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Women’s Human Rights


The Role of the International Community

The recent commitment of the international community to recognize violence against women as a human rights issue, to challenge de jure and de facto discrimination against women, and to end impunity for the widespread use of sexual violence in war and armed conflict, faced many challenges in 1998. After gaining momentum following the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the 1994 World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the significant progress made by the women’s international human rights movement threatened to stall as attacks on women’s human rights persisted in 1998.

Despite these attacks, the presence and impact of women’s human rights activists contributed substantially in 1998 to strengthening standards protecting women’s rights and to ensuring that policy makers felt obliged to acknowledge and even respond to violations of women’s rights. For example, the Treaty of Rome for the creation of a permanent international criminal court (ICC) defines rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, and enforced sterilization as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The same treaty condemns gender-based persecution—a first.

As a direct result of the breadth and effectiveness of the women’s human rights movement, countries throughout the world as well as intergovernmental organizations and international financial institutions appeared to understand that women’s human rights could no longer be ignored. Nonetheless, significant financial resources were not consistently allocated to the advancement of women’s human rights in 1998, nor was redress for violations of rights readily available to most women. However, it was clear that some governments and institutions were beginning to integrate the women’s movements’ analysis of the interrelatedness of economicdevelopment, non-discrimination, and access to justice into both their rhetoric and policies, if not always their actions.

United Nations
From negotiations to create an international criminal court, to slow-moving work to give victims of sexual discrimination the right to seek redress by petitioning the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to the U.N.’s failure to stand firm on women’s rights in negotiations with the Taliban, U.N. member states showed their reluctance to deliver on the promise of human rights for women. Even instances of progress were hard-won.

At the June-July diplomatic conference in Rome to create a permanent international criminal court, member states were asked to ensure an end to impunity for crimes of gender and sexual violence as a basic principle of the treaty. This straightforward proposition, however, was under siege from the beginning as a small group of nations worked with the Holy See to undermine the potential for the ICC effectively to provide justice for victims of sexual and gender violence. Their attack sought to exclude from the treaty a list specifying the crimes of sexual violence that would be covered, particularly any reference to the crime of forced pregnancy. These efforts were rebuffed when governments acted to end the historical failure to prosecute crimes of sexual violence, by listing such crimes.

In the final days of the negotiation, due in large measure to the tireless advocacy of the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice and the stalwart support of Canada, Bosnia, and Australia, three major goals were achieved: rape and other crimes of sexual violence were included in the definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity; gender-based persecution was included in the definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity; and the term “gender,” which had been under attack by the Vatican and a group of Arab League countries, was preserved. Despite widespread usage of the term “gender” by the United Nations for at least fifteen years, the Syrian delegate, speaking on behalf of this group of states, insisted that the concept of gender threatened the very existence of civilization by challenging the concept that disparate treatment was not justified based on biological differences. Despite serious flaws in the statute, particularly in limits on jurisdiction and an opt-out provision for war crimes, the treaty represented a significant milestone in the struggle to end impunity for crimes of sexual and gender violence.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) provided the venue for another hard- fought struggle, but this time, justice stalled. Five years after governments at the World Conference on Human Rights asked the CSW to adopt an optional protocol that would give victims of sex discrimination the right to petition CEDAW, the process again ground to a halt over the negotiations concerning the ability of nongovernmental organizations to bring a complaint before CEDAW. Failure to grant NGOs such standing would put women at risk of reprisal for filing a petition with CEDAW and would effectively deny the vast majority of victims of sex discrimination, who have no recourse at the national level, access to CEDAW for redress.

On a more positive note, history was made when the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found the former mayor of Taba commune in Rwanda, Jean-Paul Akayesu, guilty of nine counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The verdict marked the first time an international court punished sexual violence in a civil war and the first time that rape was found to be an act of genocide. Even this important step toward securing accountability for violence against women came only after a protracted struggle. When Akayesu was first charged in 1996, the twelve counts in his indictment did not include sexual violence—despite the fact that Human Rights Watch and other rights groups had documented widespread rape during the genocide, particularly in the Taba commune. Under pressure from Rwanda and international rights groups, the Office of the Prosecutor amended the charges against Akayesu to include sexual violence in June 1997. During the Akayesu trial, held intermittently from January 9, 1997 to March 23, 1998, Rwandan women testified that they had been subjected to repeated rapes by militia in and around the Taba commune office, including in view of Akayesu.

