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Women’s Human Rights


The Role of the International Community

Although women's human rights received much attention from the international community in the year 2000, states and intergovernmental organizations failed to take the substantive actions necessary to prevent and redress violations of women's human rights. In a variety of fora, states tried repeatedly to abdicate responsibility for ending violence against women and other violations. Some states disclaimed responsibility for violations in the so-called private sphere. Some states argued that they were responsible for redressing only gender-based violence, not gender-based discrimination. And finally, some states tried to attack women's human rights activists in ways designed to divide the movement. Although women's rights activists were able to withstand most of these attacks, the progress that many had hoped for, especially within the Beijing + 5 review process, simply did not happen.

United Nations

In June 2000, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session, "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace in the 21st Century," to review the Beijing Platform for Action. Delegates from more than 180 states were charged with reviewing the progress made during the previous five years in implementing the Beijing Platform, which was drafted and signed by 189 governments at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, in 1995. What should have been a moment for states to reflect on progress made in advancing the status of women, to identify obstacles to their advancement, and to renew their commitment to ensuring that women enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms quickly deteriorated into a struggle to prevent states' backtracking. A small group of obstructionist governments, including Algeria, Nicaragua, Syria, Pakistan, and the Holy See, used Beijing + 5 to attack the very principles of equality underlying the Platform for Action. Unfortunately for women, the majority of states, while not participating in the attack, failed to mount a vigorous defense of the commitments made in Beijing. For example, governments such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, and member states of the European Union could have taken the initiative by immediately and publicly condemning efforts to downplay abuses of women's rights. They could have countered with proposals to strengthen the language of the Platform for Action and called for concrete measures and benchmarks to assess progress. Instead, these so-called leaders kept a low public profile and allowed much of the debate to be set by the reactionary minority. As the special session drew near to an end, with the outcome document still unfinished, there were widespread fears among NGOs that this session would be remembered as "Beijing - 5." States finally adopted an outcome document that reaffirmed the Platform for Action and included some advances, but largely failed to call for concrete actions which would move states beyond rhetoric to action.

The strategies and arguments used by the obstructionist minority at Beijing +5 were familiar to those who had been involved in the Cairo +5 review in 1999 and the ongoing negotiations on the International Criminal Court (icc). First, some representatives claimed that states do not commit human rights abuses against women; they argued that gender-specific and gender-based forms of violence against women are perpetrated solely by individuals, not state actors. This argument failed to take into account the experiences of women who face persecution by the state because of their political opinions or because they fail to conform to gender-based stereotypes, or, in some cases, such as under the Taliban in Afghanistan, simply because they are women. This argument also failed to address the well-documented obstacles women encounter when seeking redress after experiencing violence. Not only are women denied redress through the criminal justice system, but in some countries, like Pakistan, women risk being attacked by the police if they dare to file a complaint.

Another strategy used in the attack on the Platform for Action involved attempting to separate the issue of violence against women from other violations. Many countries were willing to condemn violence against women but were insistent that the violence was unconnected to violations of other rights. Many delegates spoke about the need to end domestic violence, but avoided agreeing to specific actions such as ensuring that their criminal codes prohibit violence by an intimate partner; requiring that police, forensic medical personnel, prosecutors and judges be trained to handle effectively domestic violence cases; and implementing effective protection for victims of domestic violence. In Jordan, for example, the government has condemned so-called honor killings, but its only means of offering protection to women threatened with murder is to incarcerate them, in violation of their rights to liberty and freedom of movement.

More generally, these states ignored how women's vulnerability to violence is connected to a wide range of violations of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. For example, even as delegates condemned domestic violence, the concern was too often presented without context. In particular, governments failed to recognize that in many countries women are denied access to public life, to paid work, to education, to credit, to custody of their children, and to inherit land and property. These human rights violations make women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence by making it almost impossible for them to leave abusive relationships.

