UN Human Rights Council Reviews U.S. Human Rights Record

This past Friday, the United States appeared before the UN Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a process through which the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years. I have come to Geneva to witness the US’s UPR first hand and to keep a spotlight on Amnesty International’s human rights concerns.

During the three-hour review, member states had the opportunity to make recommendations to the United States regarding how to improve its human rights record. Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not allowed to speak during the actual review, they are encouraged to file “shadow reports” which outline their concerns with the US’s human rights record. These reports are compiled into a single report to the HRC.  In addition, member states frequently rely on the information in the NGO reports when deciding upon their recommendations.

The issues that Amnesty International highlighted in its UPR submission figured prominently among the recommendations. For example, the nearly unanimous recommendation of the member states was for a US moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view towards abolition.

Ratification of international instruments was also a key recommendation of the majority of states which recommended that the US ratify, in particular, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Other recommendations spanned a range of concerns from Guantanamo closure to police brutality to migrant rights.


From Suffrage to CEDAW – Celebrate Women's Equality Day!

Happy Birthday 19th Amendment!

Believe it or not, it’s only been 90 years since the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote in our democracy was made part of the Constitution. Since 1971, we’ve celebrated the anniversary of August 26, 1920, as Women’s Equality Day.

One great way to celebrate would be to make sure that every eligible woman is registered to vote. That includes women turning 18 and those who have recently become naturalized citizens. After all, as important as the right to vote is, it’s even more important to use the vote to help shape the direction of our nation. So make sure you’re registered and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

Women’s Equality Day is also the perfect time to consider what the United States can do to advance women’s rights as human rights. A good place to start is with CEDAW – the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

CEDAW, also known as the Women’s Treaty, is a landmark international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world. CEDAW helps women and girls by offering a practical blueprint for ending discrimination, stopping violence against women and trafficking of women and girls, ensuring education and vocational opportunities, and increasing political participation including the right to vote and to hold political office.

The United States played an important role in drafting CEDAW, which the United Nations adopted in 1979. But the U.S. remains one of only seven countries, including Iran, Sudan, Somalia, and three small Pacific Island countries (Nauru, Palau and Tonga), that have not yet ratified CEDAW.

That could change this year. It takes the votes of 67 senators to ratify a treaty, and President Obama and over 100 national organizations have expressed their support for the treaty’s ratification.

Ratifying the CEDAW treaty would continue America’s proud bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights, and it would strengthen the United States as a global leader in standing up for women and girls in countries around the world.

The CEDAW website – www.cedaw2010.org – has more information about CEDAW along with practical suggestions on how you can help the treaty become ratified.

President Obama: This Summer, Help Women and Girls Around the World

President Obama has repeatedly declared his support for women worldwide, stating that ratification of the CEDAW treaty (Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) is an important priority for the United States. The time has come for President Obama to send a strong signal to the Senate that ratification of CEDAW is vital.

The United States remains the only industrialized democracy and the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to ratify this critical treaty which affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world.

We know that CEDAW works! Countries from Australia to Uganda, Brazil, Morocco, and South Africa, have incorporated provisions in the CEDAW treaty into their constitutions and domestic legal codes.  Additionally, Egypt, Jordan, Nicaragua, and Pakistan have all seen significant increases in literacy rates after improving access to education for girls and women.

It is time for the US to show global leadership on women’s issues by ratifying CEDAW. Advancing women’s human rights is critical to America’s national security interests and a cornerstone of our foreign policy. However, because the US has not ratified CEDAW, it cannot participate in the CEDAW committee, the one global forum dedicated to women’s human rights.

Women of the world are calling on the US for ratification of CEDAW as a strong signal to their governments that promoting the rights of women is a priority. It would help enable a national dialogue on how to address persistent gaps in women’s full equality and would serve to address domestic issues of maternal mortality in US. CEDAW calls for equal access to health services (including maternal health) and ending discrimination on the grounds of maternity. Learn more about Amnesty’s Maternal Health Campaign.

President Obama has stated that ratification of the CEDAW Treaty is an important priority for his Administration.  We now need him to translate words into action and show true leadership in advancing women and girls’ rights around the world.  As women and men who believe in the basic rights of women and girls worldwide – the right to live free from violence, the ability to go to school, and access to the political system – we need President Obama to send a strong and urgent signal to the Senate that ratification of CEDAW is vital.


Less than human rights is not an option for people with disabilities

What comes to mind when you hear the word “disability?”  Wheelchairs, canes, Seeing Eye Dogs, handicapped signs, mental illness, deafness… Images and thoughts, more often than not, that imply the person lacks something – is less than a person, even less than human.