The Akayesu verdict did not necessarily signal a sea-change in ensuring that the ICTR would continue to investigate crimes of sexual violence effectively. By late 1998 the ICTR had indicted a total of thirty-five defendants charged with war crimes, and only two cases (one of which was Akayesu’s) involved sexual violence. This minimal number of indictments for sexual violence highlights weaknesses in the tribunal’s policies and practices.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) continued its slow progress toward fulfilling its promise to end impunity for rape in war. Unfortunately, due in part to the international community’s failure to arrest perpetrators indicted for gender-based offenses, the ICTY was thwarted in its work. Of the twenty-seven men publicly indicted for sexual violence by the tribunal, only eight were in custody as this report went to press.

The ICTY also faced serious questions concerning its witness protection program in 1998. The ICTY did not provide protection for witnesses when they needed it most, before and particularly after testifying. Women refugees feared reprisals if they were sent back to Bosnia after testifying. To date, they had no guarantee of help from the tribunal in their attempts to secure permanent residency status in a safe country. The situation of witnesses in Bosnia was even more precarious. One high-level official at the tribunal conceded that they could not “ensure that the local police can, in fact, provide the necessary protections.” He admitted that intimidation on the ground in Bosnia “exposed our inability to protect people.”

Within the U.N., the work to integrate women’s human rights into the mainstream of the organization and, in particular, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, continued within the larger context of U.N. reform. One of the positive steps taken by the secretary-general and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson was to focus on integrating women’s human rights throughout the many human rights bodies and mechanisms. At the April meeting of the Commission on Human Rights held in Geneva, an unprecedented session was held to discuss with delegates and NGOs how to integrate women’s human rights throughout the U.N. and how to facilitate the sharing of skills and information among various treaty bodies and mechanisms which are learning about women’s human rights.
Still, the U.N.’s lack of a clear, consistent approach to human rights violations against women was demonstrated by its on-again, off-again commitment to promoting women’s basic rights in Afghanistan. In July, in negotiations with the Taliban to allow aid organizations into the country, the U.N. agreed to allow the Taliban veto power over their programs and employees. Equally upsetting was the U.N.’s May agreement to allow the Taliban to let “women’s access to health care be gradual.”

Various European institutions took small steps in 1998 to combat violence, inequality, and trafficking of women. The Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) responded to intense pressure from international and European NGOs and named a point person to monitor women’s human rights and insure women’s participation in OSCE programs. The European Union also took measures to combat the human rights abuses associated with trafficking of women into forced prostitution. Faced with growing numbers of trafficked women from the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the European Union’s Democracy Programme awarded 200,000 ECU (approximately $168,000) to the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking (STV) in partnership with La Strada-Poland, La Strada-Ukraine, and La Strada-Czech Republic. These NGOs launched press and lobbying campaigns, prevention-education campaigns, and victim support programs throughout the region. With the assistance of these NGOs, in some cases trafficked women who would have otherwise been deported as illegal aliens received special asylum in Europe. Additionally, European governments committed themselves to a wide range of victim support measures in the “Hague Ministerial Declaration on European Guidelines for Effective Measures to Prevent and Combat Trafficking in Women for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation” adopted in April 1997. Although several European human rights NGOs applauded the classification of trafficking as “a flagrant violation of women’s human rights,” they criticized governments’ failure to live up to the principles enunciated in the Hague Declaration.

The European Union and the Council of Europe did take limited steps to influence specific countries and their human rights policies vis-à-vis women. Individual embassies provided small grants to women’s anti-violence NGOs in Russia. TACIS, the European Commission’s major funding institution, provided a large grant to the Russian Association of Crisis Centers for Women. However, the European states did not cooperate to focus on discrimination or violence against women, both major areas of concern. Instead, an ad hoc approach prevailed: there was no comprehensive plan to coordinate the efforts of bilateral aid or programs with the broader stated goals of the E.U.

European efforts in northern Africa also reflected the low priority given to women’s human rights. In 1998, the E.U. continued as Algeria’s major trading partner. While several European countries expressed alarm about the escalating violence in Algeria, they failed to use their significant influence as trading partners to press for an independent investigation on violence against women. Similarly, although the E.U. allocated a budget of U.S.$585 million for Morocco for FY 1996-98, and despite their funding of a few gender-focused projects, the European Union failed to use its influence to encourage Morocco to end discrimination against women in law and practice.

World Bank
In 1998 the bank’s newfound concern for gender remained stalled at the level of rhetoric, with a few exceptions. Few programs focused on eliminating barriers to women’s participation in the economic and social life of their countries. The bank, which has consistently claimed that all women benefit as a direct consequence of bank anti-poverty and development programs, failed to address serious impediments to women’s rights, including discrimination and violence against women that limit their ability to participate in and benefit from such programs.

