Marianne Mollmann

© Human Rights Watch

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 violence.

The petition, was filed with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 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 abuse.

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.