This strategy of refusing to recognize more than a few rights was evident in the fight at Beijing + 5 over whether human rights protect individual autonomy when it comes to decision-making about sex. Women's rights advocates pressed governments to recognize sexual rights in the outcomes document, but states refused, opting instead to call for attention to women's sexual health. States repeatedly refused to recognize that when women cannot negotiate, on equal terms, if, when and with whom to have intimate relationships, they are more vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence. In the effort to exclude the language of sexual rights from the document, states also resorted to attacks aimed at driving a wedge between women's rights activists by insisting that only "Western" women want sexual rights.

Even as the highly-politicized Beijing +5 review process was taking place, numerous U.N. programs and agencies released their own reports highlighting the pervasiveness of violence against women, the extent to which women suffer from discrimination in many contexts, and the correlations between poverty and gender. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) reported that 70 percent of theworld's 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women. And, despite the pledges made by governments at Beijing, the situation for women is getting worse in certain areas. For example, the number of rural women living in absolute poverty, i.e. life-threatening poverty, has risen by 50 percent over the last two decades as opposed to 30 percent for men. UNIFEM further reported that although women work two-thirds of all hours worked, they earn one-tenth of all income and own less than one-tenth of the world's property. In April, at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that two-thirds of the 110 million children who are not receiving an education are girls.

The UNIFEM report and a UNICEF report on domestic violence reinforced the argument that human rights are indivisible and, specifically that for women to truly enjoy the right to freedom from violence, they must be able to enjoy their rights in other spheres as well. First the unifem report showed that women remain economically disadvantaged in most countries, and that their second class status makes them both vulnerable to violence and unable to escape violence. The unicef report addressed not only the pervasiveness of domestic violence against women and girls, but also the social, economic and health costs both to individuals who suffer the violence and to society. This correlation between gender and poverty is a problem for developed countries as well as developing countries. For example, in the U.S., women represent 57.2 percent of people living in poverty.

The search of women's human rights activists for an end to impunity for gender-based violence was not limited to the domestic sphere. At meetings held at the U.N. in New York in March and June 2000, states wrapped up their negotiations on the elements of crimes, and rules of evidence and procedures for the International Criminal Court (icc). Women's ability to seek redress for sexual violence through the icc came under fire when a small group of states proposed that all the crimes of sexual violence enumerated in the icc treaty be exempted if they were committed by a family member or pursuant to religious or cultural practices. The proposal was ultimately rejected, but not before it was used to undermine the reach of the court by raising the threshold required to establish crimes against humanity.

At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ictr), Alfred Musema, director of the Tea Factory in Gisovu, was found guilty of genocide, extermination, and one count of rape. He was found not guilty of other inhumane acts, including the allegations that he repeatedly incited others "to have fun" with Tutsi women by raping them and, in one case, ordered a woman to be raped and have her breast cut off and fed to her son. In a separate opinion, Judge Navanethem Pillay dissented. She did not agree with the factual findings of her fellow judges that Witness M was credible in all of his accounts except for his testimony that Musema ordered rapes. Pillay argued that there was no basis on which to find that Witness M was not also credible on this one specific issue. The case raised concerns that investigators for the ictr may not have conducted sufficiently thorough investigations to compile evidence of the widespread use of rape and other forms of sexual violence during the genocide. Women's rights activists in Rwanda cited lack of information and trust that the court will actually take the measures necessary to protect them from being publicly identified as two significant reasons that victims of sexual violence have not come forward to speak with investigators about their experiences. The ictr opened an outreach center in Kigali in September 2000 to facilitate communication and cooperation between the court and Rwandans.

At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (icty), victims of sexual violence came under attack when an expert witness for the defense in the case of The Prosecutor of the Tribunal against Dragan Gagovic, Gojko Jankovic, Janko Janjic, Radomir Kovac, Zoran Vukovic, Dragan Zelenovic, Dragoljub Kunarac, and Radovan Stankovic (or Foca case) argued that in the absence of corroborating medical evidence, "it is as if the rape did not happen." This testimony highlighted two significant issues for the ad hoc tribunals. First, in cases of sexual violence, the difficulties of obtaining convictions using the high evidentiary standards required by the tribunal, such as corroborating medical evidence. Second, the tribunals need to assist survivors of sexual violence in getting medical attention. In situations of armed conflict, it is unlikely that women will have timely access to medical attention, including the possibility of collecting medically-relevant evidence for a rape investigation. But, as with other survivors of torture, women should get medical attention as soon as possible and a well-trained medical professional may be able to document other evidence of sexual violence.