The bank did mandate that “gender action plans” be drafted for each region, but women’s rights remained marginal in the bank’s operations. Many of the recommendations in the gender plan for Europe and Central Asia (ECA), drafted in January 1997, highlighted the need for additional research—research which at this date of writing, still had not been undertaken. The only gender-focused World Bank project underway in that region during 1998 focused on child care in Romania. A review of the Africa gender action plan showed that only five of forty-eight country-specific “gender action plans” included budgets for their implementation.

The bank implemented a systematic review process for country assistance strategies (CAS), the primary policy documents formulated by bank personnel to guide plans for assistance to countries around the world. But this system often allowed for input by bank experts on women’s rights and gender only after the CAS had already been reviewed and approved. The Gender Anchor Team, the unit responsible for monitoring gender mainstreaming, evaluated the CAS documents in time to have a substantive impact only in a fraction of the cases. Staffed by a core of seven bank employees, the gender team had no method for monitoring budgets or outcomes to determine whether the gender policies were ever implemented. For countries in conflict, the bank had no review procedure in place for post-conflict CASs (“watch” documents) or planning documents.

Some regional developments did provide evidence to conclude that the bank was beginning to combine its rhetoric with action. In Morocco, the bank identified difficulty of access to drinking water as one of the major causes for girls’ illiteracy: rural girls could not attend school because they were responsible for fetching water for the family. In FY 1997-98, the bank allocated U.S. $10 million for a rural drinking water project. Of a total U.S.$560 million program (FY 1996), $140 million was targeted for “social priorities,” including the education of rural girls. This program suggested that bank programs, well conceived, could address the links between economic and individual human rights for women, but it also revealed how far the bank’s thinking still has to go. A World Bank official admitted that the issue of women’s rights was never raised with the Moroccan authorities, nor was that “part of the Bank’s priorities.”

In March 1998 the bank’s chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, announced that the bank would undertake a policy research reporton gender as the basis for an integrated institutional mainstreaming of women’s rights issues. A draft of this report was prepared and circulated to nongovernmental organizations.

This bank report follows others on women’s rights, including a 1994 background paper on violence against women. Unfortunately, the generation of documents seems to have had little or no impact on actual bank policy.

United States
Some inroads were made in 1998 toward making women’s human rights a feature of U.S. foreign policy. At a White House event marking International Women’s Day, President and Mrs. Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno stressed women’s human rights as a domestic and foreign policy priority and announced initiatives to counter violence against women and trafficking in women and girls. At the same time, experience showed that such discrete efforts did not reflect any consistent, guiding policy on women’s human rights. Rather than making women’s human rights “mainstream,” as promised by President Clinton and Secretary Albright, the U.S. instead allowed women’s rights became the bargaining chip whenever other interests—from trade and investment to national security—came to bear.

Perhaps the most significant sign of attention to women’s human rights in U.S. policy in 1998 was the increased visibility and role of the office of the senior coordinator for international women’s issues, Theresa Loar. This office directed attention to women’s human rights where none had existed before. For example, in February Secretary Albright raised with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the problem of trafficking of Russian women into forced prostitution in Israel. Subsequently, a U.S.-Israeli working group formed and police units in Tel Aviv and Haifa opened to offer trafficked women protection and assistance. Similarly, in July U.S. officials pressed Indonesian government representatives to hold accountable the perpetrators of sexual violence during and after the May riots.

Yet on issues central to the promotion of women’s human rights—particularly sex discrimination and violence against women—the record was mixed. One of the greatest disappointments came in Rome at the treaty conference to establish an international criminal court (ICC). The U.S. not only did its best to thwart the creation of an independent and effective international criminal court, but also failed to defend the importance of extending justice to women victims of war crimes. As the principle of gender justice came under attack by the small group of Arab League nations working closely with the Holy See, the U.S. remained on the sidelines. Even more disturbing was the U.S. position against a court with an independent and effective prosecutor—a stance starkly at odds with stated U.S. support for ending impunity for crimes of sexual and gender violence. The U.S. opposed the creation of an independent prosecutor with the power to initiate investigations based on information from nongovernmental organizations and other human rights defenders. This despite the experiences of the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which demonstrated the need for an independent prosecutor who would have the power to insist, in the face of widespread resistance, on investigating crimes of violence against women in armed conflict.

The lack of a consistent policy on combatting violence against women meant that the issue dropped out of foreign policy unless direct pressure was applied. For example, despite disturbing reports of kidnapping and sexual assault of women by armed extremists in Algeria, the U.S. raised neither the violence against women nor the government’s failure to respond to the plight of victims in its dealings with Algerian officials.