Disabilities and human rights

The CRPD helps to ensure that people with disabilities won't be left on the sidelines and forgotten. © Getty

The disabled—correction—persons with disabilities—struggle with stigma and a long history as being objects of pity, ostracized by mainstream society, and seen as needing to be fixed.  And as shocking as it may seem, even in the human rights arena, people with disabilities are often left on the sidelines and forgotten.

Now is the time for a paradigm shift – we need to actively challenge our perceptions of disabilities.  Research tells us that 10% of the world’s population lives with a disability – that’s 650 million people on this planet with a disability!   Yet in many societies, cultural barriers and myths about disabilities don’t allow for basic human rights to be extended to people who are seen as less than human.

A clearer picture emerges when looking at human rights violations through a “disability lens”:

But in December 2006, the balances began to shift in favor of people with disabilities.  The United Nations adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and optional protocols. The CRPD essentially closes the gaps between human rights issues and people with disabilities. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Women: The Smartest Investment

In an empowering speech on Friday, January 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to women’s rights as human rights. Exactly 15 years since the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, Secretary Clinton praised the progress made in improving the health and lives of women and children around the world since this groundbreaking gathering.

This progress has included a marked increase in the use of modern contraceptives from less than 10% in the 1960s to 43% today; an encouraging increase in child survival rates; and an increase in female enrollment in schools. Despite this progress, Secretary Clinton rightly emphasized the crucial need for a continued commitment toward reaching the Conference’s goals by the target year, 2015.

Secretary Clinton cited alarming statistics: half the women in the developing world deliver their babies without access to crucial medical care and 215 million women worldwide lack access to modern forms of contraception – as Clinton put it, the “numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable.” Vast gendered inequities remain; and women continue to represent the majority of the world’s “poor, unhealthy, and under-fed.”

Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration’s recognition that investing in women is “the smartest investment to be made…” shows that they’re on the right track. Earlier this year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton demonstrated their support for these issues by appointing Melanne Verveer as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.  The creation of this position sends a strong message to the world that the United States, in its deliberations on foreign policy and foreign aid, will give top priority to issues that affect women. Ambassador Verveer has since been a strong advocate on behalf of women around the world.  In October, she testified before Congress in hearings in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on violence against women.


Seriously Namibia? Forcible Sterilization of Women?

BTL stands for bitubal ligation, or surgical sterilization of women by damaging the fallopian tubes. It was reported yesterday that the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW) has documented cases of HIV positive women undergoing coerced or forced sterilizations dating back to at least January 2008. Two of the women who say they underwent these sterilizations have filed legal suit against the Namibian government.

The issue involves lack of consent. The women report being told they need to have surgery and “signed consent forms to undergo what was simply listed on their health documents as a “BTL” without fully understanding its implications.” Women were also frequently provided consent forms in English rather than their home language and so were therefore not fully informed regarding the nature of the procedure. The Namibian Ministry of Health and Human Services has thus far declined to comment.

Namibia has a 15% HIV infection rate, one of the highest in the world. Yet, this does not even come close to justifying denying a woman the right to have a child. Children are born healthy every day to HIV positive women thanks to drugs that help prevent mother to child transmission. And while this seems egregious, forced sterilizations have occurred in the past and present in concentration camps, to disabled women and  indigenous populations. But really, Namibia. How about rising a step above and honoring your committments as a ratifier of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Seriously.

Can a Women's Rights Treaty Make any Difference?

Earlier this week, President-elect Obama made a commitment to push for Senate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This treaty has been signed by several Presidents (including President Jimmy Carter in 1980) but has never reached the Senate floor. That’s a 20 year denial of women’s rights.  The United States bears the shame of being the only industrialized country which has not ratified it.

The question is, would ratifying an international treaty make any difference?  The answer is yes, CEDAW is important!  The treaty has been a vital tool for women’s rights activists in countries which have ratified it to demand their rights be enshrined in law.  It has been used to develop citizenship rights in Botswana and Japan, property rights and political participation in Costa Rica and to develop domestic violence laws in Turkey, Nepal, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea.

Arialle Crabtree demands support for Women's Rights!

Arialle Crabtree demands support for Women

Critics of the treaty say that women’s rights in the United States are enshrined in the constitution and therefore ratification is not necessary for women here.  I disagree, there are all too many women in the US whose rights are abused.  Furthermore, by not ratifing CEDAW, the US loses all credibility in demanding that women’s rights overseas be respected.  President-elect Obama has clearly recognised the value of this women’s rights treaty, both as a commitment to respecting the rights of women in the US and as a pledge to reinforce any diplomatic efforts to end abuses against women around the world.  I can’t help wondering if maybe it was the President-elect’s mother’s interest in international women’s issues that inspired him.  Whatever the reason, I hope he continues to be inspired to defend women’s rights throughout his Presidency.