These issues must be addressed immediately, as credible reports of sexual violence perpetrated against women in conflict poured in throughout the year from Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Guinea, East and West Timor, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In this regard, the U.N. failed again to learn from its past mistakes and to ensure that investigators hired by U.N. civilian police to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity were experienced in documenting and investigating crimes of sexual violence. The United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (untaet) initially not only failed to include investigators with expertise in investigating crimes of sexual violence, but in several cases, when they did attempt to interview women in East Timor, failed to conduct the investigations in a confidential manner to protect the women's identity. Where the alleged perpetrators remained at large, women's rights groups who had collected this evidence refused further cooperation with untaet until an effective witness protection program was put in place. These problems, however, appeared to have been partly rectified by September 2000.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited East Timor and met with many women survivors. However, human rights activists were disappointed that, in her January 2000 report on the situation in East Timor, she failed to press for immediate action to improve the situation of women victims, for example, by calling for the rapid deployment of women civilian police with expertise in investigating cases of sexual violence, for the active investigation of leads in specific cases, and for increased efforts to get suspects detained and returned to East Timor.

UNHCR faced the ongoing challenge of meeting the protection and humanitarian needs of refugees in increasingly hostile environments. In Tanzania and Guinea, politicians accused refugees of causing economic hardship and instability in their countries. As a result, refugees were threatened with violence in Tanzania and attacked by police, solders, and civilians in Guinea. These attacks included rape of women. The deliberate targeting and murder of UNHCR workers in West Timor and Guinea raised the specter of people charged with protecting refugees being left unprotected and exposed to attack, in part because of a lack of political will by the international community to ensure their safety and that of the refugees that they seek to protect.

The pilot program in the Tanzanian camps funded by the U.N. Foundation continued to address sexual and domestic violence within the camps. The program received generally favorable reviews for tackling domestic violence, a problem that had been largely unaddressed in the camps, although there remained problems with consistent monitoring and follow up of individual cases. Similar programs were introduced in camps in Kenya, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. However, all these programs were at risk of being shut down because of the lack of financial support from donor governments.

UNHCR revised its guidelines on women refugees to reflect the understanding that its protection duties include preventing and addressing both sexual and domestic violence against refugees in and around the camps. The revised guidelines were scheduled to be submitted to the ngo community for comments in early 2001. UNHCR also continued its work to elaborate the Executive Committee's position on gender-related persecution by examining both procedural and substantive elements of how to determine asylum claims by women. UNHCR finally filled the long -vacant position of Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women.

For the women of Afghanistan, the U.N. was a desperately needed ally in their struggle to survive and enjoy some semblance of their most fundamental human rights, but here the U.N. sent mixed messages. On the one hand, the U.N. played an important role in protesting a Taliban edict closing down female-run bakeries in the summer, and two human rights rapporteurs strongly condemned the Taliban's treatment of women. On the other hand, UNHCR continued repatriation efforts, often to areas where women's rights were severely restricted and where their physical well-being was at risk. This raised questions about whether refugees choosing to repatriate were fully informed by UNHCR of the security issues women face in Afghanistan and who in the household was making the decision.

At regular intervals since January 1999, 102 countries have met at the United Nations in Vienna to draft a new Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The purpose of the convention is to define areas of law enforcement cooperation, legal procedures, and other measures between States relating to all forms of transnational crime. Three "Additional Protocols" were also being drafted including one to address Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. A major concern was to ensure that the treaties recognize that victims of trafficking have suffered a variety of human rights abuses and that they have access to redress.