Members of Congress did raise their voices to condemn violence against women in its different forms. Through hearings and legislation, they condemned the rape of ethnic Chinese women in Indonesia and called for a complete investigation of the crimes; called on the administration to strengthen the U.S. response to trafficking in women and girls in the U.S. and internationally; and pledged to spotlight and respond to violence and discrimination that targets women and men because of their sexual orientation. In addition, Congress mandated that the U.S. government allocate $1.5 million for law enforcement training programs on violence against women in Russia in FY 1999.

When it came to fighting sex discrimination, the U.S. vociferously denounced the extreme system of discrimination being forced upon women in Afghanistan by the Taliban but was slow to press for an end to discrimination in other countries where it remained a significant problem. The U.S., for example, was unwilling to take on the issue of sex discrimination perpetrated by U.S. companies operating abroad and condoned by a major trading partner, Mexico. Only after U.S. and Mexican nongovernmental organizations petitioned the U.S. National Administrative Office (U.S. NAO, the office charged with hearing complaints against Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement) did the U.S. government turn its attention to the widespread pregnancy-based sex discrimination practiced in Mexico’s export processing sector. After the U.S. NAO found in early 1998 that Human Rights Watch’s allegations of sex discrimination were accurate, as a next step in the U.S. NAO process, the U.S. scheduled Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman to meet with her Mexican counterpart to seek clarity on Mexico’s obligation and record to enforce labor protections for women. In late October, the U.S. government reached an agreement with Mexico on the terms of the consultations on sex discrimination. Significantly, the agreement failed to make pregnancy-based discrimination in the hiring process an explicit issue for negotiation, despite the fact that this practice remains widespread and that the U.S. NAO findings in January 1998 identifies it as a key concern. Instead, the agreement creates for Mexico, through seminars, conferences, and other public meetings, yet another opportunity to avoid responsibility.

Even on Afghanistan, the U.S. position produced inconsistent results. Senior U.S. officials averred that the U.S. would not recognize any government in Afghanistan until women’s fundamental human rights were respected. Yet when the United Nations entered a Memorandum of Understanding with the Taliban in May 1998 that traded the U.N.’s ability to work in the country for women and girls’ access to education and health care, the U.S. was silent.

The U.S. also demonstrated its lack of a consistent and clear policy against sex discrimination by neglecting the fact that in othercountries women were, for example, rendered minors under the law throughout their lives or denied access to property shared with their husbands. In Algeria, where women’s battle to reform the discriminatory family code continued despite the escalating conflict, the U.S. acknowledged the reform efforts but did not press for reform nor offer direct support to women fighting for equality. Similarly, in Morocco, the U.S. virtually ignored women’s rights in its dealings with the government, considered an important bulwark against extremism and a supporter of U.S. policies in the Middle East. The U.S. did support small-scale programs aimed at improving women’s literacy, health services, and economic participation, but none of these addressed women’s fundamental inequality under the law.

Another key measure of the U.S. commitment to women’s human rights, its performance within its own borders, was a disappointment in 1998. The U.S. acknowledged the problem of violence against female prisoners by inviting U. N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy to investigate human rights abuses against women in custody. The State Department worked with the U.N. and various state governments to ensure that she would have access to facilities and a chance to speak with women in custody. Still, in California’s Valley State Facility for Women, where there were allegations of pervasive sexual harassment and complaints of sexual assaults of women placed in special housing units, the special rapporteur was not allowed to speak with women in the unit. In Michigan, the governor withdrew permission for the special rapporteur to tour the prisons and speak with women on the eve of her scheduled visit. This was particularly disturbing in light of continued reports of sexual abuse and retaliation against women in the facilities by guards.

At the same time, despite substantive progress in Congress toward introducing federal legislation to fight sexual abuse of women in prison, the Department of Justice resisted the creation of an effective mechanism to track women’s complaints of abuse and to initiate investigations under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. For women in federal prisons, there was some good news: the federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to stop housing female prisoners in men’s facilities and to set up an effective grievance procedure that would allow women to report cases of sexual abuse and assault without risking retaliation by the named guards.

Both Congress and the administration allowed the U.S. to enter 1999 without ratifying a key women’s human rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The president and the secretary of state had called upon the Senate to act on the treaty, a call long ignored by the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms, yet the administration took no discernible steps to move the political process forward.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
Russia: Too Little, Too Late: State Response to Violence Against Women, 12/97
Indonesia — The Damaging Debate on Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women , 9/98
Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan StatePrisons , 09/98



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Human RIghts Watch