Yemeni Islah Party
Dear Mr. Abd al-Wahab al-Ansi,
I want to thank you for holding a very productive meeting with me and my colleagues on January 28, 2014, at your office. We very much appreciated the frank discussion on the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, including our discussion on the meaning of the first recommendation of the state-building working group’s subset of social principles: “The State guarantees equality and equal opportunities for all [male and female] citizens in political, economic, social and cultural fields and will adopt the necessary laws to this effect.” We also appreciated the discussion of the fourth recommendation of the state-building working group’s third subset of recommendations: “All citizens shall be equal in rights and duties before the law, without distinction based on sex, race, origin, color, religion, sect, doctrine, opinion, or economic or social standing.”
You stated that Yemen has made certain cultural and religious reservations to its ratification in 1984 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which would entitle it to take exception to the requirement of full legal equality for women on the basis of these reservations, and to continue to grant women lesser rights than men in certain areas, including divorce, inheritance and child custody, if required by local interpretations of sharia law.
We note that Yemen has only made one reservation to the convention: “The Government of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen declares that it does not consider itself bound by article 29, paragraph 1, of the said Convention, relating to the settlement of disputes which may arise concerning the application or interpretation of the Convention.” It has not made a reservation on the basis of Islamic norms, unlike Saudi Arabia for example, which declared at the time of ratification: “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.”
Yemen therefore is bound by all substantive provisions of the convention, including those that prohibit all forms of discrimination against women and mandate absolute equality of men and women in the constitution and all laws, without reservation.
It also should be recognized that reservations to the convention such as those made by Saudi Arabia are considered to be in violation of the international law. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in article 19(c) provides that reservations that are “incompatible with the object and purpose” of a treaty violate international law and are unacceptable precisely because they would render a basic international obligation meaningless. (Although Yemen is not a party to the Vienna Convention, its provisions are considered reflective of customary international law.)
The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women explicitly acknowledges social and cultural norms as the source of many women's rights abuses, and obliges governments to take appropriate measures to address such abuses. Article 5(a) of the convention obligates states to "modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women."
Among other things, the convention provides in article 16(1) that states "shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations."
We hope that this letter has clarified Yemen’s obligations under international law, as well as the illegality of reservations made by some states in the region.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa division
Human Rights Watch