achieve these goals. In principle, these measures should be removed once equal status has been achieved. Importantly, the Convention adds new, substantive provisions to the other instruments which also deal with equality and non-discrimination. Article 5 establishes that in addition to recognizing women’s legal equality and promoting their de facto equality, States should also strive to eliminate the social, cultural and traditional patterns that perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes and to create an overall framework in society that promotes the realization of women’s full rights. 

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 2) and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (art. 7) also prohibit discrimination based on sex. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (art. 6) recognizes the multiple discrimination that women with disabilities are subjected to, and requires State parties to address this by taking “all appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women” in the enjoyment of their human rights. In its general recommendation No. 25 (2000) on gender-related dimensions of racial discrimination, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which oversees compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, also recognized the gender dimensions of racial discrimination and said it would “endeavour in its work to take into account gender factors or issues which may be interlinked with racial discrimination.” The Committee against Torture, which monitors the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also regularly addresses issues of violence against women and girls

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