At the annual session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, whose mandate was extended for another three years, issued a timely report on trafficking against women that explored the complexity of the issue, but strongly called on states to recognize that women who were trafficked are neither criminal nor illegal migrants and should be given the opportunity to seek redress for violations they experienced in the course of being trafficked. Her report was aimed, in part, at states negotiating a U.N. protocol on trafficking in Vienna.

The commission also adopted, for the first time, a resolution on "Women's Equal Ownership of, Access to and Control over Land and the Equal Right to Own Property and to Adequate Housing." The commission also appointed a special rapporteur on the right to food and the right to housing, signifying increased attention by the commission to violations of economic rights. If the special rapporteur successfully integrates a gender-based analysis into the work, this could be a substantial step toward recognition of the relationship between gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence.

The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) raised concerns about the caste system during its February review of India's initial report under CEDAW. CEDAW expressed concern over extreme forms of physical and sexual violence against women belonging to particular castes or ethnic or religious groups, and over customary practices such as dowry, sati, and the devadasi system, all of which contribute to a higher incidence of gender-based violence in the country.

United States

Given its self-proclaimed role as a vigorous defender of women's human rights around the world, the U.S. missed several opportunities in 2000 to live up to this claim. Although 166 countries, including all industrialized nations, had ratified CEDAW, the U.S. still had not. Despite pressure from women's rights groups, constituents, and colleagues, Senator Jesse Helms continued to resist demands that CEDAW be put to a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired. On International Women's Day, Senator Helms redoubled his efforts against CEDAW ratification and publicly vowed never to allow a Senate vote on CEDAW; instead, he promised to leave it in the "dust-bin" for several more "decades." In May, Senator Helms introduced a resolution calling for the Senate to reject CEDAW.

The U.S. government also missed an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to women's human rights at home when it again failed to take action to prevent sexual abuse of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons. Legislative and remedial measures were either stalled or failing. For example, in late 1999, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to withhold federal funds from states that failed to implement five specific safeguards to prevent sexual abuse. Although the bill was sent to a judiciary subcommittee in November 1999, as of mid-October 2000 the bill was buried, apparently due to lack of support.

It was not just the legislative branch that failed women in U.S. prisons. After the Department of Justice settled its case against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) alleging widespread sexual abuse, retaliation, and privacy violations, the federal judge presiding over the federal and parallel state cases allowed the state case to continue, expressing his concern that the settlement was not strong enough to protect the women. The Justice Department failed to monitor its agreement, and even basic provisions such as counseling for women victims of sexual abuse were never provided. A settlement between the private litigants and MDOC was agreed in September. Michigan agreed to pay several million dollars in damages and to provide significant injunctive relief.

Nonetheless, leadership on women's human rights did emerge elsewhere. In 2000, the U.S. Senate passed landmark legislation to protect trafficked victims' rights in the U.S. and abroad. The new legislation, among other things, acknowledged that people are trafficked around the world for all types of work; dedicated resources to prosecuting and preventing trafficking in the U.S. and elsewhere; and established a visa that allows trafficked victims to remain in the U.S. to pursue civil or criminal claims against their traffickers.

In June, Congressman Jerrold Nadler presented a resolution condemning "honor killings" and urging, among other things, that the Department of State, in its yearly report on human rights, should include information on incidences of honor crimes and on what steps the respective governments are taking to address this problem. U.S. women's rights groups welcomed this effort as a consciousness raising device, but warned that it was insufficient on its own and called for greater commitment by the U.S. government to raising concerns about violence against women in its bi- and multilateral meetings with other governments.

While the U.S. Congress was starting to remove violence against women from the cloaked secrecy of the family, at the special session of the U.N. General Assembly for the Beijing + 5 review, the U.S. failed to take a leadership role and rally opposition when several governments sought to exempt violence to which women were exposed in the context of the family, or under the guise of religious or cultural practices, from being considered a human rights abuse. In a further failure of its purported leadership on women's rights, at Beijing + 5 the U.S. vigorously opposed and had removed from the final document reference to the rights of incarcerated women, arguing that this subject was not in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.

Nor did the U.S. play a strong leadership role on women's human rights in some key bilateral fora. For example, the U.S. government maintained only a nominal commitment to holding Mexico accountable for failing to enforce its labor code with regard to protecting women from sex discrimination based on their reproductive status. In 2000, the U.S. government was content to let the nafta review process proceed without intervening in any meaningful way to influence or direct it. As in past years, the U.S. government missed critical opportunities to strengthen the NAFTA review process. The U.S. failed to register an official complaint when Mexico used a National Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) meeting in Puebla, Mexico, to disseminate misinformation about employers having the right to test women workers for pregnancy if such testing is to protect the well-being of the woman or her fetus. The U.S. also failed to initiate any in-country monitoring to determine the veracity of Mexico's claims, and failed to ensure that concerned ngos were kept informed in a timely manner about basic developments, such as the holding of public meetings to discuss women workers rights in Mexico. The final U.S. National Administrative Office report was more than a year overdue as of late October 2000.

European Union

The European Union evidenced some commitment to women's human rights, launching a U.S. $29.2 million community "action program" to combat violence against women and children. The grant program, a continuation of the DAPHNE program initiated in 1997, provided assistance to public institutions and NGOs fighting trafficking, domestic violence, and violence against minority groups and migrants. Open to states applying for membership in the community as well as member states, the mechanism provided funding to dozens of organizations working for women's human rights, including one group created to prevent violence against lesbians.

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe continued its efforts to combat the trafficking of women and children with Recommendation No. R. (2000) 11, adopted by the Committee of Ministers in May 2000. The recommendation encouraged Council of Europe member states to, inter alia, allow victims of trafficking to press charges with the benefit of witness protection, compensate victims with perpetrators' assets, grant temporary residence status with access to medical and social assistance, and support the creation of a ngo anti-trafficking network. Regrettably, the document focused only on trafficking into the sex industry, ignoring the phenomenon of trafficking for other forms of forced labor.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

Critics questioned the OSCE's commitment to women's human rights as the institution abruptly downgraded the position of gender adviser from the Office of the Secretary General to the personnel office. Several member states spearheaded an effort in 1997 to create a permanent position of gender adviser to monitor OSCE policies on women's human rights and combat gender discrimination within the institution. The arbitrary decision to remove the gender adviser from a policy-making role undermined the Vienna-based gender adviser's ability to press for progress on issues ranging from sexual harassment to improved monitoring of women's human rights violations in the field. The much-vaunted internal sexual harassment policy, created in 1999, met with skepticism from staff members, who doubted the organization's commitment to the correct handling of complaints and feared negative consequences for using the mechanism. And for the third year in a row, the osce leadership refused to make public statistics on women's representation inside the OSCE's institutions, thwarting calls for transparency. While the osce adopted a substantive and ambitious gender action plan, the political will to implement the policy appeared to be sadly lacking.

The OSCE's backsliding on women's human rights internally contrasted with the new programs it initiated to combat trafficking and to train women political leaders in the field. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) funded a range of anti-trafficking projects in the Balkans, Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union-many carried out in coordination with local NGOs with special expertise on trafficking. In addition, the Austrian government, acting as the osce chair in 2000, seconded its former minister for women's affairs, Dr. Helga Konrad, to ODIHR to chair the Stability Pact Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings. osce offices in Central Asian countries provided training programs on human rights documentation and leadership skills to women human rights activists.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Eastern Congo Ravaged: Killing Civilians and Silencing Protest, 5/00

Japan: Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan, 9/00

Kuwait: Promises Betrayed: Denial of Rights of Bidun, Women, and Freedom of Expression, 10/00

Russian/Chechnya: "No Happiness Remains:" Civilian Killings, Pillage, & Rape in Alkhan-Yurt, 4/00

Tanzania: Seeking Protection; Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps, 10/00

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Kosovo: Rape As a Weapon of "Ethnic Cleansing," 3/00

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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